The Hartford Courant -

-Frank Rizzo

'Nunsense' plays becoming quite a funny HABIT

For Dan Goggin, nuns are his life.

At least it seems that way after more than 10 years of creating, nurturing and expanding the phenomenon that is known as "Nunsense."

Now Goggin has launched "Nunsense II, The Second Coming," a musical sequel, which had a workshop production at the new Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury in November and has returned for an extended run through early April.

"Nunsense II" has proved to be a godsend to the little 2-year-old theater trying to establish itself far from the Connecticut arts centers of Hartford, New Haven and Stamford.

In a way, the Seven Angels Theatre is the home that "Nunsense" built.

The 350-seat theater was founded by Semina De Laurentis, who originated the role of Sister Mary Amnesia in the original off-Broadway production. When the actress returned to her hometown of Waterbury several years ago, De Laurentis started the theater with the help of family and friends.

"People said we were crazy," says De Laurentis. "In fact, those were their exact words."

"But ignorance has gotten us everywhere, Semina," laughs Goggin.

Goggin was happy to help his old friend, and productions of "Nunsense" there (with De Laurentis recreating her original role) were popular audience-pleasers.

Last year De Laurentis convinced Goggin that Waterbury would be the perfect spot to try out "Nunsense II" before it began its official premiere in Michigan. That show, too, has been a huge hit, with more productions planned in such far-flung places as Toronto and Sydney, Australia.

Habit inspired

No one at first imagined that "Nunsense," a silly little show about a daffy, disorderly order of nuns putting on a musical benefit, would become such a phenomenon. And no one was as surprised as Goggin.

The genesis for "Nunsense" began in 1980, when a friend who was a Dominican brother sent Goggin a nun's habit from an order that was going "modern." ("For the person who thought he had everything," jokes the 49-year-old Goggin, who has a happy altar-boy face).

The habit inspired Goggin and some pals to some tomfoolery that eventually led to a line of greeting cards featuring wisecracking nuns. Some were silly, some were sweet and some were naughty; all were an instant hit.

The enthusiastic response to the cards led to an idea for a little cabaret show in 1982 featuring three nuns, a priest and a brother.

"I really thought it was going to be a cute little show that we would put together for a lark," says Goggin, "that we would do a little business, that people would enjoy it, and that we'd all go on to something else."

The cabaret show, which was suppose to last four days, ran for 38 weeks.

But the revue was just a series of unrelated musical skits with no story or character development. So Goggin dumped the priest and brother ("They were never as funny as the nuns") and built a show around his quintet of sisters.

"Nunsense" opened in 1985 and has been running off-Broadway ever since. (The show celebrated its 3,000th performance this month at the Douglas Fairbanks Theater in New York.)

In 1986, other cities started doing productions of "Nunsense" with terrific box-office results. (The Boston show is still running after six years). Soon the show became a star vehicle for personalities such as Peggy Cass, Kaye Ballard, Pat Carroll, Alice Ghostly, Jaye P. Morgan, Jo Anne Worley, Phyllis Diller and Dody Goodman. There was also a wildly successful national tour (which also played a smash engagement at the Bushnell Memorial, grossing $367,000 in one week).

According to Goggin, there are now 300 productions of "Nunsense" running in professional theaters, community theaters, dinner theaters, amateur groups and schools and colleges. The show has also been translated into 10 languages. So far it has generated about $2 million for the investors who put up the original $150,000 -- and with no signs of the profits' slowing down.

But why?

Goggin points to several explanations for the musical miracle:

l. It's just a friendly, old show without a serious bone in its body. "People just want to have a show in which they can just laugh," Goggin says.

2. People are fascinated by traditional nuns. "I've always said the magic is in the headpiece," Goggins says.

3. It's a sweet-natured show that treats its subject affectionately. "You realize that each one is happy she's a nun," he says, "and feels good about what she is doing."

Unlike Christopher Durang's funny but bitter "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You," "Nunsense" is as harmless as one of those photos showing a church outing with nuns riding on a roller coaster. There is no temptation to explore any dark shadings. "Nunsense" is all primary colors -- in black and white.

It also helps that some of the show's biggest fans are nuns themselves. Getting such a blessing from the girls in the hood helps people accept the show and tells them that it's OK to come and laugh.

Real nuns get in act

A publicity stunt that has grown into a part of the show itself is inviting real nuns to perform in one part of the show.

Goggin recalls one nun -- a former Rockette dancer -- who ripped off her habit to reveal a sequined outfit and kicked up her heels, ending her act in a split.

Another, he says, wore a 10-gallon hat and six-shooters over her habit and sang "You Can't Get a Man When You're a Nun." Still another sang "Can't Help Loving That Man of Mine."

At the Waterbury theater, Sister Georgia Wright from the Society of Sisters of the Church from Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church offered a more serious selection, singing several hymns, accompanied by Marcia Crispino, to which the matinee audience responded enthusiastically.

Nuns on Film

And what of his thoughts about the Touchstone Pictures hit last year "Sister Act," starring Whoopi Goldberg?

Funny you should mention that, he says. Goggin says three years ago Touchstone saw his screenplay of "Nunsense" and talked to him about doing the movie version of his show. But the film company wanted many changes in the script, and Goggin didn't want to give up control because he was afraid the property might become offensive in uncaring hands.

If the film was botched, then it could affect the continual success of "Nunsense" and now "Nunsense II."

"We have such a great support from the Catholic hierarchy, and I don't want to mess with that," he says.

Goggin has turned the other cheek to Touchstone. "I thought it was a very funny movie," he says. He also notes that the film's blockbuster status "has made Hollywood aware that a nun movie will work." He says there is renewed interest in "Nunsense" as an independent film and as a TV movie that could be turned into a series.

Until then, there are the many companies of "Nunsense" and "Nunsense II" to keep him busy -- and divinely inspired.

Goggin, who thought of becoming a Franciscan brother when he was growing up in Alma, Mich., tells of visiting a 90-year-old nun who had taught him when he was in Catholic elementary school.

"She said, 'Oh, honey, you're reaching many more people this way. And besides, you've got the biggest order in the world."