Laughter and Lyrics—Legally

Musicals by Benjamin and O’Keefe excite Broadway.

The big production number “What You Want,” from the London production of <i>Legally Blonde</i>
A scene from Benjamin and O’Keefe’s improbable musical <i>Life of the Party,</i> set in the Stalin­­ist USSR of 1953.
Another scene from Benjamin and O’Keefe’s <i>Life of the Party</i>
The creative couple: Nell Benjamin and Laurence O'Keefe

“Pretty much any Broadway producer would take a call from us if we had an idea,” says Laurence O’Keefe. “Of course, it might be a short call.” “Yeah,” says Nell Benjamin. She imagines a pitch. “ ‘We’d like to write an opera about Stalin.’ ‘Well...thanks, Larry and Nell!’ ” 

They both laugh. Partners in art and life (married in 2001) since they met at Harvard during auditions for the improv group On Thin Ice, Benjamin ’93 and O’Keefe ’91 have gone from writing Hasty Pudding shows (1993’s Romancing the Throne) to a coveted Broadway niche as musical composers and playwrights. They are on a short list of those who can reliably deliver accessible, clever, high-energy (and sometimes high-decibel) productions. “We like to write fast-moving shows in which the plot changes during the songs,” says O’Keefe. 

“We don’t feed you the clues about how you’re supposed to feel,” Benjamin says. “Catch up with us. Come on the ride with us.” Their biggest success to date is the sprightly Legally Blonde, the musical version of the 2001 Reese Witherspoon film. Their production opened in 2007, ran for 595 performances on Broadway (and thousands more worldwide), and earned Benjamin and O’Keefe a Tony nomination for best original score. With Kevin Murphy, O’Keefe wrote the musical Heathers, based on the 1988 film. It premiered off-Broadway this April and earned its authors a Drama Desk Awards nomination for outstanding music. Benjamin was busy working with Tina Fey at the same time on a musical version of Fey’s 2004 film Mean Girls. “Our competing, terrifying, high-school musicals,” she says. In July the couple mounted a cabaret show, The Songs of Nell Benjamin and/or Laurence O’Keefe, at Manhattan’s 54 Below supper club.

And that opera about Stalin? In 2012 Benjamin and O’Keefe introduced a small-scale production of Life of the Party. Set in the Soviet Union in 1953 and chronicling the making of a socialist-realism movie musical, it’s a tragedy with a heavy dose of black comedy. The score resounds with grand opera, old-fashioned adventure music, and dead-on socialist-realism prattle: “Our progress is extraordinary/Our cast and crew energetic./ They do all that’s necessary/To form a unified aesthetic.”

In 2001, O’Keefe revealed his protean talents in the music and lyrics for what became one of the theater world’s most unlikely recent cult successes: Bat Boy: The Musical. That venture grew out of supermarket tabloid story alleging the discovery of a cave-dwelling humanoid who escapes into civilization. O’Keefe turned the premise into an affectionate sendup of show music. From the opening number—“Hold Me, Bat Boy!”—which wouldn’t be out of place on a Led Zeppelin album, he runs through a cornucopia of musical idioms. He has gleefully pleaded guilty to borrowing from, among others, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein ’39, D.Mus. ’67, Frank Loesser, Kurt Weill, Alan Jay Lerner ’40 and Frederic Loewe, Gilbert and Sullivan, plus the rock world’s Bad Company, Boston, and Queen. “My musical influences. I’ve been stealing from them ever since college,” he says cheerfully. “You might hear a chord from West Side Story, but Bernstein stole that from Petrushka....When [in Bat Boy] it was time to show the simple townsfolk of West Virginia, there’ll be a country sound. When it was time for the terrible dark secret from the past to erupt, you’ll get grand opera. So content dictates form.”

But he constantly strives for a twist. “You can have a song with a very traditional harmonic structure and a very traditional melody,” O’Keefe explains. “Put a weird timbre on it and a cool new beat, and you have a brand new sound....The novelty itself sparks a new kind of emotion. Nell keeps me honest.” And vice versa: they amiably finish each other’s thoughts and punch lines, aided by what Benjamin labels their “shorthand.”

Both grew up close to the New York City theater scene. After college they worked for 10 years in Hollywood on sitcoms and TV movies, then moved back to Broadway. Along the way they had to learn to lose some of the trappings of their Harvard fields of concentration, English (hers) and social anthropology (his). “It was weird for us to realize that words come last,” recalls O’Keefe. “We were told, ‘Yeah, thanks for the five-minute patter song with a thousand syllables...audiences aren’t gonna like that.’  ”

The need to discard also came into play on Legally Blonde, says Benjamin: “At one point we wrote a rather ingenious song about passing the LSATs. It was very well-crafted...and [everyone was] totally uninterested.” As they compose in their Manhattan apartment, where they live with their 20-month-old daughter, Persephone, the couple tolerate each other’s meddling—usually. “If I’m working on a lyric that doesn’t have music yet, and he’s working on different music, I have to be in another room,” says Benjamin. “Otherwise my lyric will scan to whatever’s coming out of the room next to me.”

“Either one of us might propose a lyric,” says O’Keefe. “The tunes can come from either of us. The job of polishing the music usually falls to me. We don’t write the lyric first and then the music. We write the first verse of the lyric and maybe the first chorus of the lyric, then turn it into music...which changes the lyric. We go back and write the second verse and second chorus. I might say, ‘OK, You have eight syllables, then three...can we make it more like six and two, because I have a cool melody which you’re suggesting.’ It literally bounces back and forth, very, music/lyric.”

Consider “What You Want” from Legally Blonde. “I didn’t know the tune yet,” says Benjamin, “but I knew the scansion.” O’Keefe adds, “When I heard it, I said, ‘Where’s the chorus?’ It needs a chorus! You have thousands of ideas bouncing off each other and now we need a moment that’s repetitive, memorable, and witless—as a break from all the wit. ‘What you want, what you want, what you want is right in front of you!’ That’s what they’ll remember.” The finished number became a show-stopping centerpiece while meeting O’Keefe’s top criterion: “Try to start a song with a bang or a surprise and then end with a bang or a surprise.”

Producers can expect many more calls from the team. “We have a backlog of 10 to 20 ideas that we love,” O’Keefe says. “We’re trying to build a larger tent to contain the things we want to talk and sing about.”

Read more articles by Dick Friedman

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