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Into the Woods writer James Lapine: ‘Creating a road-trip musical like Little Miss Sunshine was a fun challenge’

Writer and director James Lapine. Photo: Terence Patrick for Variety Writer and director James Lapine. Photo: Terence Patrick for Variety

The Sunday in the Park With George writer and Pulitzer Prize winner has penned a new musical of the film Little Miss Sunshine. He tells Tom Wicker why the road-trip story appealed and his other project – about Cary Grant on LSD

Creating a musical is a little like sex, according to Tony award-winning writer and director James Lapine, possibly with his tongue in his cheek. “Sometimes you initiate it, sometimes the other person does. Sometimes it’s an obligation.”

We’re speaking ahead of the European premiere of Little Miss Sunshine – A Road Musical at the Arcola Theatre in London. Lapine wrote the book and directed the original production, which premiered in San Diego in 2011 before transferring to Off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theater two years later.

Working with the musical’s composer and songwriter William Finn was the 70-year-old Lapine’s latest collaboration in a musical theatre career built on partnerships. This has included successfully working with lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim, writing the book for both Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods. He won the Pulitzer Prize for the former and a Tony award for the latter.

Lapine’s first collaboration – March of the Falsettos, also written with Finn, in 1981 – was his first musical. It was the work that alerted Sondheim to his writing talents. Lapine directed Finn’s self-penned musical snapshot of the life of Marvin, a gay Jewish man in New York with a wife and family. The work was praised as “wildly resourceful” by the New York Times.

“They work in completely opposite ways,” says Lapine, reflecting on Finn and Sondheim’s approaches. “Bill often jumps in right away – just from watching or hearing something and seeing how it speaks to him viscerally and musically – where Stephen really works off the book and the character.”

Lapine would go on to co-write the book for 1990’s Falsettoland – the final part of the Falsettos musical trilogy begun by Finn with In Trousers in 1979. In 1992, the pair reworked the latter two shows into one musical, Falsettos, which won Lapine and Finn best book of a musical as well as best original score for Finn at that year’s Tony Awards.

As with Falsettos, he’s happy to revise a production if he thinks it can be improved. “But it really depends on the project,” he says. “There’s an expression: ‘The more you polish shit, the more it looks like shit.’ He believes that “some things are only as good as they’re supposed to be” and also that “endless workshopping” risks “taking the blood out of some projects”.

He has worked with Finn several times since Falsettos, including, in 2005, on The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This musical comedy about a popular, real-life American spelling competition for kids won Lapine a Drama Desk Award for outstanding direction of a musical.

‘A lot of movie producers don’t get the complexity of making musicals’

Little Miss Sunshine makes its UK debut at the Arcola, where it will be directed by the venue’s artistic director, Mehmet Ergen. It originally opened Off-Broadway, and Lapine thinks the pair’s work is suited to the more intimate experience offered by fringe theatres such as the Arcola, “where work can be edgier”.

But Little Miss Sunshine marked a departure from the US pair’s previous musicals, which they created from scratch. Following a family as they hit the road to fulfil their daughter’s dream of entering a beauty pageant, it’s adapted from the acclaimed 2006 indie film of the same name, with its thoughtful, gently wry look at middle America.

Little Miss Sunshine fell into their laps just as he and Finn were finishing Spelling Bee, says Lapine. They were asked by the producers. “It’s rare for either of us to get offered these kinds of projects,” he says, “and I loved the movie.” And the opportunity of “doing something different, using a different skill set, enjoying a new experience, was really what drove us”. He adds, jokingly: “We were probably flattered, too.”

Nonetheless, it mattered to Lapine that he and Finn were able to personalise the material. And he feels strongly that adapting a film into a musical has to be justifiable. “You see a lot of adaptations that fail because you see [the performers] singing and it’s not inherent to the storytelling. The ironic thing about a musical is that, when it works, it looks easy. I think that’s why a lot of movie companies are trying to invent musicals out of titles, like Pretty Woman, that have a big following. I don’t think they understand the complexity of the process.”


Q&A James Lapine

What was your first job?
Cater waiter. I loved it. It might sound nuts, but it helped me to become a good playwright through watching and listening to people. I’m not a big social guy and I don’t love parties, but as a waiter at these big affairs I had the opportunity to observe and listen. I’m kind of nosy and an eavesdropper.

What was your first theatrical job?
Designing posters.

What’s your next job?
I’ve been writing a book about the making of Sunday in the Park With George. I also have a musical we’re putting into production next year. It’s been germinating for a while. It’s about LSD in the 1950s and three famous people who experimented with it: the novelist Aldous Huxley, the actor Cary Grant and Clare Boothe Luce, who was a Margaret Thatcher-type American conservative. What’s interesting is they weren’t young – they were in their mid-to-late careers, trying to sort out their lives. The idea is that they always sing when they’re on LSD. It’s been a delight to do.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Nothing, because I wasn’t career oriented. I would just tell myself to do exactly what I did.

Who or what is your biggest influence?
The California Institute of the Arts. It was a new school at the time, and the theory behind it was to throw all different kinds of artists together. It gave me the freedom to feel you can be engaged in all of the arts – you don’t have to be specifically exposed to just one field. I’ve been kind of fearless in not thinking I have to be in one particular box. I was also really lucky to work with Stephen Sondheim and Bill Finn, who are two brilliant people in completely different ways.

What is your advice for auditions?
I don’t like that process of just sitting at a table and having people come in. I try to engage everyone in conversation to get a sense of them. You have to pay attention to everybody, even when somebody walks into the room and you immediately say: “I’m never hiring this person for that role.” Because they might be right for another role one day.

If you hadn’t been a writer and director, what would you have done?
Probably something in fashion. I would definitely be in the art world.  

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
When I started out in New York, I had this stupid ritual where I made everyone put on this weird powder that was for ‘good luck in the theatre’. I got it from a psychic in the Village. We used to put it on our hands and wipe it around. That stopped when the psychic place went out of business and I couldn’t find the powder any more. It was very peculiar. Anything that’d help, I’d try. I was probably smoking too much dope at the time.

What was it about Little Miss Sunshine that spoke to him? “I loved the story,” says Lapine. He was hooked by the misfit little girl who wants to be on stage, her dysfunctional but loving family and “the thematic stuff” about winners and losers. “Frankly, because I also direct, the idea of trying to do a show that is also a road trip was another really fun challenge.”

The creative prospect of Little Miss Sunshine’s closed-off group of characters being able to release themselves in song appealed to both Lapine and Finn. “The thing about a road trip is that it has a forward motion to it,” he says. “Music itself can drive that. Score-wise, it really drove the movie too, so there were lots of opportunities to make a musical.”

The film helped greatly “as source material to guide us,” he says. “Bill doesn’t start from the top. He tends to dive in wherever, and I tend to write the book and routines for the show – ‘We need a song about X here and one about Y there.’ I’m pretty specific about where I think music has to involve storytelling and sometimes emotional moments.”

But the writer and director is quick to describe it as “not really rocket science”. He downplays his skill quite often. “I don’t get too analytical about my work, to be honest,” he says. And he politely rejects any suggestion that his early projects represented a deliberate move towards a new ‘concept’ type of musical. “When I met Sondheim, I’d seen only one of his shows, which is ridiculous if you think about it now.”

Without that context, Lapine essentially wrote what he wanted to see. And he insists that his early success with Finn, whom he met in a writers’ group at New York’s Playwrights Horizons theatre, was “just circumstance: the right place at the right time”. He adds: “I wasn’t even sure this was the life I was going to lead. You’re brave, because there’s nothing to lose.”

Jake Gyllenhaal in Sunday in the Park With George at Hudson Theatre, New York, in 2017. Photo: Matthew Murphy

He started as a graphic designer and emphasises his ignorance of theatre while growing up. He never went to theatre school – crediting the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied graphic design and photography as a graduate, with introducing him to a theatre crowd.

Then a relatively new school, the California Institute of the Arts actively encouraged students of every discipline to mix together. “It gave me the freedom to feel that you can be engaged in all of the arts – you don’t have to be specifically exposed to just one field,” says Lapine.

His background in visual arts and the subsequent, fluid move between writing and directing have fed a distinctive career. “The visual element drives what I write,” he says. “And when I’m writing a show, I’m directing it, and when I’m directing it, I’m trying to remind myself of the writing.”

For someone who entered theatre “as a bit of a lark”, Lapine has done pretty well for himself, several decades later. What’s his secret? Not working that much, apparently. “I’ve made my living mostly off doing the occasional movie,” he says. “So, I don’t go from project to project, like some directors. And I only write about things I have a passion for.” He laughs. “It sounds dopey, but if I worked more, I’d enjoy it less.”

CV James Lapine

Born: Mansfield, Ohio, 1949
Training: Graduate study in photography and graphic design at the California Institute of the Arts
Landmark productions:
• March of the Falsettos (1981)

• A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Delacorte Theater in Central Park, New York (1982)
• Sunday in the Park With George (1984)
Awards include:
• For Sunday in the Park With George: Outstanding book of a musical and outstanding director of a musical (Drama Desk Awards, 1984); best musical (New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, 1984); Pulitzer Prize (1985)

• For Into the Woods: best book of a musical (Tony Awards, 1988); outstanding book of a musical (Drama Desk Awards, 1988); best musical (New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, 1988)
• For Falsettos: best book of a musical (Tony Awards, 1992)
• For Passion: best book (Tony Awards, 1994); outstanding book of a musical (Drama Desk Awards, 1994)
For The 25th Annual Spelling Bee: outstanding director of a musical (Drama Desk Awards, 2005)
Agent: George Lane, Creative Artists Agency

Little Miss Sunshine runs at the Arcola Theatre, London, from March 21-May 11 and then goes on national tour. For more details go to www.littlemisssunshinemusical.com/

Little Miss Sunshine musical announces European premiere and UK tour

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