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Interview: Laughter That Cures All Ills: Dan Goggin and the Enduring Phenomenon of NUNSENSE

Interview: Laughter That Cures All Ills: Dan Goggin and the Enduring Phenomenon of NUNSENSE

" 'If laughter cures all ills, Nunsense will make doctors obsolete.' That is one of my favorite all time review quotes," says Dan Goggin. "Hearing an audience laugh and knowing you had something to do with it is one of the most rewarding experiences I can think of." Despite the enduring international sensation Goggin's brainchild has become, the writer, director, and creator of a thirty-five-year musical theatre phenomenon and franchise that embraces seven musicals, three spin offs, television specials, a possible upcoming new television series, recordings, and an entire line of merchandise remains a bit bemused and amazed at his runaway success.

"It is all so inexplainable," he remarks, jokingly adding, "I love to tell everyone it is just because I am brilliant, but the truth is it is something that is hard to comprehend or analyze. I think people are always fascinated by seeing a nun in traditional habit in zany situations. In this day and age of horrifying news, everybody is thrilled to be able to escape with two hours of silly fun. I am so grateful that so many people have the same sense of humor that I do."

When, as a young actor, singer, writer, Goggin first embarked on the Nunsense venture in 1983, he surely could not have foreseen how this idea would take on a life of its own. Some two decades before Goggin had come to New York from his native Michigan to study voice at the Manhattan School of Music. A countertenor, he says he envisioned a life of "singing with chamber groups." But the Broadway show Luther, starring Albert Finney, was looking for a countertenor. Goggin auditioned, was immediately cast and remained with the show through its Tony-award winning run and onto national tour. "I had never been on stage in a play before, and I was so excited!"

Realizing, however, that "there were not a great many Broadway shows needing countertenors, Goggin began to spread his artistic wings. He formed a comedy folk duo, The Saxons, with a baritone theatre friend and for five years they toured the country performing on college campuses and small venues. During that period, he began to write for the musical theatre. His first work in which he also performed, Hark, was a revue that "got wonderful reviews off-Broadway. It ran for a summer season and opened doors for me as a writer." In 1975 he composed the music to Robert Lorick's lyrics for Johnny Manhattan, a musical about New York nightlife in the 50s, which is now, over forty years later, in the process of being revived for off-Broadway production.Interview: Laughter That Cures All Ills: Dan Goggin and the Enduring Phenomenon of NUNSENSE

The idea for Nunsense began with a line of funny greeting cards called The Nunsense Story, something Goggin says began as a "joke. People found them so funny that I thought maybe we could make the characters come to life." The first stage iteration was a Greenwich Village cabaret piece at the original Duplex. "We conceived it as a bit of summer fun. It was supposed to run four weekends, but we ended up playing thirty-eight weeks. It was then that everyone began to think maybe we could move it to a theatre stage. I fleshed the show out in 1984, and in 1985 we opened at the Cherry Lane off-Broadway. We were hoping for some fun and a nice run. Then it started to snowball! I kept pinching myself. I knew it was happening, but I couldn't relate to it."

The show ran for 3672 performances, one of the longest running and biggest off-Broadway commercial successes ever. In the last thirty-five years it has been translated into twenty-one languages and received more than five thousand worldwide productions. Goggin went on to write six sequels: Nunsense 2: The Second Coming, Sister Amnesia's Country Western Nunsense Jamboree, Nuncrackers, The Nunsense Christmas Musical, Meshuggah-Nuns!, Nunsensations: The Nunsense Vgeas Revue, and Nunset Boulevard. Asked why he believes the material has proved so rich as to yield so many successful variations, Goggin explains that he approached the works as if he were writing for television sitcom. "I felt in some ways as if I were writing for the Carol Burnett show. I knew the characters and every week I had to come up with a new sketch." He also feels that the different situations and settings for each show has allowed him to write in a variety of musical styles, to bring in new characters, all the while keeping the base characters and story as foundation. "My favorite of the sequels right now," he remarks, "is the last, Nunset Boulevard, because by now the nuns have gone to Hollywood and they are better performers, so I could make the music and dances more sophisticated. Mother Superior actually sings a touching ballad toward the end of the show. People fall in love with the characters, and they can't wait to see what their next adventure is. In many ways [the shows] are connected, but they can also stand alone," and they remain remarkably timeless. "The original script has pretty much stayed in tact because these situations could happen any year, any time."

These characters in Goggin's loveable nun world are drawn from life. "The five sisters [in Nunsense 1] were Marywood Dominican sisters whom I knew growing up and attending Catholic school i9n Michigan. I based the characters on their personalities, though, of course, the story is off the wall. They all knew they were the inspirations, and they thought that was fabulous. They had great fun with the show, and believe it or not, to this day, nuns are probably our biggest fans. I think that is because it shows them as human, as having a sense of humor and competition, and fun. " And besides the laugher they afford, Goggin notes that "The shows have some touching moments. The audience sees how the nuns support one another in tough times, and how they are about being kind, appreciative, grateful. A nun once said to me what she liked best about the show was that in the end you feel they [the nuns] are all happy with their choices, and that there is still good in the world and people who care for one another."

"The whole idea of the Nunsense shows is not to be political or to spoof the church, but to make people laugh. None of these shows has anything to do with religion. They are about finding nuns in zany predicaments they have to get themselves out of - rather like the old I Love Lucy sitcoms.

Interview: Laughter That Cures All Ills: Dan Goggin and the Enduring Phenomenon of NUNSENSE But if Goggin had real life role models on which to base his characters, how did he come up with the hilarious, wacky plotlines? Apparently, as he explains, the kernel of situation ideas often also came from real life, though then, of course, he applied the lens of his comic genius to transform that event. He gives some examples: The catalytic premise in Nunsense 1 that the nuns are accidently poisoned by soup "actually occurred in New Jersey not far from where the play is set [Hoboken] when the Bon Vivant Soup Company had two people die of botulism after eating their vichyssoise. Or I heard a story of a lady who put her deceased husband in the basement freezer. We don't make this up," he laughs.

It is clear that Goggin continues to enjoy every minute of this long adventure. When we spoke by phone last week, he is in Manhattan preparing "to load up our truck with costumes and set pieces and like a gypsy caravan" head up to Portland, Maine, to rehearse and open a run of Nunsense 1 at Portland Stage from August 14-September 2. The co-production is the third such collaboration between Maine State Music Theatre and Portland Stage, and Goggin is excited to be undertaking this new partnership. "I have always wanted to work with Maine State Music Theatre. My path has crossed with [Artistic Director] Curt Dale Clark's many times before, but we have never had the opportunity actually to work together, so I am excited to finally be able to do a production with him and with Anita Stewart and all the wonderful people at Portland Stage." The production, to be directed/choreographed by Teri Gibson with Ed Reichert as Music Director, features some Nunsense veterans, including Mary Stout {Mother Superior}, Jeanne Tinker (Sister Mary Amnesia), Kimberly Chesser (Sister Robert Anne), Tamara Anderson (Sister Mary Hubert) and a new face in Krista Kurtzberg (Sister Mary Leo), and Dan Goggin will give talkbacks as artist-in-residence for the entire run, which is selling briskly and has already been once extended.

Goggin notes that not only is he excited at the prospect of working with these artists and of spending over a month in Maine in summer, but he is captivated by the serendipity of the engagement, especially as it closes out MSMT's Diamond Jubilee season. He explains the special connection between Nunsense and MSMT: Many years ago when Victoria Crandall was running MSMT, a girl I had gone to grade school with in Michigan moved to Maine. She brought Vicki to New York when we were doing the fund-raising workshop for Nunsense and she talked Vicki into investing in the original Cherry Lane off-Broadway production. I also found out that our director/choreographer Teri Gibson worked for Vicki Crandall many years ago and earned her Equity card at MSMT. Who knew? But it does seem perfect in this 60th anniversary season for Nunsense to come home to one of the places it was birthed."

Photographs courtesy of MSMT and

Nunsense 1, a co-production of MSMT and Portland Stage, runs at Portland Stage, 25 Forest Ave., Portland, ME from August 14 - September 2, 2018 207-774-0465

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