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What Makes 'Nunsense' So Popular?

Date: Aug 02, 2016

The evergreen musical returns to New York


Nunsense is one of the most reliable comedies in the American theatre.

Consider this: When Dan Goggin's musical opened in 1985, it ran for 3,672 performances, making it the second- longest running show in Off-Broadway history. Since then it's had 5,000 worldwide productions, been translated into 21 languages, spawned a television adaptation, and produced nine sequels and spin-offs.

Apparently, then, the show's tagline is true: Nunsense is habit forming. Even New Yorkers still have a taste for it, despite those thousands of chances to see it in the 80s. That's why Staten Island's Harbor Lights Theater Company is reviving it through August 14.

"I remember seeing it Off-Broadway and laughing my face off," says Tamara Jenkins, Harbor Lights' founder and executive artistic director. "I'm not even Catholic, but the jokes are non-stop and it really stands up. Everyone can relate to the storytelling. The nuns go on a journey – there's a beginning, middle, and end. Even though the premise is hysterical, the show follows good book writing rules."

For the uninitiated, Nunsense peers into the lives of the Little Sisters of Hoboken, who have recently discovered that 52 of their sisters were accidentally poisoned by Sister Julia, Child of God. Desperate to raise burial funds, the Sisters decide to put on a variety show in a school auditorium where an 8th grade production of Grease is currently underway. The sisters include a former circus performer (Rev. Mother Regina), a streetwise nun from Brooklyn (Sister Robert Anne), a wannabe ballerina (Sister Mary Leo), and an amnesia sufferer, fittingly named Sister Mary Amnesia, whose encounter with a falling crucifix she, well, doesn't remember.

Given those loopy characters, it's unsurprising that actors have historically enjoyed the show as much as audiences.


Susan J. Jacks, who plays Sister Robert Anne in the Harbor Lights production, has appeared as all of the nuns over the course of her career. She was an understudy for Sister Amnesia in the Off-Broadway production and has performed the musical regionally, along with Nunsense Part II.

"What I love about this show is that as an actor you get to make the role uniquely your own," she says. For example, returning to the role of Sister Robert Anne, Jacks describes how the character "has become very different now. She is a wise woman who finds her purpose making people laugh at life and at themselves."

Sister Leo, the one that dreams of ballet, may be Jacks's favorite to play.

"My approach was probably unconventional," she says. Despite her dance training, Jacks doesn't identify as a dancer. When she played the role one evening, she was so full of adrenaline that the audience applauded her exuberant en pointe moment. "I think people relate to her joy in being perfectly mediocre at what she loves," Jacks says.

And while the actress admits that "nuns in habits look funny basically doing anything," she adds that "seeing women you think of as reserved and removed from the everyday world busting moves and cutting loose is intriguing and hilarious." The sense of family the sisters share, along with the love and acceptance they have for each other, is equally appealing.

Plus, Jenkins adds, "If you know what a student-teacher relationship is like or have ever felt a part of a hierarchy, you'll see why it's funny. Those dynamics are universal."

And one more secret to this show's three-decade success? "Sometimes," Jacks says, "people just need to take a break from the world."


Writer and performer Eliza Bent is a frequent contributor to TDF Stages.

Photos by bittenbyazebra. Top photo: The cast of 'Nunsense,' with Susan J. Jacks in the center.

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