Laurence O'Keefe | Broadway Composer and Lyricist

hey everyone sorry for the late episode I just became a parent this month to my first child a boy Ron so as you can imagine everything had to stop for a bit anyway things are back on track parenthood is great and I have many wonderful things planned for the rest of the year my book why children quit music is coming along smoothly and I hope to put it out later this year check out my blog about music at Nikhil Hogan calm well be posting commentary about music education the show and other things finally if you like the show please consider donating on patreon it's good to be back and now let's get to the show on today's episode I have the pleasure of talking to Tony Award nominated composer lyricist for Broadway musicals film and TV Laurence O'Keefe it's a great conversation about his development as a composer his style of composition talking about his various musicals and so much more stay tuned you're listening to the nickel Hogan show everyone thanks for listening to the Nikhil Hogan show remember your music interview show in the world interviewing the best musicians with in-depth thoughtful conversations about music I'm really delighted to introduce my guest today Tony Award nominated composer and lyricist Lawrence O'Keefe his Broadway credits include batboy the musical Legally Blonde the musical which was nominated for seven Tony's including Best Original Score heather's the musical which was nominated for outstanding music at the Drama Desk awards Lawrence's won the Ed kleban award the ASCAP Richard Rogers new horizons award and a Jonathan Larson award for his music and lyrics Lawrence it's such a pleasure to have you on the show for the first time I'm really delighted thanks so much for having me I'd love to ask you about your upbringing in music you've mentioned that your parents raised you on Monty Python Gilbert and Sullivan and Irish political songs yeah I think there was a lot of unexpressed creativity on both my parents side my mom was a English professor my dad was an editor for Reader's Digest magazine which is not a place where you get to express a lot of creativity but they both love singing my mom played piano my dad loved all kinds of music and art and he would kind of homeschooled us after school and he would lecture us on Aristotle and Plato when we were four that didn't really work out great but he also played us tons of music including Beethoven and Mozart stuff and operas we didn't like or understand but it probably helped build some muscles in patience and yeah my dad was super Irish and was one of those Americans who had not been to Ireland a lot but identified as more Irish than Irish and so he really hated the English and really loved the Irish music and he's got a really good point that Irish especially like Irish Republican songs Irish like revolution songs actually are some of the most beautiful melodies in history kind of like the Catholic Church sort of snapped up all the pretty tunes and turned them into Christmas carols right sort of like the Irish revolutionary movement you know the independence movement sort of took a lot of great songs that were lying around the most beautiful ones and step into new lyrics about failed you know raids and give some examples of some of these beautiful songs well I think when the most beautiful songs is Kevin berry about a kid who got hung by the English after his very first spy raid he's sort of the Nathan Hale of Ireland Nathan Hale was that guy who said I have only I regret only that I have one life to give for my country and he got caught in his first raid and at the age of 18 he uh-huh and same thing happened to Kevin berry and so there's a very famous song called Kevin berry about how he was in prison tortured and then hung in front of his mother and my dad used to sing that to me as a lullaby that went well but there's there's a lot of real I mean okay there's a dude named Willie Brady who was sort of like the Elvis of Ireland in the 60s and he did a album called Irish songs of freedom he's mind-blowing the beautiful tunes all of them attached to really sort of rather violent sentiments about how we have to you know get rid of the English guns and bombs and so my dad's politics were very questionable and his his I don't know common sense was pretty low but he certainly knew a good tune did you play piano from a young age yeah I was sort of tinkling on piano from the age of like six second grade I had a teacher who loved me but then she stopped loving me because I didn't practice enough I wasn't good sight reading I'm a little disliked sick so I wasn't good with music I would have been a perfect candidate for Suzuki but I didn't get any Suzuki and so I quit at 6th grade and then I crept back to the piano by myself an eighth grade and from that point on I pretty much taught myself I had some grounding in theory you know I had the basics but I got through college with absolutely terrible you know like rather rudimentary or very limited notation skills but I really loved listening to the weird stuff and I think I kind of accidentally gave myself a Suzuki education going through what it sounds like first before you before you you know try to stare at the intermediary of the dots on the page right do you have perfect pitch Lawrence I don't think I do but also perfect pitches itself a memory trick I mean like if if somebody from today went back in the time machine to Mozart's time Mozart would say you don't have perfect pitch you're singing sharp so like perfect pitch is just the ability to memorize what everybody agrees are the correct tones and like people do have perfect memories certain thing so in other words perfect is a is a real phenomenon but it's not like some sort of cosmic I I think I have good relative pitch right okay and so you mentioned that the first albums you owned were Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat My Fair Lady Elton John's Greatest Hits Billy Joel how old were you when you listening to these well I was listening to music and albums from probably agent of zero but I you know I remember Disneyland records would put on things like The Jungle Book with songs and narration so that probably predated my actual owning of pop albums but the first albums I actually owned them mine were gifts for my grandmother including Elton John's vol 1 and also Elvis Presley live from Hawaii but I also remember being a snob going oh I like the Alton stuff better than the Elvis stuff I don't really understand the Elvis live yeah and I also remember thinking oh I prefer my fair lady over other musicals so I I was I was a little I was a little pretty even then no doubt and in high school you said were you doing musicals you said as a teen you got into the police and sting oh yeah I mean so you do theater and if you're lucky you have a good theater program and we did and so there was a musical and a play every year and so my fresh air Godspell sec we had God spelled and Pippin and things like working and so there was always music lying around and so you look at these songs and sometimes they would be incredibly difficult to play sometimes because they were complex or sometimes because you know the notation wasn't very good for some of these published editions of place but they they were they were an incentive also I you know I assume discovered that if you could actually play along you could hell about your female cast members learning their songs and that would and so we you were still doing your piano lessons at this time what did you quit by sixth grade right you mentioned I quit by sixth grade I tried again a little bit in ninth grade but the guy was sort of he was some sort of like LSD casualty and he sort of sat there so I I taught myself well you mentioned teaching yourself did you play like in rock bands in school did you have to do better in jail well I remember I remember being in eighth grade and staring at the piano that was no longer mandatory for me to sit at and so I would case it out and plonk away but one day I think Billy Joel was playing piano man on the radio and I said so in other words try to play by ear was faster for me than trying to and then also I there were a lot of books flying around the house with chord symbol so you'd have a book of Esther Broadway and so the the ink was too hard for my you know brain to process in other words the dots work hard but the chord symbols were really interesting because they contain so much information in a much more simple digestible form so I began to really sort of research what the court simples mentions and that's how I sort of got into learning by ear and aping things and taking along and and I I mean I'm I was I'm the perfect you know you went to Harvard to study anthropology but at Harvard you participating in the Hasty Pudding theatricals and use and I quote you you said that's really where I learned to do what I do I'd say that's pretty accurate I mean I was in the show as an actor but then I every year I would audition for the job of writing the score not least because there was a pipeline of professionals could take really simple lead sheets and then in other words the job of landing the composition job you didn't have to do everything you all you needed to do to be in the running to win the job be able to readily see in other words vocal melody plus chords which was exactly my speed so I kept listening I didn't get the job my freshman sophomore year but my junior and senior years I did land a job and then other professionals that David chasers now like one of the best reigning Broadway and Peter Mansfield who's now a conductor all over the world and worked with Boston Pops these guys these Harvard grads who had been in my place they they were showing me how they were going to complete my work write me a ton about arranging and then about orchestration but they also taught me about my own pace I realized that if I wanted to have more control over how these were fleshed out I had to learn to do itself and so I I got hungry go fast and and that education when did you start writing music and trying to write scores um I think I wrote tunes down as early as my junior year in high school I think I definitely started writing stuff in earnest for the Hasty Pudding show because you know they needed about 1213 songs per show and so I graduated having written probably 30 songs and then very quickly realized I wanted to do this for living because I enjoyed it I had I had really gotten a taste for the weird stuff I mean I had an acapella group in college so I got a really close up under the hood education and vocal arranging and we were poor they're really complex stuff and in college I also was in shows like a Threepenny Opera and that wasn't a mine I was a mind-blowing education so Kurt Vile may still be my favorite composer but I spent you know three months spending every day working with that score learning how it's you know both ugly and beautiful at the same time and and sort of taking mental notes down that I years later would you do harmonies and tricks and stuff and so the next thing is when did you go to Berkeley and then after Berkeley you went to the University of Southern California you studied composition and film scoring right I graduated college with a very rudimentary musical knowledge and wasn't sure what I wanted to do ran into a friend of mine Chris on the Pertino who's a great guys great composer he was a classmate of mine I ran into him in Cambridge we were both about a year and a half and I just knew that Berkeley I already knew about Berkeley it's a brilliant school but it's also very ecumenical it's also very welcoming and it takes people of all levels of academic achievement so if you if you have a musical talent they'll take you even if you were even if your knowledge is patchy and that was exactly me but also in the back of my head I knew that USC was this amazing program that a bunch of patient putting graduates had gone to and that that was a great education I also knew that I probably could not get in as as I was so I went to Berkeley thinking Berkeley will teach me enough to get into USC that's probably the last time I had a long term plan about eight so I you know at the age like 23 I graduated well night I spent one year at Berkeley and then transferred to the master's program at USC for their one year film scoring master's which is mind-blowing so at Berkeley I'd got to do amazing stuff I got to film that's a score actual clips of film and and wound up with a bit of a demo reel by filling the gaps of my knowledge I didn't know what mixolydian was I had been using you know so I learned inside Berkeley and then I learned a ton more at USC because USC has orchestras that you get to record with you graduate with a demo reel of about 15 different cues I got to work with Elmer Bernstein I got with David Newman and oh my god blanket Jerry Goldsmith unbelievable and then I graduated and suddenly noticed oh yeah I don't want to films primarily because I love film music but the to film music is most of the job the artistry and so I mean the world keep changing and the end the industry keeps changing and so there may be a thousand new ways to be a happy film composer but I think at the end of the day you are still no matter what you are just you you are creating something designed when you started film scoring you must have studied classical symphonies and that kind of thing or did you study are you familiar with the classical repertoire as well oh yeah I mean it's funny because as I was applying to Berkeley I had a job running driving up and down the eastern seaboard trying to recruit people for this school that I was working for and so I I piled my my car with tons and tons of music by the classical composers that I had not really known so I went I went looking for doors knocking for coffee and all the ones that are a little more modern or a little more a little more obscure compared to Bach and Beethoven but I didn't I didn't attend any Theory classes at Harvard that ran I they were all the drama as well so I mean I have a smattering my my musical knowledge is very wide and rather shallow in places it's deeper than I then I sometimes I mean it was it's really astonishingly wide as we'll get to but that's really fascinating and at so if I could be specifically do you have a mentor that really you felt was really helped you in a big way I I think that unfortunately I've had no real mentor in my entire life it's partly because I'm in a weird way David Chase who is this brilliant Broadway arranger a music director guy he was only about five years older than me so when he started teaching he was eighteen or nineteen but he taught me a ton about stuff as he was preparing me to do the Hasty Pudding show score and again i would say that we probably met in person but he was a he was a pretty great mentor in some ways um I think that I'm I'm a little bit too lone wolf fish to have benefited much from a mentor but a mentor would have been great I don't think you know I don't think I would have complained to have one and let's talk about the Hasty Pudding theatricals I guess that's a step back I just wanted to get a sense of at what point in your career that you decide that musical theater would be the way you would target your energies most I think it might have been around the time right around that time I mean I was in the show a total of three years out of my four and then I also spent two of my four years in the acapella group and I spent my entire college career thinking I was gonna be an actor got out of college and realized that acting is a is a grueling profession without a lot of immediate rewards and I had all by the time I graduate I already had the title of composer twice for a show that ran eight shows a week and ran eight weeks in in Cambridge and then had a a week residence in New York City whoa wait a minute I get to write tunes and someone else sings them that's awesome so Minh planted in my mind that that composer is a cool unique kind of rare sort of job title and I think I enjoyed heading in that direction right now also did you study the Masters of musical theatre or also the contemporary ones at the time Richard Rodgers and I I think that that is arguably the deepest that I've ever studied because I was I was really laser focused on learning what these guys did the instant I heard them I mean I wasn't even at the age of 14 and 15 and I was trying to play those tunes in the cast but I liked to playing them to again to learn and so same thing with Craig carton Ilia because I did his shows in high school got to college and I was I was got really interested in girls when I did my senior thesis on porgy and bess and how the Gershwins actually stole out of their tunes for porking bass from native folk songs of the georgia sea islands and so I I really like getting under the hood and I guess you know some some shows I came too late I didn't know the music of gypsy until I was 20 but I certainly learned a lot of time I graduated knowing having either scores or albums or lots of music for a lot of your shows I studied and stole from company and follies and Little Night Music sweety's odd and that's amazing you've built up this vocabulary in your head it's really very wide because in one song you could have 10 different styles in just one song it's really remarkable do you consciously look for sounds when you're listening and are you always listening for new sounds putting them down loading them into your brain so to speak I would know I mean there are certain chords that I found so fascinating when I like the distinguishing mark of any composer anybody can write an interesting melody that goes up and down and is memorable anybody can make use of various rhythms or styles but harmony is where a composer is distinct and I didn't hear that I didn't hear that quote until like three years ago but instinctively I went for I love going for harmony another David a story that I find interesting David Chase his job was to arrange Tunes which meant he'd say don't worry about the transitions in between verses don't worry about the dance I'll do those and so I was like okay so I write tunes and he would then come up with the dance breaks for various songs because you have these you know undergraduate drag performers capering around stage and he'd you dance breaks that would take my tunes and mutate them and also transpose them in really surprising ways that was really cool and then when I started writing stuff after college and I show it to me be like Larry don't write your head of your tune like it's the dance break I was putting them inside the verse or the chorus yeah um I mean also like all of us can probably imagine probably mention some pop song that contains a really cool keychain right when either right when you need it or even when you don't expect it like you know a good example wouldn't you Justin always had a cool keychains near the end of her songs I wanted to answer somebody loves me and how will I know they both have really like oh these sort of like the the roof blows off and suddenly you're sort of keychains I always like that and I identified songs that had that in the pop songs that I heard growing up and then I started putting them in the chorus the verse in 1 cor somewhere and then I'll be like wait a minute why not why why not put the key change right in the middle of the verse and so well let me ask you this Lawrence why is I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor the greatest song ever written all right that's good it's got probably bunch of reasons why it's the greatest song ever written but if you like theater that sounds much more interesting than almost any pop song because that that's song has a clear story the girl love the guy the guy horribly betrayed and abused her whatever or dumped her horribly she learned to get along without him oh now he's back there's a there's a whole like you know react story there he's back and then she has the choice take him back or not and she decides go on now go I got her and so it's so economical it doesn't contain any details we don't need we don't know what city she lives we don't know what she does for a living but we know where she was what she went through and what she's now doing and it's a it's a wonderful economical delivery system for a story that contains both heartbreak and victory so that's why it's a great like great story and a great lyric as for music it has this relentlessly minor key sort of like classical harmonies very little blues in the actual instrumentation or in the in the in the harmonies or the melodies that they play but it still is incredibly soulful and it's tons of minor tons and tons of minor chords and yet it all sounds so joyous so I you know you could go on and my other favorite thing about is that which is gone now go walk out the door the melody is actually a little cray up the melody does not go up down loop Ian it's not like some fog nari and she's pretty and sort of like you know rising and falling thing it's kind of monotone but because the chords and the bass are so jumpy up and down and up and down underneath her she's the anchor of the story which is I think matches the story she's the anchor of of them of the musical structure and I think actually sounds like somebody shouting she pitched her voice in a way that feels like human speech at an impassioned level so yeah those are cool let's turn to bad-boy now is it true that you know you threw the original score together in about a month yeah Wow yeah there's about eight songs maybe seven songs left in the show from that original there's about I don't know eight or nine other songs from that original score we threw together that perhaps it's been replaced but what's weird is I mean I I kind of kicked myself because we've been rewriting that show recently because hopefully there's a you know another big production in the future for us you've done recent workshops and and so I always feel bad because no shows ever finished so all those thousand plus productions in the world have been done with a script that I don't really consider finish so sorry everybody it's it's really we were talking about the ability for you to infuse different styles multiple styles in the song would you say that's something that you consciously want to do you wanna you want to make sure that you keep the audience always guessing or when we're gonna have a different sound a different style when you're writing you've mentioned before that you start with the words start with the character and you build from there well the situation in a story will change as the characters make new decisions and the plot changes and ideally the music should reflect that so if someone goes into a song ignorant and cuming comes out of the song furious because of some new information that they only just found out ideally the music should reflect that change from complacency to fury so that means what does that mean could it mean faster maybe could it mean louder probably does it mean the key jumped up a bit that that's always a you could use doesn't mean that minor that may where verse one wasn't had major chords first you might have a minor course sure there's no there's always versions but because change is the main function of story your music I clearly has that and so I get impatient that shows where nothing changes or where the music doesn't rise with the plot it's weird though because you know I mean with that said there's a bunch of teeny type or cabaret type songs I think of where you hear the kitchen sink in and and I wind up hating it I'm sure that there's a bunch of songs from batboy early drafts that if I listen to them now be like oh God turn it off but for example you gotta be careful and judicious about what you change things because I I can think of a song in my head right now of some composer decided that maybe the verses are full of super Bach chorale sort of harmonies but then every other every other like every three verses you put into some soup weird or rather super cliched bluesy sort of scale type things and it doesn't it doesn't they don't coexist well so I don't know it's just it could just be my personal taste but I think about that a lot you notice you you withdraw songs you take out songs if you ain't changed like you said you've you've reworked some of the songs you've added new songs but that I mean some of the songs are so intricate so so complex you don't mind at all you just take it out because you just want to make it more effective because you could you could really listen to a song and really feel the the hard work and the the real all that effort that went into a really complicated interesting song for example you can you can marvel at I put in this amazing put in this amazing but if they're talking about there's a which is a fund in other words I'm sorry spoiler and they've fallen in love and he's he's worried because he's alone and suddenly he's hungry and of course his only diet is blood because he's a batboy and he's terrified that you'll find out so he wants to maybe hide or run away from her she goes no no no I know so the very first beginning of the song is I know and then the song her goal in the song is here you know here's my arms suck my blood Italy huh that's fun but unfortunately that's that's late in other words if you starts a song with the words I know you've robbed the audience of the opportunity for her to find out and therefore if then the entire song comes down to a back and forth yes like my arm no I do it no I won't do it and so it's like a four-minute song about only one question so fertile the London production which had tons pause but we learned a lot anyway we replace that song with a much better song called mine all mine in which we thought oh what if we start the song dramatically earlier and she doesn't know that his only diet is blood that's been kept and so she's innocent of his hunger so it gave rise to a great joke at the beginning of this song where they've just I think they just I'm sure they're lying in this little meadow in the forest and he and he's like oath had never felt like this how do you feel I feel complete but also I and he realizes he's hungry he doesn't use the word hungry he just starts walking away he's like where you going because I'm sorry Oh God in the first lyrics of the song are Oh God my mom was right and in other words a better dramatic topic leads to a better song we start the song five minutes earlier in the drama and we changed the you know which means one major she doesn't know as she has to struggle through this and tried to get him to explain what he's doing and suddenly there's tons of drama which leads to better opportunities for melodies and harmonies so a better result from a better drama well let me ask you this Lawrence so do you never ever want to just write music to impress because you know so much or is it always a servant to the story I'm I have tried for years and years to five years to impress and if you know the the art of learning to get over yourself but i mean yeah i mean i i i mean i think all composers always want to impress 100% of the time when they're working but there are good ways to a president press and you know i I don't I I don't I mean even even when I was super young and writing too many chords I'm sorry too many course but even when I was writing way 20 courts I wasn't necessarily hoping that people would count the number of course I just thought the people I hope he would find awesome and beautiful and memorable and now I'm getting more compact and needing fewer gimmicks and fewer twists and turns harmonically again there's some things I don't think I'll ever give up which is that you know harmonic instability is always much more interesting than then then you know the tyranny of the one chord right I mean I I don't know if you were able to do a study of sixty-five and now you would probably seventy percent or maybe 80 percent of the songs all begin on a tonic and they don't have so I'm always interested when songs don't like for instance in Legally Blonde the musical even when you're you are playing around with regular chords you have you're using a lot of tensions like the for the song itself Legally Blonde when you play like a C chord or an E minor you've got a lot of interesting tensions there is that's something you're searching forward partly yeah I mean it's also a bad piano habit but I mean like Legally Blonde in some ways very proud of it and incidentally by the way Legally Blonde was one of the only songs that we've ever written melted melody first like I've ever written have come from lyric first or at least you know plot point or or gimmick and in that case you know we knew was needed a sad song in the end of near the end of act 2 and I just heard noodling around here's a here's a cool tune which contains echoes of you know various Disney Disney Princess song but not about oh I want to go off and and have my dreams but rather oh I'm gonna go home and give up my dreams and there are also elements of it that I thought sounded a little bit like some of the the Max Steiner summer plays type pretty nineteen sixties movies right so there were there were a couple of influences but I know just really coloring and I'm making sure that just a regular courts are not so bland yeah yeah there's in there in other words yeah I mean a secret alone has a certain tyranny to it so you can report or mutate a little bit by adding a D on top that helps but also like just the melody itself you know if you're writing a tune that's basically total and your melody contains nothing but triad tones you're missing out on some opportunities so the very first melody note of that song the song I guess the Broadway version I think maybe began in G it's in the key of G so the first chord was not a G chord the C chord was for yeah in the hill and her melon her her purse her first melody knows is because of five before against five is the nice little crown in almost isn't it but not quite and so that was probably on my mind but again simplicity sometimes works too I'm thinking and later in heathers wrote a song called our love is God and I kept getting the first chord wrong I I don't this cord is not right and that was at the top of our love as God his first line goes they made you cry and and that chord I knew it would be kind of over B minor yeah I was no I'm not getting my my tensions right and that was a rare moment I was like oh no this one should have no pension it was a pure being liner triad so sometimes it's right but again there we are we're in a song that's our love as God is the key of a a major but it's super super dissonant song a lot of weird stuff in it and one thing I will say that I love to do and this may be this is a trade secret that I shouldn't give away I love using the building blocks to create sequences no one has ever written for example the chords of our love is God are a little weird and I could have simplified them but I and I could have gone to a more traditional pop or more traditional modern pop now but the chord sequence of that has this rising base that goes from B minor to F sharp over C sharp to G over D that's weird all these inversion yeah but then it goes back down to D and then goes back down to the F sharp over C sharp then goes back down again to the G over B and then it goes to a B flat which we haven't heard so in other words I knew that I had never heard a song in pop or even in theatres that did those particular chords if you can come up with a chord sequence that no one has done you will automatically grab the you will make people's ears pick up on gives me the sense Laurens that you work very fast does it does it take you when you're doing all of this experimentation is it fast or do you actually like block out some hours and spend hours experimenting I would love to have hours experimenting but I have definitely I definitely have to but to be fair a lot of that a lot of the situations you have a short time where you're banging it out of the piano or you're putting it down on keyboard or putting it down on your laptop or paper but it's at the end of hours and hours of pacing around walking through your I wonder how this scene works so I you know I envy pop composers you can come up with perfect pop moments that don't necessarily have in which the lyric can deliver an amazing strong feeling that isn't that isn't connected to a story in a context I really wish I could do that I mean I steal the elements of pop music all the time in order to serve a story characters and a plot in the beginning in middle and end but I would love to be able to write just a perfect pop we were talking about harmony and then you studied at Berkeley but you also went you've studied classical music as well do you have as distinction between jazz harmony or a classical harmony or perhaps your own personal method well I certainly I certainly prefer to think in terms of the one scale 13 scale as opposed to figured bass or you know old-school harmony so my my understanding arm is definitely shaped by jazz but I do tons of songs that do not contain any jazz or blues in them it completely depends on the situation I don't I don't have a harmonic system that you know I have I don't have any innovative news chane carrion sort of new way of looking at harmony I I think I have an off kilter way of using the building blocks and others have identified and clarified let's talk about Legally Blonde now it's so funny I mean it's like the Harvard variations let me ask you about lyrics does your skill as a lyricist affect your taste as a composer because not every composer writes lyrics well yeah I mean topping for pad but of course I was also dating Nell Benjamin at the time and we were putting show together later we got married and of course she's just like three times better lyricist than me so when we write together she very very grateful notice you very generously lets me retain a lyric a credit when we ready so together we dancing together we wrote we've written screenplays together we wrote a life party together and our credit is book music and lyrics by Larry and though so with that said she's a little more in charge of the structure and the characters and the plot and the dialogue and then we Duke it out over the lyrics and then I'm more in charge of the music but lyrical concerns if you're doing theater lyrics are gonna be more important anyway like if you're doing opera music will be more important and then hopefully you have fewer lyrics to make more room for poor melody but I mean I it the the weird thing is that even though lyrics are in charge you should still write as few of them as possible no matter what your show is no matter what your song is you should write the bare minimum number of syllables to get your point across because the more syllables you have the more you're gonna choke your melody and it's gonna turn into doggerel and you're gonna have a boring melody and you know the only person in history who could take a song you know hundreds and dozens of viable melody was sullivan and we you know I know so you've mentioned him as a as an influence and you've listened to him from it from childhood why is Arthur Sullivan for those who don't know as a famous opera composer in English he's an Englishman why is he an important figure in music and was he really a precursor in many of the musical theatre was kind of invented by WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan those guys were on to so many of the tricks that people use even now if you go see the you know if you go see kinky boots if you go see Book of Mormon it's all like using music to set up some punchlines and yet have a good tune at the same time so I mean I used to be embarrassed by I'm not absolving guy but you know there's things about Gilbert Sullivan that are our fusty now but at the time they were incredibly modern incredibly trenchant great satire great energy great just a great fun like attending a girlfriend solve an operetta in 1888 was like going to the best party in town and so like there's lots of traditions that are hidebound that have grown up around it and so the Overtoun solving societies in America and England will do it as though it's 1888 and accidentally sort of like smother some of the funniness but like like those two guys were amazing at at being able to do great tunes and occasionally gorgeous melodies that would make you cry in the middle of a funny show but at the same time you use melody to set up a a wonderful joke and get a laugh and keep the song going I also learned I and I I mean the Hasty Pudding show definitely Oded that I'm stolen because it's very very hard to write a song or you can put a joke in the middle of it and then somehow anticipate how long the laughs should be or will be and then keep the song going I personally have a taste where if you have a song going don't stop it for any reason except something incredibly calamitous I mean batboy again an early score of mine I noticed I think as we were opening offer arias oh god almost every single song in that you know has a stop in the middle it just like there's a hopefully it's for a good reason in in other words in batboy kind of by accident or maybe by unconscious design every song contains a joke that wrecks the momentum that has come before there's about maybe three or so songs that just don't stop dead but stopping dead is very risky in musical theatre a lot of songs sometimes just come to a stop and there's a pause I'm like I I mean to be fair I'm still doing it I just wrote a new song for Heather's call I say no which I'm very proud of and that has a stop dead in the middle of it but at least leave the band is still counting beats so the measures are still taking by at the same clip even even if the music comes to it a temporary silence something you said that I found pretty interesting when we're talking about the craft of all of this you said listening to the voices in your head is a dangerous long-term strategy it's much more exciting to hear what an actor does with your line than to listen to the voices in your head could you could you elaborate on that well the very best advice I could give anybody who wants to write for singers and for chosen for stories is go meet singers you know take your idea and have them try it don't just keep it in your head and don't just do your own demos have someone else sing it so you learn where they want to breathe or where they can't breathe because you wrote it too thickly or tore the you wrote a line too long dim camera breath let them tell you whether the melody is arranged that's I think that's what I mean by the voices in your head if that yeah because the you know I had a great I remember hood teacher was but pointed out that the singer is not the pencil in the hand of the art the singers part of the arm is part of the body making the art so you know collaborate with them let them tell you what they liked what they liked it it there's an interview with you and your wife and you said some to operative things that you work work by is if it can be cut it must be cut and the second one is all plot and all songs begin with the question why is today different from all other days yeah I'd say that's both that's still true Brian Fleming who was co-writer of batboy definitely had he taught me that first one and I think that's a movie ideas it has I think that if if you can tell the same story without that little extra frame or that extra shot of reaction or an extra bit of information and get rid of it if you don't do that that's when the audience will be like oh this is repetitive or this is taking too long for me to learn new information so you know as for the second one yeah I mean yeah you know that's from the Seder from the Passover and so you know lots and lots of books about screenwriting and Joseph Campbell's book about the journey of the hero point out that the whole point of seeing a show is you're watching this day in the hero's life because something big changes if you know if if you showed a story in which the hero has a normal day in which there's no crisis then you better have a really good reason for that for that prologue because that's not the role block let me ask you about this you said musical theater you need to be advocating for something or at least recommending something can you speak on that yeah this one my favorite topics musical theater is the preach use of all the arts you can go to Gallery and look at a painting and come out not knowing anything about what the artist feels about the world or what's good about the world or what needs to be fixed that's fine certain other paintings will accurately leave you with a feeling about what the artist thinks is wrong with the world and maybe you might agree with that artisan and maybe that might help strengthen your resolve to go be part of the solution um musical theater however I don't think I don't think making a recommendation for a stance or for some improvement in the world I don't think I think that if you walk out of the room with 100 plus people and you've been communing with these live actors if you go home and and your mom says how was the show and you say it was fine and the mom says what was the show about if you can't say what it was about recommending then you have wasted your money so for example Rodgers and Hammerstein had together they wrote about 13 shows I think and you know the names of the ones that really recommend Sohn and then the other ones didn't make as much money so carousel came out and that was speaking to all of the people in the audience in 1946-47 who had lost relatives in world war ii and they wanted to know his love stronger than death and can we and also can we be redeemed for our terrible mistakes in the ways we hurt each other and that and the answer was yes if we do the following things and South Pacific was recommending oh oh hey America you just won World War two what do you think that you're fixing the world well physician heal thyself and that was about the racism in our own hearts as we were supposedly going to war to stop other racist empires from conquering the world and then you get you get the king and I which came out around 1950 1951 and was our weekly to go to and destroy the cultures that we don't understand um but meanwhile they also wrote a bunch of other shows called pipe dream and me and Juliet and Allegro and those shows did not have a clear message those shows sometimes they tried Allegro tried to have a clear message about the perils of success but it didn't have a clear message it didn't have it didn't make a clear recommendation about what we should do differently when we're done watching the show and as a result I don't think the Tunes work is good and I don't think the show's made as much money and again Rodgers and Hammerstein greatest songwriting team in musical theatre history but you know sometimes sometimes you have a clear message sometimes you know I mean I you know for Legally Blonde we tried to make a clear recommendation we might have succeeded in some ways but I think all of the greatest shows and the ones that are gonna be around 50 years from now they make a clear recommendation and you can usually identify it in the form of one sentence that usually begins people should like Lawrence the time is running out so I'd like to end off the interview with some fun questions these are not serious just whatever comes to mind I'm gonna give you so these are like hot seat questions so I'm just gonna ask you top three and X and then you just see what just whatever comes to mind okay so top three classical composers go oh Jesus well do you mean classical including yeah anything alright my top three classical composers are Jesus Christ top three film composers okay okay okay oh man talk to film composers yeah okay top three pop songs pops I Will Survive paradise by the dashboard light raspberry beret alright topped the rock songs ooh top tier awesome fantastic um give me a second dr. rock songs the ocean by Led Zeppelin goddamn poppy off-balanced closer by Nine Inch Nails okay rock songs man cuz I have a couple one that I would love to you but I was like no that's not Oh burning down the house Talking Heads top three musicals top three musicals Hamilton Guys and Dolls Mean Girls okay top three film scores puppy film scores Wow et alien symbols top three songs you've written oh Jesus yes give me a second I gotta go bread sheet well give me a second I think um top your songs everything rather than do ones that you don't know anything about because there's some shows that don't exist yeah just do ones from shows thing I know about Capri swings I include I think the new song from Heather's is great it's called I say no I think three bedroom house from batboy still holds up I think kindergarten that's that's one of my favorites easiest song you've written in the hardest song you've written easy song I've written also might also be three bedroom house because we were doing rewrites in the middle of a workshop and that we had a long argument about the song that was in the previous slot and once again it was in the wrong reason in the wrong place the wrong time and had a big fight and then we realized okay let's try this other placement in the plot and then I went home and that the lyric came out in five minutes and the melody was done in a half hour I think the hardest song I've ever written is actually can you start from Heather's because that was like three months of dragging the idea out because there was another again there was an another song in that area where where Heather Chandler was sort of like smilingly lying about her motives when in fact she should have been just declaring all along you I'm Stalin you I'm I am God bow down before me and coming up with a song that direct that cruel and yet that cheerful and fun was very hard for some reason and just took forever and I'm gonna end off with who are the top three musical theatre composers in your opinion oh well it's been such a pleasure to talk to the great Lawrence O'Keefe master musician Lawrence what projects in 2019 are you working on you'd like to mention things that are available for people to buy sir well tonight March 20th on the CW Riverdale that TV show the kids of Riverdale high school Archie and Veronica etc are performers on camera in other words the School Musical at Riverdale high school is Heather's and so the episode will contain nine of our song so that's Heather's is coming back to London it was on the West End at the Haymarket theatre for a limited well and it's coming back over for a longer run in London this summer and fall and finally now Benjamin and I are writing two new shows one is called life of the party that's set in the Soviet Union under Stalin in their movie musical industry and it's sort of a backstage story that one's kind of like The Producers meets the death of Stalin we also have which we're doing workshops so very soon that one's set at a Renaissance Fair and it's apparently very politically the word is relevant fantastic well Lawrence thanks so much for coming on the show I mean you're really one of the top composers of Music Theatre so much knowledge and I really hope you had a good time answering the questions and I really hope you'll come back soon absolutely and I can't wait to hear more thanks man thanks Lawrence tears have a good day thank you so much for listening to my interview with the fantastic Lawrence O'Keefe it's really an honor to talk to someone so accomplished in the field of musical theater and to get his perspectives if you enjoyed the show please consider donating on patreon so that I can increase the number of guests on the show and branch out possibly into different topics in the future my book why children quit music is coming out later this year so please keep an eye out for that finally check out my blog on Nikhil Hogan calm for my commentary on music education thanks again and I'll see you at the next show [Applause]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *