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Little Miss Sunshine Takes the Stage

Director James Lapine mounts a world-premiere musical at La Jolla Playhouse — a show, says The New Yorker, worth traveling cross-country for

When San Diego attracts talent like James Lapine, people take notice. The Tony- and Pulitzer-winning director and writer can point to past collaborations such as Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods with the legendary Stephen Sondheim. Chops? He’s got some.

In February, Lapine brings the beloved indie film Little Miss Sunshine to the stage in the form of a musical planned to go to Broadway. To pull it off, he has teamed up with composer William Finn (whose earlier hits with Lapine include Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee). We sat down with Lapine to talk about everything from pageant girls to Pulitzer Prizes.

Why make Little Miss Sunshine into a show?
A lot of movies are made into musicals, but they’re often very literal interpretations. The writers just stick songs in, and sometimes the movies don’t really sing. Sunshine appealed to me because I thought those characters could sing. And I liked the quirkiness of the story, which made me think of [composer] Bill Finn. We do quirky.

The movie takes place inside a van. How will you do those scenes on stage?
I won’t give it away, but I’ll tell you this: I’m not going to do a high-tech show. It would be easy to use projections and see them traveling. But I knew right off the bat I was not going to rely on technology, and that’s what has been fun about designing and directing it.

One of your main characters, Dwayne, takes a vow of silence — not ideal when staging a musical. But the “deaf, dumb and blind” lead in Tommy, which also premiered at LJPH, sang. Will Dwayne sing?
Yes. Dwayne will sing. But when is the question  .  .  .

Who plays Olive?
A great little girl from New Jersey named Georgie James. She’s in Billy Elliot on Broadway now. She won our hearts. 

So is this show the anti-Annie, or Annie 2.0?
Funny you should say that, because I’m directing Annie on Broadway in a couple of years.

Well, Olive is like Annie because she’s an orphan of sorts — Olive seems adopted in that she’s such a departure from her relatives. But also, she’s got Annie’s optimism.
Oh, that’s true. I never thought of that. So I’m doing the same show twice, really.

Encore! Are there any San Diego locals in the show?
The pageant girls will be local. In the movie they were all real pageant girls.

Do they know they’re being parodied in a way?
There’s a satirical side to it, but that’s true of beauty pageants, too. One of our characters, Miss California Sunshine, has one of the more memorable songs you’ll ever hear in the theater. It’s brilliant.

What is the music like?
I call it Finnian [after William Finn]. Did you see Spelling Bee? It’s contemporary-sounding. Some of the songs are jazzy, but Bill writes in his own vernacular, so it’s hard to compare it to anybody else. He has a real quirky sense of humor — it’s not just the lyrics but the music itself that reflects that. And he also has the ability to do deeply emotional songs. He goes to the bone. It’s not musical theater in the Annie vein, but it has a big heart. And a big edge.

Why premiere at La Jolla Playhouse?
The show is a real California tale, so it’s fun to do it here. We set it in Redondo Beach. I’ve never been to Redondo Beach, but I just took a stab at it. “Redondo” is just a great word to rhyme with and sing. Is it in Orange County?

Try L.A. But wait, Redondo rhymes well? What does it rhyme with?
Well, it sits well in music. “Beach” is really what you end up rhyming with. But “Re-don-do, bom-bom-bom-bom-bom” — it sets up a nice rhythm.

Is this a show for adults or children?
It’s got something for everybody. I love that the story is such a microcosm of people stuck in this little car together. You’ve got your grandfather, your grandchild, your gay guy. For an audience, it’s fun when you can relate to someone on stage, and I’m hoping it will be pretty kid-friendly, too. It’s a little edgy and dark, but kids take in what they can take in.

Tell us mortals: What does it feel like to win a Tony? And a Pulitzer?
That was a long time ago. I don’t remember.

Oh, come on.
It’s a thrill. But having to go on stage and give a speech is not my idea of a good time. I’m low-key. I’d just as soon be at home in my PJs watching it on TV. The Pulitzer Prize was great, but then, you know, it’s all downhill from there.

Well, we don’t know that yet.
Aren’t you kind. You think I have a second act in me?

Little Miss Sunshine could be your peak show.
Well, then you’d better come and see it.