Larry O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin met at an improv audition at Harvard University. The pair has been making magic ever since and have gone on to create musicals such as Cam Jansen, The Mice, Sarah Plain and Tall, and Life of the Party.
O’Keefe and Benjamin visited Berklee’s 1140 building on Tuesday, April 2, 2013 for an intimate and candid discussion about how to become a successful writer and composer in the musical theater industry. The dynamic duo represents the first artists to participate in the Curtain Up visiting artist series. The Curtain Up concert is an annual concert featuring the winning songs of the Curtain Up Musical Theater Songwriting Contest. It was held in the David Friend Recital Hall on April 1; Larry and Nell attended and were able to offer some feedback to the students who attended the clinic.
O’Keefe ‘93 has made a name for himself in the musical theater community. Earning an education from USC, Harvard, and Berklee, he honed his skills to create works like the Drama Desk Award-nominated Bat Boy: The Musical, which ran off-Broadway in 2001. This production received an Outer Critics’ Circle Award and the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical.
O’Keefe is very busy working on multiple projects, including Andy, which will feature Steve Carell and which is based on the musical Annie, and an adaptation of the novel Heathers into Heathers: The Musical, which will be opening up in Los Angeles.
Benjamin’s television credits include the last and weirdest season of Unhappily Ever After, Animal Planet’s Whoa!, Sunday with Mo Rocca, and the new Electric Company. She received the 2003 Kleban Foundation Award for lyrics and a 2003 Jonathan Larson Foundation grant. She is currently working on a musical adaptation of Because of Winn Dixie with Duncan Sheik and on Pirates!, a witty adaptation of Pirates of Penzance.
For anyone who has a hard time writing melodies or knowing when (or when not) to edit a piece…this clinic was for you. Personally, I have a hard time with melody manipulation and song structure when I’m writing and they answered questions with clarity and examples. After talking with Larry and Nell after the clinic, I was inspired and motivated to pick up the script I had been writing (one that I had previously put away for good), revisit it, and bring some new life to it.
The following is a condensed and edited version of what O’Keefe and Benjamin shared during the musical writing clinic hosted by Michael Wartofsky.
On rhyming schemes of musical theater
Benjamin: When you are writing for musical theater, make sure that your rhymes are exact. If you are writing a comedy, this will make your jokes pop and land much better and it will keep the words the audience is hearing memorable. Keep in mind that the plural does not rhyme with the singular (i.e., tears and year). When you have an emotional line and you end it with an exact rhyme, it will be much more satisfying to the listener.
O’Keefe: Exactitude is your friend. It is a gift to the ear and makes the audience perk up, check in, and feel like, Yes, that is what I heard.
On the idea that sometimes less is more
O’Keefe: Always be willing to go back and rewrite or cut things that don’t really work. It is very typical for composers to overwrite and form is determined by content so your music will reflect that. In regards to writing songs, if you have a complex score, then your lyrics should be simple and vice versa. The ideal Broadway show has exactly as many words as it needs and nothing more. Try to cut as many syllables, not just words, out of a given chorus or verse if you can. The more syllables you can cut out, the more likely you will be to find your melody.
Benjamin: Quite often you come across someone in musical theater who wants to show off everything they have and so when the composer, conductor, and players are all showing off you get a wall of sound. In live turn-of-the-century playhouses, that wall of sound [in regards to sound design] is your enemy.
On adaptation rights and original material
Benjamin: I would not advise staring a project and later trying to get the rights to it, as it will become more of a hassle. My recommendation is to do original work as much as possible because the business as it stands right now is all about adaptation. This means any property you wish to use will be very expensive to make. Any time you bring interest to someone’s work, it instantly gains value.
O’Keefe: Original work is the way to go. Look at the last few works that have become very popular, like The Book of Mormon, In the Heights, Avenue Q, Drowsy Chaperone, and Memphis, all of which are original creations.
On the importance of saying what you mean and meaning what you say
O’Keefe: Make sure you start a song at the best place it should start. Anytime you say something to an audience, the feeling of trust and belief is their first reaction. They have agreed to pay money and sit with you for two hours; therefore, you have them in a very vulnerable state. If you start off a song with, “I don’t know how to say this,” they [the audience] will believe you. We, as writers, try to warm up the crowd with an introduction but really take a look at it and see if it can be cut. One of my favorite principles is: if it can be cut, then it must be cut.