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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
When acclaimed composer and lyricist Larry C. O’Keefe ’91 first donned a chiffon dress and heels in 1988, he knew he had found his niche at Harvard.
The then-aspiring actor and anthropology concentrator’s relationship with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals was a fortuitous one.
O’Keefe says he honed his talents both on stage and later in the show’s scripts and scores—all while managing to look “very pretty.”
His career post-graduation has been creative and unconventional.
Most notably, he composed and wrote lyrics for Bat Boy, the tabloid-inspired tale of a half-boy, half-bat taken in after being found in a cave in West Virginia.
The musical became a smash hit, garnering the Outer Critics Circle and Lucille Lortel Awards for best Off-Broadway musical in 2001. It plays again this month in Boston.
In a few months’ time, the stuff of his childhood will be aired on a new WB sitcom, The O’Keefe’s, created and executive produced by his younger brother Mark.
The O’Keefe brothers, including the eldest, David—all real-life Harvard and Lampoon alums—serve as the inspiration for the brilliant, young home-schooled protagonists who rebel and “discover they are worse than utterly unprepared for the real world.”
But in a twist, brother Larry becomes “Lauren” on the show—ironic, perhaps, in light of Larry’s cross-dressing Pudding days.
“So, I’m being played by a 15-year-old girl,” says O’Keefe, who now lives in New York. “If only I had a quarter for every time…”
O’Keefe’s wit is clearly at work throughout. He has a knack for finding humor in mundane observations, and frequently references figures likeDante and Marx in punch lines that reflect his acerbic wit.
In fact, this sort of upside-down, unconventional comedy is a trademark in his work. So is his habit of blurring expectations, sneaking pathos into farce and the ridiculous into tragedy.
Bat Boy is itself not what you’d expect from a musical based on the life of a mutant cave-dweller. It’s a comedy, but it has weight to it as well.
Its world is as mundane as the protagonist is preposterous, and his story is “honest, truthful and logical,” according to O’Keefe—“the equivalent of Al Gore: he’s so earnest and ridiculous you go home making fun of him, but then end up thinking, ‘Hey, that guy had a point.’”
Proof is in the Pudding
At Harvard, O’Keefe was a veritable Renaissance man: a ’Poonster, Krokodiloe and theater maven.
O’Keefe flourished at Harvard—though only outside the classroom, he says.
“The closest thing I came to academics was theater,” he says.
O’Keefe worked at the Pudding as both actor and composer. After graduation, he continued to help write scripts and arrange music.
He credits the Pudding with showing him “the traditional musical theater thing,” times “when you’re sitting up until 4 a.m. writing a song because you have to rehearse it tomorrow.”
“Really almost everything I do now, I learned how to do at the Pudding show and at Harvard,” he says.
O’Keefe put his acting career on hold after an audition in New York during a Pudding tour. After he auditioned, the producer asked if O’Keefe would fill in for the rehearsal pianist.
He obliged, scoring a couple hundred dollars and a tip from the producer:
“He said, ‘Thank you very much, and by the way, if you have any other job skills, you shouldn’t be an actor.’ ‘Do you mean in general, or just me?’ And he said: ‘Both,’” O’Keefe recalls.
Soon O’Keefe decided to pursue a graduate degree in Film Scoring at the University of Southern California.
In California, O’Keefe joined the Actors’ Gang, a theater known for its “really brilliant, stolen commedia dell’arte technique.”
“[It’s] very vaudevillian, and very artificial and it allows you to be very funny, heightened yet deep at the same time,” he says. “It was a fortuitous match to my Pudding training.”
This mix of emotions, depth and comedy was indeed apparent in a Pudding song O’Keefe wrote a decade ago at the behest of Mo Rocca ’91, then the Pudding’s president and currently a correspondent on “The Daily Show.”
“[Rocca] said it shouldn’t be jazzy, it should sound like Sondheim, it should sound almost tragic,” O’Keefe says.
Rocca’s performance of the resulting song, “The Cutting Room Floor,” afforded “a genuinely heartfelt moment.”
“The audience was sort of stunned,” O’Keefe says.
Ripped from the Tabloids
Keythe Farely and Brian Flemming, two colleagues from the Actors’ Gang, inspired Bat Boy when they showed O’Keefe a tabloid about an escaped bat creature.
The bat’s gripping tale and his superlatively ugly face instantly captivated O’Keefe, and he agreed to sign onto the project.
In the show, veterinarian Dr. Parker adopts Bat Boy, who matures into a well-behaved young man and falls in love with Parker’s daughter.
But after some strange occurrences—like the appearance of blood-drained cows—Bat Boy’s neighbors grow suspicious of him and try to stop him from fitting in and finding love.
Lyricist, collaborator and wife Nell Benjamin ’93 recalls when O’Keefe first showed her the script for Bat Boy.
“It didn’t have songs yet but he said ‘this is going to be a musical,’ and I thought he was crazy,” she says.
When Bat Boy arrived in New York, the New York Post called it an “instant classic.”
USA Today named it one of the top ten musicals of 2001, citing an “incredibly imaginative and clever book and a soaring score.”
“The last line of the show, ‘Don’t deny your beast inside,’ in addition to being a supremely ungrammatical phrase, has served as our theme,” O’Keefe says. “All the characters have some deep inner drive, pain or hunger, lust…Those characters that could recognize their inner drive, that could accept it, succeed, and everyone else who denies it dies, or something like that.”
This Bat has Flown
O’Keefe is busy these days with many new projects, but says he remains excited about Bat Boy’s impending arrival in London.
He will again collaborate with TheatreWorks/USA, which produced Sarah: Plain and Tall, for which he wrote the score and Benjamin the lyrics.
Benjamin, who co-penned the Pudding show Romancing the Throne with Larry and brother Mark, says Harvard’s influence on her husband is still clearly visible.
“He approaches it with the same enthusiasm and risk-taking as the stuff he was doing at the Pudding, with the same insanity and sense of humor,” she says.
There are similarities in O’Keefe’s works, from Mo Rocca’s serious Pudding moment, to his earnest-yet-absurd Bat Boy and his new tragicomic project with David Shiner.
“It’s the story of a clown who hates being a clown and wants to play Hamlet.” O’Keefe says. “He wants to be a real artist and he gets a new agent, who is of course a new agent of the devil…a sort of Dante’s Clown Inferno.”
Why should Harvard students see Bat Boy? O’Keefe laughs.
“You can come see the mind of a Harvard guy at work and you can either cheer him on or you can say, ‘He’s a fucking idiot!’”
—Bat Boy plays at the SpeakEasy Stage in Boston until Jan. 25.
—Staff writer Michelle Chun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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