Picture the scene…it’s June 2018. After another wild performance of Heathers, the Other Palace is buzzing as usual. Among them, of course, the brains behind the production: Andy Fickman, Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe. I spotted Laurence/Larry in the crowd and genuinely couldn’t bring myself to leave the building without saying hello.
For those who may not know, Larry is not only 1/3 of the brains behind Heathers but he also wrote the musicals Bat Boy and Legally Blonde.
Skip ahead to early August; just after Heathers has closed at The Other Palace. I still can’t quite believe this happened, but there I was, chatting to Laurence O’Keefe about music, lyrics, comedy, ARISTOTLE…and it was marvellous.
So, here is just a snippet of the wonderful conversation I had with Larry. He was so generous with his time despite just a short trip back in London and I can’t thank him enough for agreeing to meet with me. Beyond what’s written here, we discussed the wonders of Gilbert & Sullivan, Bat Boy and why Larry believes “I Will Survive” is the greatest song ever written (trust me – he makes a very convincing case.) He also shared so many musical gems and techniques that quite frankly, I’m not ready to share until I’ve used them myself..!
You went to Harvard University and then went on to study at Berklee College of Music and the University of Southern California. What was that like?
Berklee is a great school – very unique. In a way it’s, and I mean this in an incredibly complimentary way, it’s a trade school; where you learn hands-on music, so you can work immediately as soon as you get out. There are music departments in many brilliant universities that think about it as a theory, and think about it as a topic to be looked at and explore, as opposed to be practised. So Berklee is the antithesis of that and it was wonderful.
I went there knowing that I needed to fill in gaps in my musical knowledge if I wanted to go to USC, which is the film scoring grad school where you get your Masters. It’s one of the only times in my life where I thought “Oh, I have a cool multi-year plan!” and it was the smartest thing I ever did.
As I spent the year there, I became increasingly aware that film scoring was not something I was naturally drawn to. I thought I was, because I love film music, but you realise that film music is in the back, while the film is in the front. One of our teachers said that film music is designed to be felt, not heard. And that if you’re doing your job right, they will not notice the melody until it comes out on CD. We got a real world education in what happens to your music. The art of film music is incredible and the practitioners are brilliant, but I found myself drawn to theatre.
Do you think the music you listened to growing up has influenced your work?
Oh yes. I’m ashamed to admit it, almost. I think the first albums that I owned as a kid were Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and My Fair Lady, Elton John’s Greatest Hits, I got into Billy Joel very early. My brother had a lot of Pink Floyd and Led Zepplin which I listened to. As a teen I got into The Police, Sting, then later in High School lots of musicals. I was in Godspell, Pippin… I think the musicals I saw as a kid were certainly a major influence but I didn’t necessarily know that’s what I would do for a living, and I don’t think it was my primary form of musical entertainment. I also did a lot of community theatre. A wise teacher once said “all theatre is community theatre”, it’s only the big fancy ones that have forgotten that.
On any given song of mine, you can probably count ten or twelve different influences all thrown into a melting pot. If you find yourself too accurately portraying one kind of style, and you don’t mix it up, you might miss an opportunity.
So we’re rather proud of the new songs in Heathers. I knew the certain kind of sounds I wanted for “I Will Never Shut Up Again” [Heather Duke’s new number written for this latest production.] I was kind of going for a mid-eighties Tina Turner sound. I also knew I wanted some Prince in there, some fabulous eighties stuff. And then by the time I was done, I was like “Oh, there’s more ABBA in this song than I thought there would be…”
Not many ABBA songs are about triumph and destroying your rivals. So when you take the tone of ABBA celebration, and you mix it with something that doesn’t match…to take that much joy and mix it with that much cruelty. So it’s good to try to jam them together to see what happens. I do that with chords too.
What is a trick or technique a writer can use to get across the comedy in a song?
It’s nice to stay ahead of an audience; to make them feel they’re getting one thing and then pull the rug out from under them, and there are several ways to do that. The number one is to let them feel comfortable and that they recognise a musical theatre trope, but then wrecking it mid-song. I don’t mean musically, but wrecking it in terms of expectations or tone.
When you were adapting the film into a musical, how did you begin the process of envisaging where the songs will go?
Kevin and I spent several weeks, if not months, talking about things from how eighties it should sound like, to who should sing for what reason. We both had gone in with a couple of shows under our belts and our own philosophies of why people sing.
It’s usually when a character is at a moral crossroads: “What will I do? I have this insurmountable obstacle, what am I going to do about it?” That’s always where I gravitate.
Do you often get “eureka!” moments when you’re writing or does it often take presenting the work to others in order to recognise the standout moments?
It’s a mixture. Sometimes you just know if something’s gonna work. With Kevin and I…Kevin is one of the best writers I’ve ever met and he’s incredibly inspiring. But we’re pretty competitive, and so every once and a while I like to remember “I wrote that!” We work at everything together; we hash out the music together, the lyrics and the book together. He’s a little more the initiator of things like plot events and story beats. I’m a little more the closer on things like musical execution and orchestration, but we’re all back and forth… With that said, I am very proud of having thought of the line “Jesus, I’m on the frickin’ bus again ‘cause all my rides to school are dead!”
The music in Heathers is so varied. You’ve got the opening number, “Beautiful”, that’s eight minutes long, then there’s “Lifeboat” which is just one and a half minutes. Did you approach these differently when writing?
It’s exactly the same. You need to get from one transaction or one surprise to the next. A sign of a good song is that you have a surprise at the beginning and a surprise at the end. You need something to jolt the story in a slightly different direction. Someone has to propose something new that boosts the energy, and suddenly you’re singing. But, then what? Sometimes you can come up with new surprises every sixty seconds and then you can sustain eight minutes. So in “Beautiful”, the surprises are how cruel the school is, then the fact she stands up for Martha, then in come the Heathers. That’s all in the first three minutes.
In an opening number you also have the benefit that the audience will give you extra time to meet the villagers. The audience hears big music, the lights go down and you get put in that vulnerable caveman state where you’re willing to listen to someone who stands up on a rock and says “Hey, everybody in the tribe: shut up and listen to me.” Audiences will listen and give you the benefit of the doubt, but you need to lay out what the whole show is going to be about; what the values and tone of the whole show are.
(*Nerd alert* I suddenly found myself interrupting him and blurted out “kind of like a modern overture?” And Larry replied “Exactly – that’s exactly what it is.” So I’m pleased to announce I’m definitely also a musical genius now and will gladly speak at weddings, graduations and corporate events. Drop me an email. Okay, back to Larry…You’re not even ready for this next paragraph.)
I’m obsessed with Aristotle’s The Rhetoric because he had us pegged three thousand years ago. Everything we do in theatre is something he already described in his book. It’s the art of persuasion; the art of somebody getting up in front of everybody and saying “Hey everybody, shut up, I’m a little better than you (if only temporarily) and I’m a little wiser than you – I’m gonna tell you something. But you need to know who I am first.” Then you’ve got to say why you should all listen to me because I’m going to imbue you with my emotion. First you’ve got to show your ethos; who you are, then pathos; your emotion and then logos which is your argument – what do you want people to do differently when you’re done talking? That’s the interesting thing.
Musical theatre is the preachiest of all the arts and so if you don’t have a logos, you’re wasting time a little bit. You can go to an art gallery and have a great time and be moved deeply by a series of abstract images that don’t want to actually recommend anything. I mean, that’s brilliant and I’d love to learn to do that. But, if you go to a piece of musical theatre and you’re not given some useful prescriptions about how you can live a little better, or treat yourself or others a little better, you’ve missed an opportunity.
So the common thing between writing the eight minute song and the one and a half minute song is: what were the transactions and the proposals in each moment, and what are you recommending? What are you advocating? I don’t know if there’s a hard and fast rule on how many surprises or turns you need in a song, but I often find that if you get to the end of one verse and one chorus and then nothing has changed in your plot…your song is over.
In the case of “Lifeboat”, there was nothing more to say. There’s that one moment where [Heather McNamara] a simple person who we haven’t really heard from, has come to the end of a rope. And she’s asking for help.
When you’re writing for a new musical, how do you strike the balance between ensuring the show has longevity, while also catching the zeitgeist?
That’s a good question. There’s different ways you can aim for timeless. Mean Girls decided to not try to sound like the most modern music around. You could try to sound like 2018, like Kendrick…and that would be great now but in two years, what if they’re forgotten? What if new sounds have completely rendered them obsolete? I love that Mean Girls has moments that sound like the James Bond movies because the James Bond sound is still so powerful; it still evokes emotions when you hear that sound. So, go for what’s eternal. And make sure the topics you’re talking about are timely great.
Heathers in the 1980s was very much a scathing satire and an antidote to the comforting lies of the Reagan era, in which we were lulled asleep by people saying “America’s good again, America’s strong again. And America’s right again.” And it was just cover for a multitude of cruelties. Consumerism and the hurt mentality was a large part of why Heathers was a very truthful antidote.
Nowadays, the bullying is front and centre and the ability to hurt masses of people. Times change, values change, and we’re stunned and delighted that this show still has something to stay.
Many people have expressed their interest in a new cast recording with the London cast, as well as hopes for a Broadway production one day. What do you think the future looks like for Heathers?
Anything is possible. All it takes is a couple of visionary people and money. It’s gotten to the point where I keep finding new reasons to be grateful. If Heathers had never gone anywhere past the production in New York I’d be like “that was great, I had a great time, I learned a lot.” The album has taken off and become its own thing. And if it were nothing but a bunch of well-received productions all over America plus kids doing animatics on YouTube, I’d be like “great!”
But to get to keep working on it has been a blessing and a miracle. So if something happens further, great! If it doesn’t, great! I currently have a career people would dream of and I’m very very lucky. There’s usually no correlation to someone’s talent and brilliance, and what they get to do in their lives…and I really lucked out.
We always felt that we wanted to keep working on Heathers. We never felt like the end of a production was the end or the end stage. Everybody tinkers – it’s what we do. If Heathers never does another thing, I’m incredibly blessed. It’s gonna be hard to top it as far of things I’m proud of and things I’m excited about. I’m incredibly excited about the next couple of things I’m going to do with Nell [Benjamin]. I’ve learned to shrug and smile the way Kevin Murphy does.
You’ve highlighted before that a lot of your work focuses on misfits. Do you think this is why your work has resonated with so many people, as we’ve all felt like a misfit at some stage in our life?
I think the misfits thing is one of the easiest and most fertile sources of story.
If you go see a play or a musical; a drama, you expect a certain shape. A hero is, at rest, in a state of relative contentment, or thinks they’re content. But no, something’s wrong…they want something. They go out to get it, they seek it, they cross a threshold into an uncomfortable world they don’t really know, they find it, they return but they are changed forever. I don’t know why that particular caveman narrative is what we crave most, but it is. And if you don’t have every one of those elements then you’re missing something.
A misfit by definition is in a state of crisis, which is a good generator of story. Elle Woods doesn’t know she’s a misfit until she’s suddenly told she is.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers and composers?
Get something down on paper. Or GarageBand, or SoundCloud, or YouTube. Put something down. Get it out of your head and onto a page, into peoples hands, or get it recorded in some way. Put it in front of people; to your relatives, at a cocktail party, rent the theatre at your local school. Do something with a deadline and an opening night, make a schedule, rehearse it and perform it. It could be in your common room at your dormitory – do it. Find live people, do live things.
What is something you’ve seen or listened to recently that you would recommend to others?
Mean Girls, but I’m biased. (Larry’s wife, Nell Benjamin, wrote the lyrics for the Broadway musical alongside book-writer Tina Fey and composer Jeff Richmond.)
Mean Girls is one of the greatest scores ever written, and people will discover that. I mean, it’s a big hit right now, but the actual music and the compositions are a classic – it’s brilliant. People are going to realise in the coming years how innovative it is. The innovations in Hamilton are very discernible to the naked eye. The innovations of Mean Girls are much more subtle and are going to come out over time.
One of my favourite things about that show is that it actually embraces the Broadway sound in many of their songs. There’s a reason why that sound keeps coming back. It’s our national American sound in many ways; it’s what we like to hear. And it’s not coincidental, it’s what sounds great in these theatres. The sound of live horns and saxophones and flutes. She [Nell Benjamin] also wrote Dave the musical, based on the Kevin Kline movie. It’s phenomenal.
Finally, as my blog is called Rose’s Supposes, I like to ask each of my guests this question. If you could do something to make the world a rosier place, what would you do?
If I had unlimited resources, I would probably set up McCarthur foundation level grants for people who spread positivity. The McCarthur grants are this American foundation, and every year they name ten to twenty people in all walks of life like economics, science, arts…they’re called genius grants. A community organiser could get one, someone who’s working to fight disease could get one. In my case I might set up something like that to specifically promote positive interactions and kindness. I might call them the kindness grants! Or the Heathers grants, or the Veronica grants…
(In this moment, I couldn’t resist mentioning the wonderful Carrie Hope Fletcher, who leads this production as Veronica Sawyer and is a well-known advocate for kindness and positivity in the theatre community.)
Oh she’d be the first winner, absolutely.
So there you have it.
Without making this blog post too self-indulgent, if “2017 Olivia” knew that “2018 Olivia” would get the chance to speak in depth with the writer of music that’s played such a huge role in her life, she’d lose her freakin’ mind.
So Larry, thank you.
4 thoughts on “Interview – Laurence O’Keefe”
Absolutely fascinating! Amazing stuff, thank you for sharing this. Great questions too.
Very curious find out why he thinks “I Will Survive” is the best song ever written. I wonder, did he mention if he made any homages or references to it in Heathers or his other work?
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Hi Carla! He’s great, isn’t he?
As for “I Will Survive”, it was to do with the way it moves from the past tense, to present tense, to future tense. Also, in a narrative sense, it’s a proposal, and in his opinion the greatest showtune that isn’t actually a showtune! He said it’s become so iconic as it contains a plot and a character, yet as there’s no specific mention of a girlfriend or a boyfriend, it can be sung universally.
Thanks so much for reading!