Composer Laurence O'Keefe talks about the creation of the Off-Broadway cult hit Bat Boy The Musical.
Thus began the saga of Bat Boy The Musical, according to the recollection of the show's composer and lyricist, Laurence O'Keefe. Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming wrote the bitingly funny script for this show, though it was their attempt to write their own musical odes to the bat child that started the whole thing. "They started writing songs about the Bat Boy," says O'Keefe, "and then they realized, 'Maybe the person writing the songs should be a songwriter, and we should stick to the book.'" That's when they brought O'Keefe on board to write the music and lyrics.
Based on that infamous Weekly World News story, Bat Boy is about the discovery of a half-human, half bat creature deep in a West Virginia cave near the little town of Hope Falls. The Parker family takes the Bat Boy under their wing; but, soon, all hell breaks loose as jealousy, betrayal, murder, and plenty of other bizarre-yet-hilarious happenings turn the town upside down.
Less than a month after its opening, Bat Boy has already become a hit, steadily gaining a cult of loyal fans. This plus all of the positive reaction to his work in the musical 3hree has gained for Laurence O'Keefe a place in the ever-growing ranks of the new generation of talented writers for the musical theater. A graduate of Harvard, where he got to test his songwriting abilities in helping to concoct a Hasty Pudding show, O'Keefe originally wanted to be an actor before deciding to pursue music. He studied Film Scoring at USC, going on to write music for a number of low-budget features and working at a theater in Hollywood called the Actor's Gang, where he met Flemming and Farley.
Bat Boy debuted at the Actor's Gang around Halloween in 1997. The show made quite a splash, but its creators felt there was more to work to do. "We decided to keep at it," says O'Keefe. "We won the Richard Rodgers Award in early '99, which paid for some workshops. We won it again in 2000 and that paid for another workshop. Then investors came on board, producers came on board, and now we're here."
During the workshopping process, the show changed and grew. "I would say half the material is new," O'Keefe estimates. "Or, more appropriately, half the material has evolved. Just about every note you hear on stage is based on something that was in the L.A. version, but it's different--new notes, new developments. The opening number ["Hold Me, Bat Boy"] was the first piece of music written for the show; I thought of the song as being this kind of a Bacchanalian celebration of him, or like a James Bond opening theme. There are a couple of songs in the show now that didn't exist before. That ballad "A Home for You," which Meredith sings to the creature in the cage, didn't exist in '97, but now it's kind of become the emotional centerpiece of the show."
O'Keefe points out that the unique style of Bat Boy was born out of a method used at the Actor's Gang. "They teach a very interesting, 400-year old commedia del arte method," O'Keefe explains. "It's stolen from this French guru named Georges Bigot and it's very presentational, based on standing up and letting these volcanic emotions come out of you at an incredibly high volume but with an incredibly high level of sincerity and truth. The characters in Bat Boy don't know they're funny. That's the difference between a tragic and a comic figure: a tragic figure knows that he's tragic, and a figure of fun never does. So we're kind of both, I guess.
"The structure of the show is very much like a good, old-fashioned adventure movie or a Billy Wilder movie," says O'Keefe, describing the approach taken by Bat Boy's creators. "Keythe and Brian started out with a few concepts. One is that Bat Boy, or the topic of Bat Boy, should be onstage at all times. Even when he's not there, the show is about him: Will he survive, will he do okay? The other thing is that everything must have cause and effect. The plot is a series of escalating reversals." And how did O'Keefe go about his own task of writing the score? "The songs have to move the plot forward," he says. "If you get through verse one of a song and you get through the chorus of a song and something has not yet changed in the plot, your song is over; it's time to move on. That's why we have some fragmented songs in the show. And you'll notice that, the longer the song, the more likely there are to be weird plot events in it."
The creative team has been fortunate enough to have some of the show's key players along for the entire ride. Deven May, the talented young actor who embodies the Bat Boy as he goes from a frightened creature to a lovable young man, created the role. Likewise Kaitlin Hopkins, who co-stars as Meredith Parker, the woman who educates the boy and helps him to assimilate. "They've been with us since day one," says O'Keefe, "so they've had some time to inhabit the characters."
And what of the "real" Bat Boy? The show's creative team had to license the "likeness" of the creature for use in the show. Though O'Keefe is doubtful that the Weekly World News has ever photographed the real thing, he says: "Of course the Bat Boy is real! He's being held right now in an FBI facility in Cuantico, Virginia. He's being studied and poked and prodded." Though O'Keefe hasn't had a chance to meet him yet, he and the other people behind Bat Boy have taken up his cause. "Some of our proceeds are going to go to this sort of shady group that has promised to spring him by any means necessary, " says the songwriter. "I'm not asking a lot of questions."
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Bat Boy The Musical is that it treads such a fine line between horror and hilarity, fact and fiction. O'Keefe thinks that, ultimately, the viewer must decide how to take the show. "One person might see the show and decide, 'This is the biggest parody of a musical I've ever seen.' And another one might say, 'This is serious.' We kind of envision this show as Al Gore: It's so sincere, so well-meaning, and so solemn, that your initial response is loud, mocking laughter. But then you might go home and say grudgingly, 'Well, the guy's got a point.'"
Does Bat Boy have a point? "For the purposes of writing the show," O'Keefe explains, "we imagined, for example, that some writer set out to write King Lear and failed resoundingly. And so we decided that the moral or the theme of the show would be the last line, which is 'Don't deny your beast inside.' In addition to being sort of delightfully ungrammatical, that line is really silly; but, if you choose to take it seriously, you can. The point is, don't try to repress or suppress the animal or bestial or violent or sexual urges within you, or else they will erupt in ways that you least expect or want them to."
Whether or not Bat Boy should be taken seriously, Laurence O'Keefe deserves to be--even if his work is sometimes a little...quirky. When I point out that his two most recent projects, The Mice (from 3hree) and Bat Boy, are both darkly funny and that both involve rodents, he says: "The fact that one show has a lot of mice and the other has a lot of bats should not be construed as a pattern of any sort. I am interested in other types of musicals, with much more evolved kinds of animals."
In fact, he's currently involved in several new projects, including the score for the upcoming movie MacArthur Park, directed by Brian Flemming. "I'm also working on some stuff of my own," O'Keefe says, going on to proclaim that "I'm going to single-handedly revive the movie musical." That's all he can say for now; but, in the meantime, he urges everyone to head down to the Union Square Theatre and see his current show.