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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 a show?

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 month.

NR:  Wow!

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 departure.

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.

NR:  Really?

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 Fair Lady.

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" nonsense. (laughs).

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 one?

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 away.

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 town.

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 stupid indeed.

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 dumb."

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 pierced.

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 see blood.

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 really loud.

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 worse.

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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