Rory O’Malley Spreads a Little ’Sunshine’
Rory O'Malley has made his presence felt on and off stage the past few years, from his Tony Award-nominated role as the flamboyant Elder McKinley in the Broadway megahit "The Book of Mormon" to co-founding Broadway Impact, the advocacy group that has proved instrumental in getting marriage equality laws passed in New York and other states. Now, the openly gay actor is turning heads again as Frank in "Little Miss Sunshine," William Finn and James Lapine's musical adaptation of the popular 2006 film, now at Off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre.
In the tuner, Frank has recently been released from the hospital - after attempting suicide when an ill-fated affair with a graduate student costs him his job and his sanity - and is recuperating with his sister's dysfunctional family in New Mexico. No sooner has he arrived, however, then the entire clan must embark on a multi-day van ride to Southern California so that young Olive (the wonderful Hannah Nordberg) can compete in the annual "Little Miss Sunshine" pageant.
A strong impression
"I was thrilled to get this role, because I so rarely get to play darker characters," says O’Malley. "I am usually cast as an upbeat Mormon or Richie Cunningham (whom he played in the musical version of TV’s "Happy Days). This is a great change for me."
O’Malley had not watched the film since its debut, but admits the movie had made a strong impression on him. "I thought all the characters were so rich, quirky and fun," he says. "And I still remember what Steve Carrell did as Frank, and what a wonderful performance he gave. But our Uncle Frank is a little different, and I so wanted to tell the story that James and William had created."
Indeed, it was the chance to work with these two theatrical geniuses that really prompted O’Malley to take on the role. "They really inspired me to be an actor. I had seen ’Falsettos’ in Cleveland, where I grew up, when I was around 12 or 13," he recalls. "I was a huge fan of William’s musical ’A New Brain." In fact, I desperately wanted to put it on when I was in college, but I couldn’t get the rights. So getting to do this show is my triumph," he says.
O’Malley was also sure he wanted the part when Finn first played him Frank’s big number, in which he finally gets to confront his ex-lover Josh (played by Wesley Taylor) and Larry, the professor who stole Josh from him (played by Josh Lamon). "It was so biting, so raw, so definitively William Finn," says O’Malley. "Yes, it was difficult in some ways to reach those feelings, but who hasn’t had someone break their heart? So I focused on any heartache I had felt in the past, and then let it all out on stage."
The role also presented a couple of other challenges for the actor. "I think the hardest part of tapping into Frank is that the first moment the audience sees him is when he is in a wheelchair, adjusting to being out of the hospital. It’s hard to go that far right off the bat, and I need more prep time than usual offstage to get into character," he says. "Also, James and William are really smart, and I’m not. I had to look up a lot of words that are in the script. And since Frank is the world’s foremost Proust scholar, I went and actually read some Proust, and also watched a documentary about him. It was definitely a great learning experience."
He also found working with Lapine to be an eye-opening experience, as well. "Most of us met on the first day of rehearsal and we only had a few weeks to become this family," he notes. "So James did something special. Before every rehearsal, he asked every cast member, every understudy, every person in the room what they did the night before, and we would spend 15 minutes just talking about this. And soon, you started to feel like you really know all these people. And by the end of week three, it really brought us together."
Indeed, O’Malley is grateful that Lapine cast him as Frank for numerous reasons. "I think that anytime you have a gay character, and you hire a gay actor to play it, that’s great," he says. "I know there are many straight actors who can play gay characters well, but it’s wonderful when you have someone who is gay and knows inherently what the circumstances are. It’s true that with Frank, his sexuality is a small part of the story. He could be straight and the same things could be happening to him. And I love being part of this show because it reminds us that families come in all shapes and sizes, which is something gay audiences really understand."