Larry O'Keefe Up to Bat: PART I

by Victoria Aschheim

Editor's note: This is Part I of an interview with Larry O'Keefe '91, who wrote music and lyrics for BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL, playing through Dec. 11 at the New College Theatre. Join us here tomorrow to read PART II.

Having first met Larry O’Keefe when I was brand new to Harvard in the Freshman Arts Program and he was the Program’s visiting artist in music, winsomely teaching us words and harmony, it was a joy for me to correspond with him and present to you the special insights of the talented composer and lyricist Larry O’Keefe ’91. It is particularly exciting for Harvard to have someone like Larry O’Keefe, who is a distinguished practitioner in the arts, come back to us to share the secrets of his success and represent, on the international stage, the Harvard arts community, evermore radiant in its reach.

VA: You have written the score for Bat Boy, which ran off-Broadway from March 3 to December 2, 2001, and was also performed in London, South Korea, Japan, and at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival. It received acclaim and awards for its outstanding music and lyrics, including the Lucille Lortel Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for the Best Off-Broadway musical. Would you give us some background about your work with Bat Boy and your inspiration for the prize-winning music and lyrics?

LO: Bat Boy was first discovered by the Weekly World News, the black and white supermarket tabloid known for hard-hitting journalistic scoops like "Loch Ness Monster Spotted On White House Lawn" and "Was Jesus A Woman?". Bat Boy, a half-human, half bat mutant freak discovered in the caves of West Virginia, was the WWN’s most popular character. Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, two writers in Los Angeles, discovered him and fell in love with him. After a few years writing silly songs and stories about him, they realized they had a deeper calling: to alert the world to the wrenching pathos and epic heroism of this little freak. For this they needed real show tunes.

I met Keythe and Brian in the lobby of the Actors’ Gang Theater where I was composer and music director for Euphoria. They showed me a picture of this howling infant with huge eyes, fangs and pointy ears, and said, "We just acquired the rights to him. Wanna write a musical?" I said "That is the ugliest thing I have ever seen. ...Absolutely."

So we wrote and produced the first draft of Bat Boy at the Gang, where it was a huge hit and totally sold out our, well, 49-seat theater. We then applied for grants and awards. Out of nowhere we won the American Academy of Arts + Letters’ Richard Rodgers Award, which paid for a reading in New York, which attracted producers, who then paid for some more readings, then raised the money for the Off-Broadway show.

The inspiration for the content was in the original picture. Some guy took the picture of a laughing baby and Photoshopped it into grotesquerie. That hybrid of human and monster was the root of all of it. Keythe and Brian and I dreamed up an origin myth for Bat Boy completely different from the original WWN stories, all based on that feeling of being trapped between two species, both man and beast yet neither.

The tone came from our various backgrounds. From the Hasty Pudding I had learned how to be funny, or at least facetious, within songs. From the Lampoon I had learned that if a joke goes too far you have to use that joke. The Actors Gang taught us their particular brand of hyperkinetic, non-naturalistic commedia del’arte theater. And Keythe, Brian and I each firmly believe the show is really the story of our own difficult childhoods, so there’s a lot of epic self-pity.

Also today:

Larry O'Keefe and Keythe Farley Talk Bat Boy

Where: The NCT 3rd Floor Studio

When: Thursday 4pm

Who: All Harvard Students

Come talk with the composer/lyricist and the co-author of Bat Boy: The Musical now playing in the New College Theatre. Larry, Harvard alum '91, will be discussing his current and future projects and how it all started. He'll then open the workshop open to student composers and performers to receive feedback from him. Keythe Farley, award-winning director, actor, writer, voice-over artist and member of the famed Actors' Gang in Los Angeles, will be there to talk about his experience with Bat Boy and what he's working on next!

Larry and Keythe will then be attending the 8pm performance of Bat Boy. Come watch the show with the men who wrote it!

Are you involved in the forthcoming film of Bat Boy, and will this require amendment to the lyrics or the creation of more music and lyrics?

When the film happens it will be our screenplay and our score, based on the stage play but certainly adapted to fit a world of camera moves, closeups, and special effects. We will definitely be cutting some things, altering others, even writing new songs as needed – that’s the way it works. We are talking to several companies now, all of whom are excited about a show that combines the youthful cheer of Twlight with the bloody carnage of High School Musical.

How do you view the relatively short off-Broadway runs of such productions as Bat Boy?

Off-Broadway shows open and close in a heartbeat. The economics no longer work. The only shows that run long Off-Broadway, besides special events like Stomp, are microbudget shows with tiny casts. Even shows like Spring Awakening and In The Heights, which started Off-Broadway and made it to Broadway, were losing money Off-Broadway, but those shows had producers with the vision to take the short-term loss and stick with the show until it could reach the larger theaters that sell the expensive tickets.

Bat Boy was one of the biggest, and last, musicals that dared an open-ended run Off-Broadway without expressly planning for Broadway. At the time we debated whether Broadway was our goal, because the material was considered really out there – this was before Urinetown, Avenue Q and Spring Awakening helped make offbeat and rude material popular with the Times Square crowd. Nonetheless in the summer of 2001 as we built an audience we began to contemplate making a move. But 9/11 helped end that discussion. We held on as long as we could and then closed after 9 months, a healthy run for any Off-Broadway show. Since then we’ve also been talking to theater producers who now see that it's worth a shot to bring Bat Boy back and complete the journey to Broadway.

Is there any thematic connection to Phantom of the Opera in the idea of a social outcast finding love?

Phantom was not nearly as big an influence as Sweeney Todd, Little Shop Of Horrors, Tenacious D, Carmina Burana, The Matrix, Guys And Dolls, and Queen’s A Night At The Opera. For the theme of a social outcast searching for love we needed look no further than our own high school years.

The plot deals with superstitions, the supernatural, and the fears people have of outsiders, of stories of cave monsters in mining towns. How do you view the storyline in connection with American culture?

Our primary obsessions were scapegoating, where a community in trouble targets on individuals who are weaker, stronger, or just different. It always spikes in communities under stress, as we saw across the country after 9/11 and more recently with the recession – so the topic will always be relevant in America. Keythe and Brian did amazing research on scapegoating, so the story has always had some very truthful serious ideas woven in with the lunacy.

The book of Bat Boy deals with important matters such as racism, forgiveness, and acceptance. What do you think is the most important message of Bat Boy?

"Don’t deny your beast inside." I wrote that lyric, the last line of the show, as kind of a joke, trying to sound mock-solemn and ungrammatical. But then we realized, hey, what if we acted like we took that idea seriously? We then went back and sure enough, all our characters each grapple with some deep, volcanic drive, or compulsion, or monster, that they fear and want to suppress. Even the town has to fight its own urge to demonize and attack and act crazy like. But only the characters who admit their inner rage, or fear, or obsession, have relatively happy endings.

There’s another message of Bat Boy, one I've tried to learn at least. Which is: even if it’s silly, your work, or your show, should stand for something, advocate something. Keythe, Brian and I set out to have goofy satirical fun but wound up preferring honesty and truthful emotions and ideas. We even set out to make fun of musicals and found that the show plays better when the characters don’t know they’re funny – the more life or death the stakes are for them, the more the audience will enter the world and feel real emotions, both funny and serious. When the show opened in New York, with a production that added a lot of parody elements, people thought the show was a parody of musicals. It's not. BBTM doesn’t reference other shows; it does reference and subvert a lot of the larger tropes of theater and of storytelling, things like the Hero’s Journey, the Doomed Lovers, the Dark Secret, the Unavoidable Fate. But we’re not throwing in a deliberate reference to West Side Story like, say, Urinetown, which wears its parodies proudly. We don’t do that, but I have great respect for Urinetown it’s a great show which, by the way, has a great and serious message underneath. I think that out of all the art forms it’s musical theater, which simulates a 3D living experience, that seems to benefit and thrive best when pushing a message or agenda, whether it’s West Side Story (love thy neighbor or die) or Guys And Dolls (to really love someone you have to give up some of your selfish pastimes) or Avenue Q (the only way we’ll survive the cold hard grey world is by banding together with our neighbors and building our own "Sesame Street").

In some productions of Bat Boy the cast was enlarged. What is the cast like in the Harvard production? How does the Harvard production compare to the off-Broadway and other productions? How has it been to collaborate with the Harvard cast?

I believe the cast is more than 14, whereas in NY it was 10. In London it was 13. It can certainly be done for 100 if you like. As for comparing productions, I don't know, because as I’m answering this I haven't seen the Harvard version yet – I’m seeing it today and I couldn’t be more excited. I know it will be fantastic though, because Harvard students always attack theater so ferociously, with head and heart at the same time. I had the honor of sitting in on some rehearsals last month and answering questions. I transposed a few songs down a half step, maybe took another one up a step, trying to tailor the stuff to what the students like doing. I write some hard, arbitrary stuff, and anything I can do to make it less grueling on the singers is a good idea. But this cast would be phenomenal even if I hadn’t ever visited.

WATCH TOMORROW FOR PART II OF "LARRY O'KEEFE UP TO BAT."

Bat Boy: The Musical with music and lyrics by Larry O’Keefe, will run 8 p.m. through Friday, December 11 at the New College Theatre. Click here and here for more information.