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Little Miss Sunshine, The Musical

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Aired 2/17/11

The Tony Award-winning team behind "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" bring their latest project, a musical based on the film "Little Miss Sunshine", to the La Jolla Playhouse. We'll talk with playwright and director James Lapine and two of the actors, including the young actress playing Olive.

Georgi James plays Olive in the La Jolla Playhouse premiere of the musical "Little Miss Sunshine."
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Above: Georgi James plays Olive in the La Jolla Playhouse premiere of the musical "Little Miss Sunshine."

The Tony Award-winning team behind "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" bring their latest project, a musical based on the film "Little Miss Sunshine", to the La Jolla Playhouse. We'll talk with playwright and director James Lapine and two of the actors, including the young actress playing Olive.

Guests:

James Lapine is the playwright and director of the musical "Little Miss Sunshine."

Georgi James plays Olive in "Little Miss Sunshine."

Malcolm Gets plays Frank in the new musical "Little Miss Sunshine."

"Little Miss Sunshine" opens this weekend and runs through March 27th at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. An unlikely pageant contestant, an inappropriate senior citizen, a dysfunctional family and a beat up yellow van. These were the elements of the hilt indie film, Little Miss Sunshine. It was a movie audiences fell in love with. And it got an Oscar nomination for best picture back in 2006. Fast forward to 2011, and the Hoover family is back, this time on the stage of the La Jolla playhouse. Of the Tony award winning team behind the 25th annual Putnam county spelling bee has created a musical version of Little Miss Sunshine. It's a great pleasure to welcome the director and two of the performers of that production to These Days. First, Tony and Pulitzer prize winning writer and director, James Lupine. Good morning James.

LUPINE: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Georgi James plays beauty contestant Olive in Little Miss Sunshine. Georgi, hello.

JAMES: Hi.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Malcolm Goetz plays you Uncle Frank in the new musical Little Miss Sunshine.

GOETZ: Now, James, when you first saw Little Miss Sunshine, the movie, did you have a feeling that it would make a good musical.

LUPINE: I didn't real really think about it, to be perfectly honest. Although I loved the movie. So when I heard they were doing a musical version of it, I was genuinely interested in. Which I'm generally not when they turn movies into musicals. But this just seemed like a perfect piece of material [CHECK].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Talk to me a little bit about that. Because there are an awful lot of movies turned into musicals. What makes this one different.

LUPINE: Well, I think one thing is, the characters sing. I found that each of these characters has something to say. You know, often not every character you want to hear singing. But these are interesting, complicated, eccentric characters who I think lend themselves to expressing themselves through music.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, as you say, you were actually approached to work a musical version of this by the movie producers. Does that happen a lot? Does it happen to you a lot?

LUPINE: Well, there are so many movies now being turned into musicals and they generally come from the studios themselves who own the rights to the movies. And I think a lot of it's economic, because at least if a movie's popular, I think producers feel that it has a good chance that you can have somewhere to start from, in terms of turning it into a stage piece. But in this instance, interesting enough, it's the producers who hung onto the stage rights. And they from the get go had a version for it possibly being a stage musical. So in that end, in that regard, it's different than most of the other situations where you're approached with, you know, adapting material.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, James Lupine, I said in the beginning that this was a movie that audiences fell in love with. It really did touch the hares of so many people. So how do you deal with that? Is that a lot of pressure to stay true to what was on the screen?

LUPINE: No. I mean, when we met with the producers, we made it clear that we were not going to do a literal translation from the film to the stage. And I wouldn't work on anything that I didn't personally feel that I could bring my own sensibility to. And [CHECK] felt similarly, and I think to the credit of the producers they didn't want to do the movie onto the stage. They wanted to do -- you know, an adaptation that was very free and personal in the way that we saw the material. Of often a lot of the musicals are so literally translated, in my opinion, I think that's why many of them don't work. Because, you know, you can't just take something -- a film is a whole different language and a whole different medium. And it doesn't necessarily lend itself to be literally translated to the stage.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are talking about the musical version of Little Miss Sunshine that is open at La Jolla playhouse. On the line with me is Tony and Pulitzer prize winning writer and director, James Lupine. And in studio with me, two performers. [CHECK] and Malcolm gets plays Uncle Frank. Georgi, you play Olive. You inspire the family to take this road trip because you're gonna compete in a beauty pageant. How are you enjoying this role.

JAMES: Well, I always felt like Olive was sort of like me. So when I found out that I could do this role, I -- well, at first I saw the movie. And I thought that it was -- I thought it would be so much fun because the role and in the movie looked so much fun. So -- and now since it's on stage, I feel like I can add a lot bit more to myself in it. So that's why it's sort of fun, because it's sort of, like, half me, half character.

CAVANAUGH: Now, your character is a real optimist. Do you see your role as the inspiration of the whole Hoover family?

JAMES: Yeah, I feel like she -- like they're not always -- they have a lot of, like, tough tonights and stuff. And I feel like wherever they are, whatever they're feeling she could just always, like, lift up their spirits and stuff. So --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know what's interesting, though. Here you are, you are, Georgi James, very, very talented child actress, but you're playing somebody, Olive who's really not that talented. So I wonder, how do you make that transition on the stage from your -- where you are to where Olive needs to be.

JAMES: Well, I sort of really, like, put myself in her shoes. So it's sort of a little easier to see, like, what she would do and that's pretty much what I think. So then it's sort of a lot easier to think like, oh, what would she do in that situation? And that situation. And so it's -- so it's pretty -- I mean, easy, because everybody can be bad, everybody can be okay. I mean, so it's -- it's not that difficult. But it's really fun.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You can think of yourself those times that maybe you weren't that great, right? And maybe put that.

JAMES: Yeah. Sometimes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Malcolm, your character is Uncle Frank, you come to the story. You've just been fired, you've been dumped by your boyfriend. Just the kind of frame of mind to start a family road trip, right?

GOETZ: -- to ask me if I identify with my character.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, is this fun to play though?

GOETZ: It is fantastic. I have to start off by saying that Georgi is absolutely brilliant in the piece too.

JAMES: Ah, thanks.

GOETZ: Not only is she incredible on stage but she inspires all of the middle aged tired worn out actors like myself. But yeah, the piece is just tremendous. It's really thrilling to be involved with it. Because, you know, I don't know if James is still on the air, but you know the first time I read the piece, I thought wow, they've done it, they've taken this really wonderful film and been loyal to it just enough, but also opened if up in its own way to make it something of its own. And of course not only does it sing, but it sings beautifully. So it's really thrilling to be a part of it. And I love Uncle Frank because he's just so broken.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is his role in the family as you see it?

GOETZ: Well, I play Georgi's uncle, her mother, the parents are played we hunter foster and [CHECK] beautifully. And I play Jennifer Sheryl's brother, and I am this professor and I say I'm the leading Proust scholar in the United States, so in addition to being dumped by the boyfriend, and losing my job issue I've also lost this great grant to my rival. Anyway, I don't want to spoil the show. You have to come see it anyway. [CHECK] after a suicide attempt, and I come into -- so not only am I having a crisis, but then I arrive in the Hoover household, who everyone's having a crisis of their own of so really, again, the one that's sort of holding it all together is young Olive.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Young Olive. James, I think one of the big questions people must have as they approach Little Miss Sunshine as a stage vehicle is the vehicle itself. What -- so much of this movie was about this road trip, this van, this beat up VW van. How do you translate that to the stage?

LUPINE: Well, that was one of the fun reasons I wanted to try to attempt to do the show. And I was very meticulous, we spent well over a year and a half designing it. And I decided again, the last thing I wanted to do was be literal about it. Stage projections on stage have become very common. And film has been working its way into stage productions and I decided I wasn't going to do that. I decided I was going to do a very theatrical and very simple representation of that. And also refract the story through olive's eyes. So in many ways it has a kind of simple visual sensibility that might come from a child. So I think we've done an interesting way doing a road trip, and in many ways, the bus rarely ever moves. And in fact what moves is everything around it. Or when it does move, it's -- it's self generated by the actors, there's no automation in it as well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

LUPINE: So it's just a lot of fun.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Georgi, and I want to ask you both, Georgi and Malcolm, I know you don't want to give too much away about the way the set looks, and so forth. But I'm just -- I'm interested, Georgi, in your reaction to seeing the set and seeing the van be and how that all worked.

JAMES: Well, of course when you're on stage, you can't see that much. But sometimes they would, like, let us go in the house, and watch, like, transitions or something. And it's so beautiful, like, the lighting is amazing, the set is unbelievable. It's just all -- it all looks so real and so great that it's just amazing.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Malcolm, did you think this was gonna work?

GOETZ: Absolutely. Absolutely. It's so imaginatively designed. It's so suggested, rather spelled out. It's theatre, is what it is. And the van itself, I mean this may seem like an obvious thing to say, but it is the other character, and I almost think of it as a person in the show. You know? It becomes like the -- what would it be? The sixth member of the Hoover family? We should name that van, Georgi. What should we name the van?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah, you will by the time the run's over.

GOETZ: Exactly, yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: James, all of these characters are eccentric, they have something going on that's just not sort of straight on, as it were. It must have been fun to write for them.

LUPINE: Yeah. I mean, they're very -- they're very vivid, and they're in their each way kind of passionate people, but they're not necessarily successful people. And I think that's what's so touching about them. Because.

A. Their greatest success in an odd way becomes their relationships with each other, which are always -- somewhat difficult and strained but at the p.m. of it, there's a kind of real love that they have for one another. And that's what kind of getting them through the day. So they're really delightfully rich characters to write for, and particularly, I think for bill to make sing.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right, William fin, the composer. I want to ask you about his music in just a moment. But I think that we all remember Allen Arkin as the grandfather in the movie.

LUPINE: Yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I would imagine that you have retained that character.

LUPINE: Oh, for sure. And we have a brilliant actor, Dick Latessa who's playing him. And in his own way, again, but it's a brilliant character.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are there any local actors in this production?

LUPINE: We have a few in the company, yes. And in fact, one of them is an under study who went on last night. But primarily the main characters are -- have been cast out of New York.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, I hear there's a fantastic number in this among several, I'm sure. For a character named miss California sunshine. What may beings that so special James?

LUPINE: Oh, gosh. I hate to give it away.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, see if you can talk around it, just make us really --

LUPINE: No, no, no, no. Well, she is -- let's just say she sings about the price of beauty, and leave it at that. And I think what's interesting about the show, and what you were saying to Georgi about the character of Olive, is what we see as beautiful and what we -- you know, what we as parents set up for our children to aspire to. And I think, you know, there's a wonderful under current in the show about what beauty is, and what self worth is about. And I think that song of miss California's is part and parcel of that theme attic under current of the show of what beauty is, and what beauty costs and what it really means.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are talking about the musical version of Little Miss Sunshine, which is now on stage at the La Jolla playhouse. I'm speaking with director and Pulitzer prize winning writer, James Lupine. Georgi James who plays beauty contestant, Olive. And Malcolm gets who plays Uncle Frank in this new musical. James, you have had a 30-year class action with composer, William fin. And you're working together again on Little Miss Sunshine. Your class actions, they just smooth sailing by now?

LUPINE: No.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Not really?

LUPINE: Well, first of all, I don't think anything, you know, when you do what we do, smooth sailing isn't really something that operates in these kind of conditions. We love each other, we love working together. But, you know, a class action is a lot about friction as much as it is -- I anxiety good class action is about friction because you want to work with somebody you can butt heads with and argue points out with and wrestle with certain thematic and metaphoric issues that you're writing about. And I think that's why bill and I have had such a good long contraction. Because we're in many ways, not alike, and I think that's good because we bring different points of view to what we do. I don't know that I'd call it smooth sailing, I certainly wouldn't call it rocky waters either, but it's hard work.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to tell our listeners, that you have [CHECK] falsettos, and the 1998 musical, a new brain. So how would you --

LUPINE: Starring Malcolm gets.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Starring Malcolm gets.

GOETZ: That was a project very close to my heart, yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So how would you -- I'm gonna ask you about this too, Malcolm, but James, how would you describe the music in this musical?

LUPINE: Well, bill's thing is sort of [CHECK] generous in the way that he writes of he doesn't write in conventional musical theatre forms, I think. I would say that because it's a sort of multigenerational show, that the music reflects the characters in the show. So that there's a kind of simplicity, and a wonderful kind of childlike quality to some of the things that relate to Olive and there's a quite a edgy song from the grandpa, and then there's a teenaged boy, and I think what bill and his -- brilliant orchestrator, Michael Starobin, have done is try to imbue the music with the characters, and have the music reflect the emotional centers of the characters. And that's what music can do, are it's sort of enviable, and I think they've done a great job giving a full bodied score, which each character has sort of their own voice.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Malcolm what's your take?

GOETZ: Well, you know, the simplest thing I can say is whenever I see a musical, there's the vast, there's the score, there's the direction, there's all of those elements but really what I want is a great score. And this is a profoundly great score. [CHECK] and I was really erect during it, it's a really, really really beautifully, beautiful score.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Really.

GOETZ: Absolutely.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what about -- you fall in love with your own songs?

GOETZ: Yeah, you have to.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah? Yeah?

GOETZ: Absolutely. Listen, I was in love with the songs when they asked me to come in and audition. They gave me two of my songs and literally the song that I sing in the convenience store to my ex-boyfriend, the Monday I heart it, I went to that terrible place that you don't want to get to as an actor, which is I want to get this part! I want to sing this song, so I'm really happy they brought me along. [CHECK].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Georgi, what about the songs you sing.

JAMES: My songs, they're funny, some are, like, the -- I have one, when I first hear that I get the pageant, which is sort of, like, as a call it, screaming song, so it's like all over the place. I have some nice little, like, slow, meaningful song. And I just think, again, as Malcolm said, we had our sits probe, and when I saw -- when I heard all of those songs I was completely blown away because of course when you're in rehearsals, you only hear it on piano. So once you've heard it with a full band or orchestra, it's just amazing. So I think the music is unbelievable.

GOETZ: Yeah, yeah. I juvenile so lucky to be a part of this.

JAMES: Yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And one more request about set design, James, up started to work in the theatre as a set designer. So are you pretty hands on about the way this production looks?

LUPINE: Well, actually, I was not a set designer. I was a graphic designer.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oh, I see. Okay.

LUPINE: And yes. I love the design process. And because I'm also a writer, I envision the look of the show, when I write it. So it's all for me, anyway, kind of parse and parcel of a total vision. So yes, I'm -- I enjoy the process of designing, and I would say that I, in some ways, may be too attuned to every little detail that I'm looking at on the stage.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Back off, right?

LUPINE: Yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Georgi, people listening to you, and knowing that you're a child actress, are gonna be wondering how did you get started in the theatre at such a young age?

JAMES: Well, when I was about five, I did my first -- I did a Christmas show back at home in New Jersey. And then when I was six, I used to do some community theatre, like I did the sound of music, I played Gretl. And then I sort of kept, like, auditioning for, like, different things. And when I was I think -- I think I was either 7 or 8, I got my first Broadway show. And then -- and then I just kept going on since then. It's just been a work in progress. Of the.

GOETZ: May I mention that Georgi left the Broadway production of Billy Elliot to join us. So I think she has [CHECK] at.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now how is it -- how do you balance? You have to go to school, right?

JAMES: Yeah, well, when I'm out here, my school sends all the work out for me, and I have a studio teacher here. But when I go home, I usually go to school in the day, then, like, if I'm in a show, go there at night. Of but it's pretty -- my teachers have always been really good about it. So it hasn't been too difficult yet.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, even though, Georgi is Little Miss Sunshine, Malcolm, this is a real ensemble piece isn't it.

GOETZ: Absolutely, and you, I always wanted to mention if you asked when there were local actors before, we have four young actresses who are in the play every night, who play the beauty contestants.

LUPINE: Of course.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly right. So it's the ensemble part of this piece, I'm wondering, you really all have to work together as if you are a family.

GOETZ: Yeah.

JAMES: Yeah.

GOETZ: And it's sort of am symbolized by the van, because we have to work together to make the van work. No, you're absolutely right. In that respect, it is a great ensemble. We have people like Dick Latessa, who's a Tony award winner, and he's been in a million shows. But everybody's really on board to make the show work as a whole, so --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One fast question, James, you have a character, olive's brother, who refuses to speak. Now, that's pretty much a challenge in a musical, isn't it?

LUPINE: Well, yeah. I'd say. Yeah, and it's hard for an actor, because he -- you know, he has to be present and be part of the family without saying anything. Which is probably the hardest thing in the world. But when he finally does speak, it's one of the high points of the evening, I think, dramatically. And we really challenged him with his very young actor, tailor, who's playing his part. It's a great company. And I have to say, the ensemble aspect of it is what makes it great because they're all so talented, they feed off of each other. And I just have to say, Georgi James may be an experienced hand in the theatre, but she's also just a lovely person, even if she's ten. And extremely down to earth and I want to say an excellent all A student.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: All right, all right. All around great. I want to ask you just really fast in parting issue what's your favorite part, Georgi of this whole play.

JAMES: My favorite part? See I'm really bad at making decisions because I can never make one. But I feel like the whole show is fantastic. I mean, the pageant of course, is, amazing. I love doing my little, like, dance at the end. And so if I had to pick, I think -- huh, well -- so I guess I would have to say the pageant because at the end, I wear all these hilarious co -- all of the other pageant girls have these elaborate, beautiful, like dresses and bathing suit, and then I come out with, look a towel or something. Like a towel on top of my bathing suit or something. But -- so I get to do all that funny stuff, then at the end, I get to do this hilarious dance, and like -- and I think that would have to be --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That would have to be it.

JAMES: One of the best parts of the show.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Hey, I want to thank you all so much for speaking with us today. James Lupine, thank you.

LUPINE: My pleasure. It was really fun to hear Malcolm and Georgi speaking.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Georgi, thanks so much.

JAMES: You're welcome.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Malcolm gets, thank you.

GOETZ: Pleasure, pleasure.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know, Little Miss Sunshine is open right now at La Jolla playhouse, it runs through March 27thk. If you would like to comment about anything you heard, please go KPBS.org/These Days. Coming up next, it's the weekend preview here on KPBS. .

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