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He’s glowing about ‘Little Miss Sunshine’

Composer and lyricist helps bring hit indie movie to the big stage

“Basically, I want to see shows about joy. Life is too miserable, and I can go there easily enough. This is a show that has some joy in it,” says composer and lyricist William Finn.

JENNIFER S. ALTMAN FOR THE GLOBE

“Basically, I want to see shows about joy. Life is too miserable, and I can go there easily enough. This is a show that has some joy in it,” says composer and lyricist William Finn.

NEW YORK — William Finn admits up front that he’s a latecomer to Red Sox fandom. Growing up in Natick, he would fall asleep at night to the sound of Celtics and Bruins games on the radio and find out from his parents in the morning who’d won. But baseball never moved him.

And then it did. The composer and lyricist, who picked up two Tony Awards for “Falsettos” in 1992 and had a more recent Broadway hit in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” does like a winner and can’t stand a sore loser. As the Sox’s fortunes rose in recent years, and Yankee fans sniped bitterly, Finn, 61, a New Yorker for decades, made his way at last to Red Sox Nation.

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So, one morning last week in Greenwich Village, graduate students in Finn’s New York University master class found themselves reading aloud their lyrics to Red Sox songs, which Finn — who spends summers at his second home in Pittsfield, where he runs Barrington Stage Company’s Musical Theatre Lab — had assigned them to write. One recalled Bill Buckner in 1986, a couple the Curse of the Bambino, but quite a few were about love of the team — a savvy move, it seemed. Of the songs Finn greenlighted to be set to music, not one was anti-Sox.

While he found plenty to praise in his students’ lyrics, one element seemed to disappoint him. “You know, the thing about sports for me is that it gives me something to talk about with my family,” said Finn, whose brother and sister live in Massachusetts. “I’m surprised that none of you approached that or even thought about it.”

Family is at the center of Finn’s new show, “Little Miss Sunshine,” which is in previews off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre, where it opens Nov. 14. A musical adapted from the hit 2006 indie movie about a pudgy little girl named Olive who road-trips to a beauty pageant with her family, it has lyrics and music by Finn and a book by his frequent collaborator, James Lapine, who also directs. When it premiered at La Jolla Playhouse in California in 2011, reviews were not enthusiastic. But since then, Finn said, the show has changed a lot. At Second Stage, he sat down to talk about it.

Q. Why did you say yes to this project?

A. I just knew it was a show I could write, and I thought structurally it was kind of brilliant: that this tiny little incident of this pageant brings this dysfunctional family together.

Q. It has darker colors, though, now, doesn’t it?

A. The opening number, the first line of the show, is “Dreams that shouldn’t die die. Hearts that shouldn’t break break into pieces.” And I’m thrilled with that, because we were accused of being too cute. Well, we’re not too cute anymore! I knew that there was a great show in it, so that’s why we kept working on it.

Q. You’ve had a lot of success at writing smart misfit kids, like the “Spelling Bee” kids. Olive and her brother Dwayne are two more.

A. Or the kid in “Falsettos.”

Q. Exactly. So where does that come from? What kind of a kid were you?

A. I thought I was just like a normal, regular guy. But turns out I wasn’t. I had no idea, because my family was so supportive and made me feel so normal [laughs].

Q. That’s the thing, isn’t it? The family in “Little Miss Sunshine,” they fit with each other.

A. Well, they fit with each other eventually. I think what they do is learn that they belong to each other. That’s the great joy of the piece. That’s what gives me the most pleasure.

Q. Speaking of pleasure, or not, what keeps you and James Lapine coming back together to collaborate?

A. He’s a genius, and it’s fun working with genius. I think he’d like to kill me more than I’d like to kill him. But we think very differently. I’m not sure I can put it into words, but I think that’s part of why our collaboration’s really good. You see him do my shows, and his direction is always wildly inventive. He has a very, very clear vision, and I don’t.

Q. How do you write together?

A. He writes the book with possibly some ideas for music. Then he pores through my lyrics and starts changing various words — it makes me crazy — but he’s sometimes right. I wish I weren’t so dazzled by his talent. But he’s really talented, and I’m very lucky to work with him. Though at times I don’t think so.

Q. The idea for making this musical came from where?

A. I think the producers of the movie saw “Spelling Bee” and basically wanted us to do it. It took us a while to find our voice in this. We had to make it our own. I saw the movie when it came out, never thought to make it into a musical, never thought I would get the rights. Lapine calls me up a few years later and says, “Do you want to write the musical?” I said, “Absolutely.” He said, “Let’s watch it together and see.” This was five years ago. They were in the car, the grandfather died, and there was a big pageant. That’s what I remember about the movie.

Q. So you’re unencumbered.

A. I did not want to be dictated to by the movie. I just knew I loved it and certainly didn’t want to destroy its joy or its charm. I just want to make a delicious, delightful show.

Q. But now it’s got that darkness in it.

A. That can be delicious, too [laughs]. I wouldn’t have been this charming if you had seen me last week, but we froze the show last night. I was a mess. I mean, I had to write the sex song that the grandfather sings, entirely new. And the song he had was spectacular, but he couldn’t sing it. No one could sing it.

Q. What made it difficult?

A. I have no idea. And whenever I would sing it, Lapine would go, “Well, that’s a great song.” I’d say, “I told ya!” Believe me, the past two months I wouldn’t have been this charming. But I’m in a very good mood now. I’m happy with the show; I’m happy that I don’t have the pressure to write more. When I write well, I have to be at a certain pitch, emotionally. It’s a little anxious, a little crazy. It’s very focused, but it’s not happy. It’s not sweet. It’s not nice. I’ve been a pleasure to live with, let me tell you [laughs].

Interview has been condensed and edited. Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com.
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