“Miss you like hell”— I’d never heard that expression before seeing the workshop version of this La Jolla Playhouse-commissioned play in February. Now, thanks to Google, I find it’s been used in several recent songs and a long-ago letter from Edna St. Vincent Millay.
In fact, the Millay quote — “Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world. ... I miss you like hell” — is what inspired playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes to choose it for the title of her world-premiere musical, opening Oct. 25 at the Playhouse.
“I was putting together a list of what I thought Olivia’s favorite books might be, and that quote just jumped out at me,” Hudes said. “I thought: That’s how Olivia would feel about life and her mother.”
Olivia (played by Krystina Alabado, seen on Broadway this year in “American Psycho”) is the teenage daughter of Beatriz, a free-spirited, mostly-absent mom played by two-time Tony Award winner Daphne Rubin-Vega, who starred in the workshop version.
What’s the story of “Miss You Like Hell”? The Playhouse calls it “a soaring new musical about family, country and finding your way home.” Here’s the playwright’s description: “It’s about an estranged mother and daughter who go through the full arc of a mother-daughter relationship in seven days.”
They’re on a road trip — not something you often see female characters doing, unless, as Hudes noted, they’re raped and/or about to be killed.
“The American Road is basically the sole province of men who leave behind their responsibilities and head for the open road,” Hudes said. “I wish women were afforded the same heroic possibility of freedom and discovery, the opportunity to explore the American landscape and not end up as victims.”
She gives Beatriz and Olivia a chance to do just that. “They’re not role models; they’re both flawed people, but they’re still at the center of the story. Women can be anti-heroes, too, without being devils,” she said.
A number of Hudes’ plays were based on members of her family, but this one is not biographical, although Hudes may someday write about her own unconventional mother, a practitioner of Puerto Rican Santeria, Quaker activism and Tibetan healing.
“She’s a very spiritual person, and I’m very intellectual,” Hudes said. “The things she espouses don’t come naturally to me, though they do enrich my life, and I’ve added some of our spiritual sparring to the play.”
In rehearsal since mid-September, the play has been going through changes, and now has several new songs and scenes. But Daphne Rubin-Vega is still there, as are three other actors from the workshop cast, and multi-award-winning director Lear deBessonet continues at the helm, with choreographer Danny Mefford — the one male on the creative team.
“Miss You Like Hell” began life as an adaptation of Hudes’ 2009 play, “26 Miles.”
“I wanted to do a musical version, so I went looking for a composer, someone with a wide grasp of what it means to be an American today,” Hudes said. “I asked friends for suggestions, and that’s how I discovered Erin McKeown, and started to woo her, five years ago.”
Since McKeown lives in western Massachusetts and Hudes in NYC’s Washington Heights, much of their work was done over Skype. The two are co-lyricists, and maintain a very open collaboration, with book-writer Hudes, who studied music composition at Yale, sometimes contributing a musical line, and McKeown sometimes contributing to a character’s speech.
A big part of the collaboration is Daphne Rubin-Vega, whose credits include Tony-winning performances in “Rent” and “Anna in the Tropics,” the 2000 Broadway revival of “The Rocky Horror Show,” and a leading role in Hudes’ recent off-Broadway play, “Daphne’s Dive.”
“She’s a very special person and performer,” Hudes said. “Erin comes from the rock- and-roll world, so we needed a seasoned theater professional who could do rock and roll, and when Daphne’s name came up, that was it. Her voice in Erin’s score is just thrilling, and she’s one of the top stage actresses today.”
IF YOU GO: “Miss You Like Hell,” is on stage Oct. 25-Dec. 4 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre. Tickets: $25 and up. (858) 550-1010, lajollaplayhouse.org