A Chorus Line of Singing, Dancing, Jesting Nuns Gives Off-Broadway Its Most Spirited Sister Act in Years

updated 12/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/1986 01:00AM

They're the Little Sisters of Hoboken, fondly known as the "Little Hobos." Before settling in New Jersey they ran a leper colony in the Mediterranean. But then the Protestants moved in and built leper condos, putting the sisters out of business. So they came to Hoboken, where things were supposed to get better. But in fact things got worse. Much worse. Disaster struck when the convent chef, Sister Julia, Child of God, served tainted vichyssoise, wiping out 52 nuns. The five who lived—they were off playing bingo—tearfully managed to bury the dead but ran out of money before finishing the job. So here they are putting on a show in order to get the necessary funds to dispose of the "blue nuns" they've got stacked in the freezer.

This hardly sounds like the making of a convent-ional musical. And, praise be, it isn't. It's Nunsense, a high-spirited off-Broadway musical that has spawned six companies in America, with productions opening next year in Sydney, London and Amsterdam. The cast album has just been released. And this month in Coconut Grove, Fla., the first all-star Nunsense opens, with comediennes Kaye Ballard and Marcia Lewis and singer Jaye P. Morgan. Says Lewis: "It's really fun getting into that habit. Nuns are hysterical. But there is a respect that comes with the costume. When you put that habit on, your back gets immediately straighter."

A mélange of high camp, tackiness and tastelessness, Nunsense is closer in genre to The Gong Show than The Sound of Music. There are tap-dancing nuns, boogie-woogie nuns (the Saint Andrews Sisters), a ventriloquist nun, a punk rock nun and, lest one forget, Sister Mary Amnesia. The jokes would shame Henny Youngman. One nun talks of a pamphlet she's writing on feminine hygiene called The Catholic Girls' Guide to Immaculate Conception.

According to the creator-director, Dan Goggin, 43, Catholics love the show. "Nuns write us letters and come backstage to see us," he says. "One nun has seen the show nine times." Goggin claims Nunsense does not go too far. "There are limits," he says staunchly. "I'd never be disrespectful to the habit. I've heard real nuns swear, but I wouldn't put that in the play. I don't allow them to smoke or drink or to sit there and pull their robes above their knees seductively. Real nuns wouldn't do that."

He should know. Goggin grew up in Alma, Mich., where he attended a Catholic elementary school run by nuns. In high school he briefly entered a Dominican seminary. Although Goggin planned to become a priest, he found showbiz a bigger lure. At 20, he moved to N.Y.C. to study music, then wound up acting on Broadway and singing in a group called the Saxons.

Nunsense evolved out of a line of greeting cards that Goggin helped create and market in 1981 depicting nuns in funny poses saying funny things. In one card, a nun shakes her fist at heaven saying, "Jesus Christ, give me a break." On a $3,000 investment Goggin and three friends made $100,000. In 1982, with his profits, and the money he made from producing industrial trade shows, Goggin opened an off-Broadway cabaret about priests and nuns that ran for 38 weeks. After closing the revue, reworking it (out went the priests) and raising an additional $150,000, Goggin opened Nunsense in December 1985. Divine absolution came not from the stuffy New York Times (though its critic loved the show) but from a nun who wandered backstage one night to inquire, "Who had the inside track here?" That, says Goggin, "is how I knew it was working."

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