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Whoopi Goldberg looks back on Sister Act, 25 years later

A quarter of a century after ‘Sister Act’ became a box office smash, Goldberg reminisces about the truly divine comedy

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Two years after her Oscar-winning turn in 1990’s Ghost, Whoopi Goldberg starred in Emile Ardolino’s Sister Act as Deloris Van Cartier, a Reno lounge singer who poses as a nun while under protective custody.

You might think that a comedy starring a black female comedian as a Motown-belting fake nun wouldn’t have a prayer at the box office, but you would be wrong: Sister Act found divine success to the tune of $231 million worldwide, spawning a sequel the following year and a musical adaptation in 2009. A quarter of a century after its May 29, 1992 release, Goldberg spoke to EW about learning how to sing, bringing the story to the stage, and whether she’d ever get back in the habit. Amen to that.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What attracted you to the project?
WHOOPI GOLDBERG: The story is just so out there, and I thought, “I could do this; I could have a really great time with this.” But it was originally [conceived] for Bette Midler. So it was written for somebody who could sing. So the only thing I said was, “You know that that’s not really what I do, so [Deloris] can’t be a great singer. She has to be, like, a one-hit wonder.” And they were like, “Whatever you want to do, let’s have some fun.” And the rest is kind of wonderful.

Did you have any musical background at all?
I knew I could sort of carry a tune, but more like Zero Mostel or Rex Harrison, not like Bette, not like Patti Labelle — I couldn’t do that. But Marc Shaiman, who did the music, said, “Listen, I’m going to surround you with everything you need.” So he gave me two wonderful women, [Jenifer Lewis and Charlotte Crossley, who play Deloris’ Reno backup singers]. The two of them got me through all of the musical stuff. They both sang with Bette; they were both, at one point, [in] the Harlettes. To be able to sing with them, and get an idea of where my voice is, was wonderful. It was like, “Ooh!” and then I said to myself, “Don’t pretend you can sing.” No, I won’t. I’m not cutting any albums.

How did the musical numbers come together?
The three of us worked out what we wanted to do and then we showed it to Marc. And because we had songs that I knew, all those great Motown songs, it was easy for me to fall into them. So our choreography is very, very tight, because they have us on the world’s smallest stage in one of those casinos. We were literally trying not to fall off the stage. [In the church], you look at Mary Wickes, Beth Fowler, Kathy Najimy, all those great nuns, all these wonderful people — we had a great time. And so whatever craziness we got through, we got through it together.

Everyone came back for a sequel right away. How did that happen so quickly?
I think Disney was kind of shocked that the movie blew up and did as well as it did, and they were like, “Okay, we’re going to do another one.” For me, I feel like it was great, but it wasn’t as spectacular as it might have been. But then again, I wouldn’t have gotten to play with all those wonderful actors. So you never know. But I think it’s fun, I think people like one and two, because they’re kind of the same film but very different.

Would you ever play Deloris a third time?
Yeah, it would be a great blast. I would have a good time, because it’s a piece I understand and I know. But would they call me? Probably not. They’ll find somebody much younger to do it. They should call me.

You played Mother Superior in the West End production of the musical for a few weeks. What was that like?
It was interesting, because I could feel my Deloris coming into my experience. It’s like, “No, you’re not playing Deloris! Get back to the nun!” So it took a little while, but eventually I got it down. It was a good experience. That’s something I probably would do again.

As a producer on the musical, what’s been the biggest challenge of translating it for the stage?
We weren’t allowed to use the Motown music, so Alan Menken came in and wrote us a whole new score — that actually works. So the world domination of Sister Act continues! It’s in almost every country in the world, all of the Mary Clarences and Delorises are little black girls, and hysteria ensues. What’s better than that?