William Finn and James Lapine count themselves among the millions of fans of the 2006 movie “Little Miss Sunshine.” But when they decided to adapt the story of the hapless Hoover family — on the road from their unhappy Albuquerque home to a Redondo Beach junior beauty pageant — for the musical stage, they had no intention of writing a carbon copy with a few songs thrown in.
“What’s the point of that?” ask Finn and Lapine — at the same time. When the world premiere of “Little Miss Sunshine” opens Friday at the La Jolla Playhouse, the audience will see what Lapine calls “a very free adaptation. We’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to make it our own and develop characters in ways the movie can’t.”
Lapine, who is directing and writing the book, and Finn, who is writing the score, say they see lots of chances to expand the story and the storytelling by reimagining them theatrically. “It turns out to be a very funny and emotional show,” says Finn. “Which the movie was too. But with music, it’s emotional to a different degree.”
The 62-year-old Lapine is a Tony-nominated director and a Tony- and Pulitzer-winning writer known for pieces that mix light, dark and the offbeat, including collaborations with Finn (“Falsettos,” “A New Brain,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) and Stephen Sondheim (“Sunday in the Park With George,” “Into the Woods,” “Passion”).
Finn, 59, is a Tony-winning composer, lyricist and writer who has pondered life, death and the meaning of family in shows whose characters are often considered to be “quirky.” Finn dislikes that label. “I feel it’s people’s way of marginalizing me,” he says. When Lapine asks what description he prefers, he replies: “Alive. Colorful and alive.”
The two men, who have worked together frequently over the last 30 years, discussed their version of “Sunshine” in a La Jolla rehearsal room one recent afternoon.
“We’ve been doing this for awhile,” they say, again at the same time. It’s one of many instances in which they seem to anticipate each other’s thoughts — sometimes finishing a phrase, sometimes interrupting to disagree. It takes a minute for them to answer the question “When did this project begin?” (“A couple of years ago.” “At least a couple of years.” “Maybe longer.” “Maybe two, no more than three.” “Two and a half.”)
The idea of attempting an adaptation arose, says Lapine, “after two of the original producers of the movie, who had managed to hold onto the rights, put out feelers.” He said he and Finn “were a little skeptical about how slavish we would have to be to the source material. But we were encouraged to reinvent the characters and the situations.”
Even so, they know “Sunshine” devotees are watching closely. “Adapting a popular story is a double-edged sword,” Finn says. “You are dealing with good material,” but “you’re also dealing with people with expectations.”
The Big Beach Films/Fox Searchlight picture earned Oscars for screenwriter Michael Arndt and actor Alan Arkin. The cast also included Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Paul Dano and Abigail Breslin.
The musical was developed at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab at White Oak in Florida and in New York before coming to the playhouse, which has hosted other works by Lapine and Finn. Its creators are hoping for a Broadway run. “Some shows you work on, you don’t have the aspiration,” says Lapine. “With this one we do.”
The La Jolla cast features Tony nominees Hunter Foster as Olive’s dad, Richard, a struggling self-help speaker, Jennifer Laura Thompson as stressed-out mom Sheryl and Malcolm Gets as suicidal Uncle Frank; Tony winner Dick Latessa as loose-cannon Grandpa; Taylor Trensch as troubled teenage brother Dwayne; and 10-year-old Georgi James as effervescent Olive, the unlikely pageant contender.
“What’s attractive is that these characters can sing,” Lapine says. “A lot of people choose material where you don’t expect or want the characters to sing, but here you feel like they are able to express themselves musically.”
“And they have something to sing about,” adds Finn, noting the abundance of hang-ups, hopes and heartache. He says he tried to compose “a romantic score that was funny” with songs that, says Lapine, “offer different vantage points” than the film did.
In one flashback, Richard and Sheryl are high school students courting in the VW bus that they would later drive to Redondo Beach. “In the film they’re quite contentious with each other,” Lapine says, “and I’m sure the original author had his own notion of their back story. We wanted the audience to feel that here is a couple whose romance has gone astray and this trip rekindles the spark.”
Creating such moments is part of what he calls “the art of adaptation,” which entails “figuring out the ‘routine-ing’ of a show — deciding what’s going to be sung or expressed in music and what should be expressed in dialogue. You have to break the story down emotionally.”
This process is made easier, Finn says, because Lapine is “so involved and he writes little paragraphs, these specific things about songs, which I can use or not but which can get me started. For me, the worst part is when I know [characters] should be singing but I get stuck and don’t know what to write about. With Lapine you always feel there’s a solution even if you don’t know what it is.”
In finding a solution to one of the show’s biggest challenges — depicting a road trip on stage — Lapine says he decided “to do a traditional theatrical show where we don’t rely on high technology and media.”
That sense of simplicity — “almost a homemade feel” — defines the look of the production, says scenic designer David Korins. “The movie was not flashy or overproduced. The last thing we want is to take that sweet, lovely story and blow it out of the water with technology.”
As part of his research, Korins drove through New Mexico, videotaping roadside sights and horizon lines that inspired the show’s set. The VW appears in various sizes, including a full-scale version with seats that go up and down to spotlight actors as they sing and a 30-inch remote-control model. The family’s stops — hospital, motel, convenience store — are rendered like “line drawings, with broad strokes that allow the audience to fill in the blanks,” Korins says.
“This is not traditional musical theater with showy song and dance,” says Thompson, who plays Sheryl. “It’s a show with heart. It’s about a real family forced to find the value and humor in the unexpected twists of life.”
“There’s a lot of the movie there,” Finn says. “But we also tried to make it a lot of us.”