What's New on the Rialto
An Interview with Laurence O'Keefe
by Nancy Rosati
Bat Boy is an offbeat musical comedy based on the tabloid
story of a creature, half boy, half bat, who was found in a cave
in West Virginia. Composer/Lyricist Laurence O'Keefe is in Los
Angeles right now preparing concurrently for his show
3hree, now in production at The Ahmanson Theatre, and his
upcoming wedding. Luckily he found a few minutes to talk with me
about Bat Boy.
Nancy Rosati: How did you get started with this crazy idea for
Laurence O'Keefe: About four years before I met Keythe (Farley) and
Brian (Flemming), the authors, they were in some supermarket and
saw the tabloid Weekly World News, and saw his face - the
actual character. They said, "Oh my God! That's the ugliest thing
I've ever seen. He should sing!" They started making up stories
about him and songs about him. The more they worked on it, the
more viable it became as a story, the less viable they became as
songwriters and they wanted someone who actually did it for a
living. They worked on the script just for fun for a while and it
just got better and better. Then they met me at the Actors' Gang
Theatre, which is the theater out in Los Angeles. Tim Robbins
founded it with a bunch of his contemporaries from UCLA. I had
joined the Actors' Gang and I was working on some shows. I was
Music Director and Composer for a show called Euphoria and
I was in the lobby. Keythe and Brian were working at intermission
and they asked me, "Would you like to work on Bat Boy?" I
said, "What does he look like?" They showed me a picture and I
said, "That's the ugliest thing I've ever seen in my life.
Absolutely!" And so I joined the project and a year later we
opened at the Actors' Gang Theatre.
NR: You've been working on this show for four years?
LO: On and off. Obviously we all have other lives and
other projects. I threw the original score together in about
LO: (laughs) I'll never do that again. We opened
around Halloween of 1997 and I had been working on it for about a
month and a half. Then we worked on it here and there whenever the
muse struck us until finally we sent off a demo and an application
to The Richard Rodgers Awards and we won.
NR: You won several awards for this show, didn't you?
LO: Well, yeah. There are two theater awards in L.A. There's the Ovation
Awards, which is the closest thing we have to The Tonys. We won an
Ovation or two. We also won the L.A. Weekly Award for Best Musical
... that's sort of
like the Obie's I guess. We won some other awards too so we knew
we wanted to keep going with it. We kept refining it and we did
some other drafts. We did submit and we won a Richard Rodgers
Award and that paid for the reading at The Directors Company.
NR: How different is it from the original concept?
LO: The way I like to think of it is that it's become
more and more like itself. Although there are a lot of new tunes
and there are a lot of new lyrics, just about every tune you hear
in the show is based on something that was already in front of the
audience in 1997. It's not that I'm recycling stuff, it's that a
lot of things have grown organically from the original. As far as
the story goes, it's the same story. Bat Boy begins and
ends in the same way and he has the same journey. Some of the
other characters have a slightly different arc in getting to the
same point. It's grown but there hasn't been any radical
NR: Did you always intend to have all the little
parodies of different musicals?
LO: Yes. Really, we were going after the big parodies
and letting the details work themselves out. For example, that
song with the animals having sex, called "Children, Children"
predates The Lion King.
LO: Yeah. Well, rather, it predates my seeing The
Lion King anyway. I didn't see The Lion King on
Broadway until around Christmas of 97 if memory serves. So, the
parody there was just that sort of "Utopian hippie musical thing"
in general. There were parodies of Godspell in there and of
The Lion King movie, and of The Little Mermaid. Then
when we undertook to do the production in New York, we also had
The Lion King to draw upon and the actors came up with some
brilliant stuff like the gorilla and the giraffe. In general, the
specific parodies ... I would say that at any particular moment
where you saw a parody of one particular thing, there is someone
else in the audience who saw it parodying something else. We were
trying to be more universal. Instead of deliberately trying to do
a parody of The Lion King, we were trying to do parody of
several different types of Utopian pastoral numbers.
NR: OK, although it was pretty hard to miss My
LO: My Fair Lady? Yes, that's kind of hard to
miss. That is also a song from the very first show. The songs that
have survived, pretty much intact from the very beginning are the
opening number and the closing number - that "Hold Me Bat Boy"
NR: I read a quote from you. You were talking about
that song and you said, "Those lyrics have survived for four years
... because they're just so stupid."
LO: That's right.
NR: (laughing) Do you want to explain that?
LO: (laughing) Well, any kind of musical at all, any
time you're going to have a bunch of people sit in an audience and
pretend that they're watching real people, who just happen to
burst into song - there's a level of stupidity that is accepted,
like having a certain level of arsenic in your drinking water and
just shrugging and saying, "OK. That's the way it's going to be."
NR: Do you approach all shows that way, or just this
LO: I don't approach all shows in order to accentuate
the dumb. Sometimes you have to disguise it or make it more
palatable. I have a show right now which I'm working on. It's
going up in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre. That's Hal
Prince's show called 3hree. I do the music for one of
those shows. That show has cute animals in it too by the way. It's
called The Mice and it's about an adulterous exterminator
in Minnesota in the 1940s. What he does is kind of dumb, but it's
also kind of ingenious as well. Shall I explain what he does, or
will that give it away?
NR: It's your story. You tell me if you'll give it
LO: I won't give all of it away. I'll just give you
the setup. His name is Alan and his next door neighbor is named
Virga. She's the tailor's wife and he's the exterminator. They
both have horrible spouses. There's a mice problem in town. Alan
goes to people's houses and says, "You have a mice problem. Get
out of your house for exactly three hours while I poison the
place. You can't stay. You've got to go." The neighbor says OK and
gets out of the house. Instead of poisoning the place, Alan puts a
flower in his lapel, he takes off his overalls and he has a suit
on underneath. He sits down in someone else's chair and reads his
paper. Then Virga, his neighbor, comes in and they have an affair.
Virga is the one raising the mice. She's the one releasing them in
neighbor's homes so that they can carry on an affair all over
NR: That doesn't give the rest of the plot away?
LO: No, it doesn't. I don't think the surprise is
entirely the point. But again, that's kind of stupid, but it's
also kind of ingenious. Do you know what I mean? If only my
behavior in real life were as ingenious as that. That is I think part of what the whole fun of musical
theater is - try to be no more stupid than real life, while
hopefully being more ingenious. In the case of Bat Boy, I
think Bat Boy poses that people can be really, really
NR: (laughing) Yeah, that was one of the themes I
came away with.
LO: The main theme of the show, that we were trying
to espouse, or at least pretend we were espousing, or fool people
into believing we were espousing, was "Don't deny your beast
inside." That's the last line of the show. The theme of the show
might just as well be "All human effort is futile. People are
NR: It sounds as if you're picking up a little bit of
a cult following.
LO: Yeah, it's kind of great because they sell the
$20 rush tickets and the best sign of all is that the people who
are standing in line to buy the $20 rush tickets are very heavily
NR: That's the best sign?
LO: That's a very good sign.
NR: And why would that be?
LO: They're not your average theater audience, which
means that when the theater audiences go to try to get the $20
rush tickets, they're already taken. They have to buy tickets on
top of the tickets being bought by the heavily pierced people.
(laughs) I think that bodes well. It sort of seems to have an
ecumenical appeal. Your standard New York theater-going audience
seems to like it, as well as your heartless club kids who like to
NR: And a lot of those people have an Internet
connection and they're posting about it.
LO: Yes, I've seen some very strange postings. I
think Bat Boy's had three marriage proposals and some death
threats, and offers of plastic surgery.
NR: I know you went to Harvard, and I believe you
went originally to be an actor?
LO: I went to Harvard to study Anthropology,
understanding that I might wind up an actor if I wasn't too
careful and if I didn't work too hard. I thought I might be an
actor but I was also writing music already so that sort of won
out. At the very last moment, a few weeks before graduation, a
producer who saw me audition said, "That was fine. By the way, can
you stay because we lost our rehearsal pianist? Can you play for
the auditions?" I was terrified but I did it. Three hours later he
handed me a couple hundred dollars and said, "If you have any
other job skills besides acting, don't be an actor."
NR: Then you started doing the Hasty Pudding shows?
LO: That's really where I learned to do what I do.
NR: Tell me about that.
LO: The Hasty Pudding Show is the nation's oldest
theatrical organization. Maybe there are earlier ones that have
survived but it's still going after 150 years. It's an annual
transvestite musical, performed by and written by undergrads every
year. It's an original show. It's very strange. All the names are
puns, all the plots are ridiculous. I was in it a couple of times,
wearing a dress. I decided to get out of that. My first show that
I wrote was a very strange show. It was kind of a watershed and
it's still remembered fondly by many, not just dumb people like
me. It was about a bunch of groovy people from the 1970s who
travel back in time to the Victorian era of the 1870s in order to
recover a lost inheritance that they can bring back to the present
to save their pad from a developer's bulldozer. It's called
Suede Expectations. It was very strange and the whole thing
about the Hasty Pudding Show is that while it's kind of a parody
of musicals, it also employs all the cliches. It's got the big
opening number, it's got the torch song late in Act 2, it's got
the love duet somewhere in Act 1 and another love duet somewhere
in Act 2, and it's got a kickline at the end. It follows all the
tried and true formulas of musical theater but it also makes fun
of them at the same time. It's an amazing education of the building blocks of musical theater.
NR: So it wasn't much of a stretch to get to Bat
Boy from that.
LO: You're in one Pudding Show, you're in them all.
Yes, there's definitely a bit of a Pudding show in the musical
approach to this show. There is however in Bat Boy a much
more serious throughline in that the show's about one person. People have said is that it's "as though someone
has set out to write King Lear and really, really failed." It is
as though some author set out to write a morality play with a real
plot and real characters that will make you weep when they die or
fail, but instead of making you weep they just make you laugh
NR: Some of the songs are absolutely beautiful and
they sound really serious, but then all of a sudden a line comes
out of there that you don't expect.
LO: Yeah. Audiences are so far ahead of musicals in
general. They just know how this is supposed to go and you've got
to keep foiling them or else they won't remain entertained. If
you've heard verse one and chorus one of a love song and nothing
changes, and nothing surprises you, your song is over.
NR: I would basically hear a line and think, "Wait a
minute. Did he just say that?"
LO: (laughs) Yeah. That was sort of our goal - to set
up some sort of recognizable musical comedy moment or musical
theater cliche like "the beautiful moment," or "the loving
moment," or "the tragic moment," and then just ruin it.
NR: I have a quote from you that you're "going to
single-handedly revive the movie musical."
LO: That's me.
NR: Can you tell me a little more about that?
LO: Not quite yet. I'm working on a few things with a
few people that will do it. It's funny because musicals actually
take longer to do for the stage than they do for the movies.
NR: Why is that?
LO: It's usually about the money that putting a
project together can demand. Theater budgets command a certain
amount of money and you've got to watch your pennies very, very
carefully. That means it's very hard to pay for anything less than
a production. A producer will think, "Why should I sink my money
into this workshop or this reading? I'm not going to see a dime
yet." It's hard to get people motivated. And musicals belong to
the authors. Movies and movie musicals belong to the producers.
They are the ones who own the copyright and they have the creative
final say. They can fire writers and hire more writers. They can
rush the thing into production.
NR: What do you want to tell people about coming to
see Bat Boy? What should they expect?
LO: It will change your life - probably for the
NR: (laughing) And why is that?
LO: (laughing) Oh ... I just liked the sound of it. It
is a musical for people who hate musicals. It's mostly a musical
for people who hate each other. I also think that it's as serious,
or as dumb, or as silly as you want to make it because we tried
very hard not to wink at the audience. These characters don't know
they're funny or ridiculous and so inside the ridiculousness,
there is a plot that I think hangs together kind of nicely. If you
want to think that it has resonance on other levels besides the
parody stuff, well good. You'll enjoy it I guess. It's every bit
as serious or as silly as you want it to be and it's nice to have
that option, because I've seen a lot of comedies that don't give
you that choice. I know the winking creeps into this show. We're
just trying to eradicate it every time it appears.
NR: Well, good luck with all of the awards.
LO: Thank you so much.
Bat Boy is currently playing at The Union Square Theatre.
Performances are Tues-Fri at 8:00 pm, Sat at 3:00 and 8:00, and
Sun at 3:00 and 7:30. For more information, visit the Bat Boy Official
Website. Bat Boy has been nominated for the Outer
Critics Circle Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical Award and for the
Drama League Distinguished Production of a Musical Award.
-- Nancy Rosati
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