Despite an extensive theatre career, and a stint as a professional singer, Denise Black had never been in a musical.
“It wasn’t for want of trying,” she says. “I’d been up for shows like Billy Elliot and Wicked, and eventually I told my agent I wasn’t going for them anymore.”
Then she landed the role of Mother Superior in musical comedy Sister Act, and has been feeling the love ever since.
“It’s joyful,” she beams. “All the characters are sympathetic and the villains, or ‘three stooges’ as we call them, are hilarious. I sing one of my big numbers after their comic scene and have to pull myself together because I’m in stitches.”
Sister Act, a West End and Broadway hit, is currently on a two-week run in Bradford. Co-produced by Whoopi Goldberg, who starred in the movie of the same name, it’s the tale of disco diva Deloris Van Cartier who, after walking in on a mob murder, is placed in witness protection in a convent.
Disguised as a nun, she turns her attention to the off-key choir, helping her ‘sisters’ find their true voices – to the disapproval of strict Mother Superior.
“When it comes to good and bad, Mother Superior is black-and-white. She has unshakeable faith and lives by the letter,” says Denise. “She has huge love for the sisters, she just doesn’t understand their music – or that there’s no such thing as bad music.”
Denise says the nuns are the stars. “Cynthia Erivo is wonderful as Deloris, but everyone loves the nuns,” she says. “The Raise Your Voice number in Act 1 is a goosebumps moment. Lovely Michael Starke (playing Monsignor O’Hara) and I watch it together and there’s this whoosh of emotion coming off the audience.”
The score is by Alan Menken, multi-Oscar winning writer of songs from such Disney movies as The Little Mermaid.
“I love lyrics – I’m married to a lyricist – and these songs tell a story. I wake up with them in my head every day,” says Denise, 53. “The story was a bit scatty originally but it’s gone through the ‘Broadway sieve’ and is now very tight. It’s about tolerance, but ultimately it’s feelgood.
“These are difficult times for us all, actors included, and we need the feelgood factor. It’s a big commitment to buy a ticket for a show like this, but it’s a huge thing to take on the road – there are 70 of us and seven trucks the size of a house. When we’re on stage we can feel people’s spirits lifting.”
For Denise, singing each night is a joy. While a budding actress she formed a band, Denise Black and the Kray Sisters, with Josie Lawrence, and they became an Edinburgh Festival hit in the 1980s.Then Denise was lead singer in folk-rock band The Loose Screw, which has now reunited.
“It’s a joy to return to it,” she says. “When I started singing it was the birth of the avant garde comedy scene; acts like French and Saunders and Julian Clary were emerging, it was an exciting time. But when I was bringing up my kids something had to give, so I cut back on singing. Now I’m back with The Loose Screw and working on an album.”
Following her TV debut, playing a hooker with a bite on her thigh in Casualty, Denise has appeared in dramas such as Doc Martin, New Tricks, No Angels, and the film Last Orders.
She’s best known for playing strong northern women – siren hairdresser Denise Osbourne in Coronation Street and feisty matriarch Hazel in Nineties drama Queer As Folk – but she’s actually a southerner.
“Had I stayed in the North my career would’ve been very different,” says the mother-of-two. “I go where the work is, but my life is in Brighton. Family is huge in my life and I want my kids close.
“The North has produced great drama, music and writing. I’ve worked with quality writers like Paul Abbott and Russell T Davies. We knew Queer As Folk (written by Davies) was special, even though the sponsor withdrew after the first series. Word got out, as it does with good, groundbreaking drama. It was smart, glamorous and funny.”
Denise has fond memories of playing the mother of Ken Barlow’s love child. “God bless Corrie because it got me noticed,” she says. “I lived near Saddleworth Moor, which I loved. I have a soft spot for that part of the world.”
With that, she’s off for a pre-matinee lunch. “I’m popping to Morrisons for a butty,” she says.
Spoken like an honorary northerner.
* Sister Act runs at the Alhambra until December 10. For tickets, ring (01274) 432000.