BACK STAGE WEST
October 30, 1997
Composer/lyricist Laurence O'Keefe makes the strangest things sing.
by Rob Kendt
Laurence O'Keefe was an actor until a few weeks before his graduation from Harvard in 1991, when he reported for a musical theatre audition to which the accompanist had failed to show. An accomplished musician himself, he was asked to sit in--and had his eyes opened to the audition process.
As he saw his peers parade through a few bars at a time, O'Keefe realized, as he recalled in a recent interview, "The other side of the table is the damn place to be." And he was further nudged by the casting people that day, who told him, "You did fine with the audition, but if you can do something else well, do it."
Since then O'Keefe has been doing something else altogether, and extremely well: crafting sparklingly witty and apt musical comedy songs and scores, both on demand and at his own initiative. A student at the Berklee School of Music and a graduate of USC's School of Music, O'Keefe is perhaps best known to Los Angeles audiences as the composer/lyricist for a number of Actors' Gang extravaganzas, including The Imaginary Invalid and Euphoria. O'Keefe also served as over-achieving musical director on one of this year's Ovation nominees for best musical, the Colony Studio Theatre's Putting It Together, as well as on the Colony's ambitious City of Angels.
Next up for O'Keefe is a new Gang-related show, Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming's long-incubating Bat Boy: The Musical, which opens this weekend in a "test run" at the Actors' Gang's small second stage. Based on the infamous tabloid monster created/discovered by the outrageous supermarket-aisle staple The Weekly World News, Farley and Flemming's show developed over years, as the pair spun several songs and show concepts out of their fascination with the News' fanciful stories of a bug-eating hybrid of bat and human child reportedly found in a Florida cave.
After several drafts of a script, Farley and Flemming realized that they had a good story that deserved a real musical theatre treatment.
"We considered the story we'd developed so good, we didn't want to do it with our music," said Flemming. "We said, 'This story is better than our music.' "
So Bat Boy hung in the dark for a while until Farley and Flemming saw Euphoria, Tracy Young and the Actors' Gang's magical mystery tour of drugs through history, for which O'Keefe composed a rousing anthem about hemp, a panoramic Charleston about Prohibition, jaunty ditties about alcoholism, trippy acid romps, and an amazingly heartfelt last-act torch song. (He won an L.A. Weekly award for his score and is nominated for an Ovation award for the show's sound design.)
"We were blown away," said Flemming. In O'Keefe--who learned the art of musical theatre largely by osmosis, study, and a few runs writing and performing in Harvard's notorious drag revue, the Hasty Pudding Theatricals--they'd found a showtune savant with an almost frightening command of the musical theatre medium.
In a recent interview at a Beverly Hills apartment where he does a lot of his work on an antique console piano, O'Keefe held court on the state of his art, restlessly pacing to make a point, sitting at the piano to demonstrate another or to show off some brilliant new songs from Bat Boy.
"The Hasty Pudding Theatricals is a 150-year-old drag show, and in 150 years they've distilled the essential building blocks of musical theatre--of theatre, really," O'Keefe explained. "There are always 16 male actors; 10 or 11 songs per show; no more than three in the second act, or it gets too long, and the last number is a torch song--then a kick line, of course. There's a reason for that structure. It's not just the 'way it works,' it's the way it is.
"This knowledge was handed to me on a plate, so there's no guesswork. There's this assembly line that does not at all take out originality--it just gets the structure out of the way so you can make your art. So many artists today don't have that, and they learn through trial and error."
The motto of the parodic, endlessly recycling Hasty Pudding shows, O'Keefe said, is "just steal," and that extends not only to snatches of melody but to harmonies and structures, as well. He demonstrated by playing a song he wrote for a Hasty Pudding show with a wandering motivic melody that suggested "Someone Is Waiting," while the bass was subtly vamping the bridge of "Every Day a Little Death."
Clearly, this songsmith knows his Sondheim.
"I love Sondheim's structure, his thinking, the way he works," said O'Keefe. Indeed, O'Keefe's thinking about the medium is remarkably akin to that of Sondheim, who has often explained that writing for musical theatre is primarily a craft with a set of practical tools which can be learned, studied, dissected. The art is what you do with them.
For instance, O'Keefe compared his lyrics for one song, and the way they use repetition in different contexts, to "modular Swedish furniture." And he showed how Sondheim uses a burst of five syllables, leading up to a downbeat on the fifth, to mimic human speech, and how Ashman and Menken appropriated the trick for the entire song "Beauty and the Beast."
"Really, there's a process, there's a skill," said O'Keefe. "So many people distrust it, and say, 'Oh, it's a musical.' They don't take it seriously."
Obviously, the quality of O'Keefe's seriousness has to be put in context: an apple tree singing "Eat me" or a penis singing to its owner as he trips on LSD (Euphoria), or the musical scene in Bat Boy in which a veterinarian's wife instructs a bug-eating freak in the fine points of geography, are not meant to be taken straight--just delivered that way.
"If the underlying material is ridiculous or weird, and you trust the material and write a straight-faced song, it will come out weird," said O'Keefe. "You write logically from what these people are thinking what they would sing."
That's at least in part why he relishes working with the serious theatrical pranksters of the Gang, whose high-energy lunacy is always rooted in character and conflict, which he values more than mellifluous voices and showbiz dazzle.
"It can be so infuriating to give a song to a trained musical theatre singer and only get a vocal line, and just hope that some time before the show opens you'll hear the words in there," he lamented. "With the Gang, no matter what actors I give a song to, they always get the phrasing right from the start; they're people who understand character and have the right priorities."
Bat Boy came to O'Keefe with a similar pedigree: "This is a project where the characters are there--Keythe and Brian have done the work."
Now O'Keefe's task is to make his work dovetail with the authors' to create something more than simply a text.
"Musical theatre audiences no longer accept that people just open their mouths and sing; you have to create a world where that can happen, with rules that comfort the audience," he said. "Look at Sweeney Todd, or Sunday in the Park With George, or City of Angels. We hope to create our own world where you accept that this boy is a bat who sings."
O'Keefe has made stranger things sing before. At his best, his songs are indeed worlds unto themselves.