Larry O’Keefe Up to Bat: PART II

by Victoria Aschheim

Larry O'Keefe '91, composer and lyricist of Bat Boy: The Musical, corresponded with me earlier this week. This is Part II of our exchange. Bat Boy has its final performance tonight, Dec. 11, at 8pm at the New College Theatre. Read on Event Information and Boston BroadwayWorld. Part I of the O'Keefe Interview

VA: Changes were made in the script and music for the London production to make cultural references more relevant for British audiences. What were the difference made? Would those cultural aspects not have been understood in the USA, were those British changes incorporated into the Harvard version of Bat Boy? For instance wouldn't John, Paul, George, and Ringo have been understood as well or even better by American audiences that Larry, Curly and Moe (references to the 3 Stooges)?

LO: Actually, the British changes were 99% for clarity and improvement, not for translation. There was one line about CPA’s, certified public accountants, which is a term the Brits don’t have, so we changed that; and yes, in London we replaced the reference to Larry, Curly and Moe with the Beatles, but aside from that the changes we made were to get right some things we felt we never quite nailed. Notably the new big Act 2 love duet, "Mine All Mine," which is a huge improvement over the New York version – it’s a better song, better joke and better moment, all because of one tiny adjustment we made, delaying one character’s learning one secret. Huge difference. Aside from that it’s mostly a few lyric tweaks here and there. The book is 99% the same – Keythe and Brian had already done their homework. And now the version we did in London is what we consider the definitive Bat Boy.

What future do you see for Bat Boy beyond Harvard?

After Harvard, what future could it possibly need? I guess Broadway would be nice, as would a movie. But I’m patient. The story does well in its niche and has been more reward than I could ever ask. I’m one of the luckiest people in the history of this college – I get to do basically the same silly messing about on stage that I did in college, and I get paid for it.

It is said that your basic training, as it were, is derived from your Hasty Pudding days. Can you tell us about that training and inspiration?

My freshman and senior years I was in the Pudding show cast, so I got to see how hard it is for actors to do 8 shows a week, for all kinds of audiences, ranging from delighted to drunk to bored to really drunk. My junior and senior years I also wrote the Pudding score, which meant I wrote the tunes and basic accompaniment, but then brilliant professionals (mostly Harvard grads) took my stuff and turned it into polished and competent arrangements. I didn’t have veto power over it, which is good, because I was faaaaaar from mastering my craft, and it was great to have other people show me how and why you time this, or how high or low you pitch that, and how a big band tune from the 30s sounds different from one from the 50s, etc. The Pudding also taught me how a show gets put together and how it gets rewritten under time pressures. It was the most amazing live lab with a real audience of paying customers who instantly told you if your joke was funny or your song was appropriate. It's the best place in the world to learn Broadway show writing now.

Your inspirations have been Sondheim, Bernard Herrmann, Frank Loesser, Kurt Weill, Gilbert and Sullivan, Miklos Rozsa, Led Zeppelin, My Fair Lady, Singin’ in the Rain, the Muppet Show, and others. What inspires you currently?

In The Heights, Glee, Jay-Z, Lady GaGa, Ray Charles, A.R. Rahman (composer for Slumdog Millionaire), Benjamin Britten, Aram Khatchaturian, Jonathan Coulton (the guy who wrote "Code Monkey"), the music of the Marx Brothers movies, Howard Shore’s score for Lord Of The Rings. And while writing Heathers I’m listening to The Police, Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads and the awesome one-hit wonders of the 1980s. But I’m always and every day inspired by my co-writer Nell Benjamin (’93). I met her as an undergrad, we wrote the Pudding show together and now we’re married. We wrote Legally Blonde and Sarah Plain And Tall together and she recently had a huge hit at the Huntington in downtown Boston with her amazing rewrite of Pirates Of Penzance. It’s the same story but everything’s different, faster and funnier. She’s without question the best in the world at what she does. I can’t wait to write more with her.

Lyricist and composer, Larry O'Keefe '91, and lyricist, Nell Benjamin '93

Hard economic times did not affect the Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing. Do you think that current economic hardships call out for the relief of new musicals – or one about American politics?

Of Thee I Sing was made possible by the Depression. In 1927, as the economy roared, the Gershwins did an earlier satirical show called Strike Up The Band, which bombed in its initial version. But in 1931, as our government flailed about and failed to halt the slide into economic catastrophe, audiences were more receptive to pointed satire about government flailing. Of course Of The I Sing was an essentially sweet-natured comic gem with a fun love story, so that helped. It was a good balance between tasty sugar coating and healthy pill underneath.

As for the current times, the shows are gonna get done, and people were bound to burst into song on camera again. Musicals vanished after the 60s, and the tiny handful of Grease’s and Fame’s were the exception that proved the unhappy rule. MTV filled the void because they apparently used to show music videos, which for a while helped fed the hunger for song plus visuals. But people want to bust out singing. And hard economic times plus YouTube equals great opportunities. And if the topics are topical, audiences don’t seem to mind, as long as the content contains that uniquely American combination of optimism and smuttiness.

So yes, current economic hardships do indeed call out for relief of new musicals, preferably by me.

What directions do you see for the future of the American musical, from the vantage point of subject matter or musical style?

I’m really gratified every time an original story makes it to Broadway and wins. In the last few years the biggest and best hits have actually been fairly grass-roots shows, not brand names. Of course, Avenue Q trades on Sesame Street, Jersey Boys trades on the song catalog of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Spring Awakening traded on the highbrow association with a 19th-century avant-garde play, and In The Heights trades on a very mainstream Broadway homeyness just as comforting as Oklahoma!, so even the non-branded shows have a brand too; but nonetheless, there’s more interesting and weird stuff around than there was 10 years ago.

The current economic climate makes investing in Broadway shows seem almost foolhardy, so it's hard to say what shows will make it there in the next few years. But the core of committed producers and investors willing to ride out this storm are the diehard theater lovers who are brave enough to try risky or offbeat shows. See below.

What other projects can we look forward to from you?

Heathers. I wasn’t going to do another movie adaptation, but then this one came along, and damn. If you haven’t seen the film, rent it. We just did a big reading out in Los Angeles and it’s going to be pretty frickin’ sweet.