Why turn a movie (or a book or a play) into a musical? The only good reason is that you find possibilities for musical numbers in the characters and narrative. You can imagine the characters singing. Now someone may have found the music in the film LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, but William Finn didn't. This is one of the least musical musicals I have seen. It's basically a dramatization of the film with a few songs and snippets of songs. There's an opening "We're all neurotic losers" number that's typical William Finn. It reminds me of "Four Jews In a Room Bitching," the song that opens his FALSETTOS. There's one nice ballad. The only fully developed musical scene is set in a gas station men's room where Frank, the suicidal Proust scholar, runs into his ex-boyfriend and the boyfriend's overbearing new partner. That was the only five minutes I felt I was watching a musical, that Finn was really engaging with his material. Of course, he's been there before -- again FALSETTOS. Rory O'Malley, Wesley Taylor and Josh Lamon make the most of the moment. In general, Finn is a better lyricist than he is a composer. There's barely a recognizable tune in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, just words set to notes. The big laughs, and there are some, come during the dialogue scenes.
If you haven't seen the delightful low budget movie, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is the story of a dysfunctional family from Albuquerque traveling in a broken down VW van to Redondo Beach so their daughter can participate in one of those creepy little girl beauty contests. Husband and wife aren't getting along, their Nietzsche-reading teenage son refuses to speak, grandfather is a coke-snorting sex addict and Uncle Frank has recently tried to slit his wrists. Of course, in its feelgood Hollywood way, everyone -- well, almost everyone -- is healed by the trip and the family becomes united at the final curtain. William Finn is much better at dysfunction than positive emotions, so the resolution, which seems to come out of nowhere, is totally unconvincing.
James Lapine has staged the show very cleverly with six kitchen chairs on wheels. There's only one elaborate setting -- that men's room, as if Lapine too saw that scene as the meatiest in the score. The cast is comprised of some of the most talented folks in musical theatre: Stephanie J. Block and Will Swenson are their usual gifted selves, but they need more songs. David Rasche is charming as the cocaine and porn-loving grandfather, though no match for Alan Arkin's memorable performance in the film. Rasche can't really sing, but maybe that's OK for his character. Rory O'Malley shines as the depressive gay uncle. He comes close to stealing the show, but then again he gets one of the only fully realized numbers. Logan Rowland is winning as the miserable, mostly silent teenage son and Hannah Nordberg is delightful as the would-be Miss Sunshine. The talented Wesley Taylor is pretty much wasted except for that men's room scene.
All this talent work very hard to make something out of a musical that really isn't a musical. See the movie instead.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. Book and Direction by James Lapine. Music by William Finn. Second Stage Theatre November 2, 2013.