Lenora Nemetz bounces back with 'Nunsense'
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Lenora Nemetz loves to laugh and make audiences laugh, so thank heavens for "Nunsense."
Broadway veteran and resident Pittsburgher Nemetz will play Sister Robert Anne in the musical farce, which opens at CLO Cabaret March 11. "Nunsense" has been leaving 'em laughing and launched 8,000 productions and seven spinoffs in its 25-year history.
The original show tells the story of five Little Sisters of Hoboken who are forced to use their hidden talents to put on a show. It's a fundraiser to pay for the burial of fellow nuns accidentally poisoned by the convent cook.
Every nun joke imaginable gets an airing, including the inevitable, "it's habit-forming."
For that we can thank creator and director Dan Goggin, who with Ms. Nemetz sat down to talk about "Nunsense" in a CLO Academy rehearsal room last week. Ms. Nemetz often deferred to her talkative director, until she began to describe why it's so good to be having so much fun.
There was a rough three years of personal loss and hard work, including the sudden death of her mother and her return to Broadway, playing two smaller roles while also serving as understudy to Patti LuPone's Tony-winning Rose in "Gypsy." She later suffered a painful ankle injury that sidelined her from work.
"I've just been going through ... I was grief-stricken for a while. Really grief-stricken. And now I'm coming out of it. And how things come to me, it's all in the big plan."
Ms. Nemetz tilts her head back and looks up as she says this. She speaks of there being a higher plan for her career often, arms and eyes raised skyward each time.
In the current plan, she discovered that "Nunsense" can happen when you least expect it.
"I had an injury; I had an avulsion fracture and it was worse than breaking your foot. It was a football player's [injury]. The tendon comes away from the bone. I couldn't do anything, I was limping around. I was teaching, I teach musical theater so it's not like teaching a jazz class, but it was a rough time. And all of a sudden I woke up, and [the pain] was gone."
She recalled that she was hanging with musical director/composer Bruce Barnes, and he had this idea that she would be perfect for "Nunsense."
"That's how it all happened, it was Bruce. I did 'Cabaret' with him."
Ms. Nemetz turned to her director. "Don't you just love Bruce?"
Mr. Goggin took up the story from there.
"Bruce was one of our musical directors. He sent me an e-mail, and he said, 'I've just been with Lenora Nemetz. You call her up.' I sent a message back to him, I said, 'I never met her and I'm not going to just call her out of the blue like that. You tell her to call me.' Meanwhile, I had talked to [CLO executive director Van Kaplan], because this is like 25 years in the making. ... I think we did three different shows for Van when he was at Casa Manana [in Fort Worth, Texas], and when he moved to the Benedum Center, I always thought, 'When are you going to have us?' And then out of the blue, Van called and said, 'It's time that we do 'Nunsense,' will you direct it?'
"Then the fact that Bruce had seen Lenora, and Van called, when it's meant to be ..."
"... I've found that in my life, if you're supposed to do it, you do it," Ms. Nemetz said.
Her place in "Nunsense" history was sealed even though she had never seen the show before signing on.
Ms. Nemetz will play the streetwise Brooklyn nun whose ambition to be a star is being thwarted by the Mother Superior (CLO vet Terry Wickline), who has cast her as an understudy.
Sister Robert Anne protests with the song "Playing Second Fiddle," in which she sings of "this girl Lenora Nemetz, she's understudied everyone, but where is she today?"
"The Mother Superior insists that Robert Anne be the understudy, and in the end, she gets the big number and steals the show from the Mother Superior," Mr. Goggin explained. "So we were trying to figure out people who had done that. And I had known of Lenora, and [his collaborators] all said, the minute they need a cover for all these people we know, Chita Rivera, Liza Minnelli, they always call Lenora. And I said well, here's the perfect person."
Ms. Nemetz heard about her "Nunsense" moment second-hand.
"I was teaching at CAPA, the old CAPA in Homewood-Brushton. ... The principal said to me, 'I was in New York and I saw the show and they mentioned your name.' And then I started asking about it, but I didn't ever see it. And I'm so grateful that my name is in it. It's really very sweet."
Uproarious is a word often associated with "Nunsense," which has outlasted any jitters about being offensive. After all, its story is propelled by the death of 52 nuns - based on a true story of an accidental poisoning via vichyssoise, Mr. Goggin said.
Over the years, he's rarely heard a negative word.
The show "doesn't have anything to do with religion, and that's why we rarely get anyone offended," he said. "We purposely steered clear of that. They're in these crazy circumstances, and they just happen to be nuns."
Mr. Goggin's next "Nunsense" venture is a DVD of "Meshuggah-Nuns!," for which he describes in great detail filming a scene of a puppet and nuns overboard. The premise is that the sisters fill in for the ailing cast of "Fiddler on the Roof" on a cruise ship.
There's always "Nunsense" happening somewhere, and the show has made about half a billion dollars, he said, "Although that all goes to the theaters."
At the sound of the dollar figure, Ms. Nemetz said, "You just took my breath away."
In that big plan of hers, "Nunsense" shows could be a form of job security.
"I keep telling her, because they're always producing shows like this, once you have that in your pocket, [producers such as CLO Cabaret] are always looking for people to fill those roles, and you're ahead of the game," Mr. Goggin said.
"And we give [the actresses] their habits, so when they call you up, you're ready to go."
First Published March 11, 2010 12:00 am