BWW Exclusive Interview: LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE's Rory O'Malley
Rory O'Malley is currently starring as 'Uncle Frank' in Second Stage's LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. The musical comedy, from the Tony Award-winning team of James Lapine and William Finn, takes audiences on an 800-mile trek with the highly dysfunctional yet somehow endearing Hoover family who are on a quest to reach a pre-teen beauty pageant in order to fulfill their daughter's far-fetched dream of winning the crown.
O'Malley, who recently appeared in Second Stage's musical Nobody Loves You, was nominated for both Tony and Drama Desk awards for urging his fellow Mormons to 'Turn It Off' in the hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon. His other theatre credits include The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee on Broadway, Happy Days The Musical for Goodspeed Opera/Paper Mill Playhouse and Off-Broadway's Newsical.
Today, Rory O'Malley speaks exclusively with BroadwayWorld about the pros of being a pessimist, James Lapine's 'No Hugging' rule and why Book of Mormon was the greatest time of his ife.
I believe the role of 'Uncle Frank' is the first time you've played a role based on a film character. Did you approach it any differently because of that?
It is. The only other time that was a little similar was when I played Richie Cunningham in Happy Days, so I had about ten years of television to take from Ron Howard to add to my character. But it's a little different with this guy, he's a little deeper, a little rougher around The Edges in some ways. But I did see the movie about six or seven years ago when it came out and thought it was brilliant, just like everyone else and thought that all the characters were so rich.
And Steve Carell's performance was wonderful. And though I chose not to watch the movie again, that performance was completely, fully in my mind and I definitely took a lot away from that. But what was important to me was to make sure that I was telling the story that James Lapine and William Finn were trying to tell, and not go back to the story of the movie. Even when small things are changed, it can feel monumental to a character or a choice that you're making in the moment. So I needed to stay focused on the script in front of me and the people and other actors that I was with.
As we all know, sometimes movies do not translate well into a stage production, particularly a musical. What is it about this particular story that enabled it to make the transfer so successfully?
Well, first of all it helps when you have James Lapine and William Finn. And I think also Michelle Lynch our choreographer, she really cracked a hard nut to crack by bringing the chairs into play and having the van come to life, rather than bringing in a large set piece, which I think would have taken away from the characters.
But beyond that, this story is so rich and the characters are so fantastic. As opposed to a lot of other movies that are turned into stage musicals, this one isn't just a hit movie, this is also a fantastically written story with wonderful characters and it's just fun to get to bring them back to life. I loved living with them when I was watching them in the movie theater and it has been a joy to get to spend a few months with them on a stage and breathe new life into them with these great actors I get to work with every night.
Let's go back to those chairs that you mentioned - that was such an ingenious way to present that iconic VW van from the movie on to the stage. How long did it take you to learn that choreography, because it looked quite involved and very complicated.
Yeah, we got started I think immediately after the Meet and Greet, we were like, 'okay let's get going. We only have six weeks until our first preview so we better start working on those chairs.' It was very precise and at times, to be honest, frustrating because it's not so much the moving of the chairs, it's the making sure the chairs don't move, so that you have created this bus, you don't want to shift it at all. It's like miming and puppetry almost. It was very intense but my God, it really paid off in the end. We had to really rely on our creative team because it was certainly something I had never attempted before.
Is it anything like learning a dance routine for a musical or is it completely different?
Well it's definitely specific in that way, everything is counted out. It looks like we're just having chaos and running around and turning the bus here and there but we have everything down to a count in our heads so it's very precise in that way, like a dance. But at the same time, it's not using the vocabulary of dance. When you're just pushing yourself around on the chair, you have to learn how those chairs move easiest. So we began to realize that pushing backwards was the best way, but moving forward would take a little more time. So it took a while to learn how to use them and how to move them in a graceful way. Those chairs are characters in the show as well, in a way they're our dance partners.
Working with James and William is truly a dream come true, and I mean that quite literally. I obsessively listened to all of James Lapine's shows as a child growing up in Cleveland and had every cast recording and every VHS tape of 'Into the Woods' and everything that James had done that I could get my hands on. And of course my Broadway debut was in 'Spelling Bee' [music and lyrics by Finn] so I certainly owe these two gentlemen a lot for my career. But I went into 'Spelling Bee' about a year and a half into the run, so to get to be in the rehearsal room now, creating something with them, you know that's why I started and wanted to become an actor - it was because of the works that these men created. So it's a full circle, wonderful moment for me to get to be a part of this show.
As I was watching the show, I was thinking of that unwritten rule of show business - never work with kids and animals. Yet Hannah Nordberg was just so adorable, I'm wondering if you disagree with that advice.
Yes - I really, really disagree! I mean I was nervous, it was the first time I had worked with children before and I was worried about what kind of experience it was going to be, but as cute as Hannah is on stage, she is twice as cute off stage. She has just brought so much joy to the rehearsal process, all the kids have, Logan as well who plays Dwayne the son, they're so professional and such down to earth good kids and I think they made it a really wonderful process over the last three months.
You know, it's hard to get too serious about your work when you've got a 9-year-old on stage who's always asking to braid Stephanie's [J. Block] hair. You know we had to have a 'No Hugging' rule because Hannah is so loving that she would just constantly hug us on stage while we were in the rehearsal room. So James had to say, 'Now Hannah, I know you want to hug everyone but I don't think your character can be hugging people at this moment in time while they're talking.' It's wonderful to get to work with that kind of energy, a kid who just has so much life and vitality and is so excited to be there. I always try to think of myself as the most grateful actor in the room because I'm always so in shock that I have a job and that I'm working, but when you're with a 9-year-old who is just so excited to be in a tech rehearsal for 12 hours - we'd be so happy that it was almost over and we'd have a day off the next day and she'd say, 'Oh we aren't going to be together tomorrow guys?'
So we really, really benefitted from her energy and all the girls and Logan and Jackson, who is the understudy for Logan. The kids are just amazing - and they all have to go to school on top of it. I felt terrible - I would go on my lunch break and watch TV and these kids are learning Spanish! They have such dedication and they certainly inspired me to work hard. So yes, I believe that working with kids in this business is pretty awe-inspiring when you see what they bring to the table.
It's hard to believe what you said about being in shock that you are a working actor. You'd think a Tony Award nomination might have changed your mind about that a little!
(Laughing) No. I was raised Irish Catholic, I will always be in shock that it happened. I think that as an actor you fight so hard to get work for years that when it actually comes, you just are so grateful. I am so happy to get to do what I love.
I'm actually just remembering a story you once told about when you first called your mom to tell her about the Tony nomination. Didn't she say something to the effect of, "Are you sure they didn't make a mistake?'
Oh yes, well she actually said, 'Are you sure? How do you know?' and I said, 'Matthew Broderick told me on TV!' and she wanted me to make some phone calls before we started telling people, because she could just see me starting to say it and then it turned out not to be true and we'd have to retract it!
It's funny, because with this show there's a lot of negativity. You know we start off with a song called, 'The Way of the World', and it's just about the most pessimistic song ever written, and I understand that. And it's not from a sad place. When we would go on a week-long vacation, after the first day my mom would say, 'Well, it's almost over.' She would always say that and I'd say, 'Don't say that!' But to her, she would always say that because every day after that that it would keep going she would feel better, like 'Oh wow, I was wrong!" And that was pretty much our philosophy in life, which makes it even more remarkable that I got into this business and that it didn't kill her long ago, getting through those early years in this profession. But she's always been supportive of me, even when she's shocked at any kind of success, she's still just so supportive. She saw Mormon 20 times, she saw 'Nobody Loves You' three times in one weekend and she'll be here next week to see Miss Sunshine.
Well after hearing that philosophy, I'm hesitant to ask you if you think the show will make the transfer to Broadway.
You know, I have no idea. If I had the money I would put it into it. But I know that the people who have worked on this show for years, literally, are so thrilled that it has gotten to this place and that it's so meaningful and so endearing and to see that audiences are reacting to it the way that they are. We're all just really glad that it is where it is today and if it goes anywhere beyond that, that would be wonderful. But I'm certainly the lowest man on the totem pole for that question.
You mentioned Book of Mormon earlier, which is truly one of my all-time favorite shows. Do you miss it, because it just looked like it must have been so much fun to be a part of.
Oh yeah, without a doubt, the greatest time of my life and of my career. I would walk around everyday saying, 'I know, this is as good as it gets so I'm going to soak in every single moment of it.' So certainly, I miss it. I miss the people, I miss getting to go to work with my buddy Josh Gad everyday and Andrew [Rannells] and Nikki [M. James], but you know I don't miss doing the show because I did it 800 times and I loved every one of those times, but I knew that if I kept doing it, I would turn the greatest, most fun experience of my life into a job. And it could never be that for me because it truly was magical, magical... all 800 times. That's how I wanted to leave it - as magic.
And now that is how it has been for Matt [Loehr], who took over for me on Broadway and I love hearing about his experience. I was just at the going away party for Kevin Duda, who just left the ensemble and is going into the Carole King show 'Beautiful'. We were together from the first reading along with Josh and a handful of other people and it's sad that the people who really laid those first foundation bricks in the show have moved on. But it's such a wonderful thing that we're saying goodbye to each other one person at a time, when so many times you work so hard on a show and it could be so wonderful, but then everybody has to say goodbye on the same day and it's over. We have a wonderful gift with Mormon, that our Mormon family just keeps expanding and getting to go to Kevin's going away party the other day, it's like I'm part of the alumni of Book of Mormon and I'll always be and it's a great family to be a part of.
And I believe the show will become an important part of the history of American theater as well.
I think so too and I hope that it inspires writers and producers to keep pushing the boundaries of Broadway. And I think that it was inspired by other people doing the same thing before it. So yeah, I agree, and I think that it's going to be around for a while. People keep showing up - it's amazing to me and it's so exciting to have a piece of theater be this much a part of pop culture.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus