SHOW FOLK: Laurence O’Keefe & Nell Benjamin on “Life of the Party”
You’ve heard of a musical being tested via an out of town tryout — but what about an after school tryout? Laurence O’Keefe & Nell Benjamin, acclaimed composers of the Tony-nominated and Olivier-winning Legally Blonde, are doing exactly that in an extraordinary collaboration with New York’s LaGaurdia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Opening this Thursday night and running through the weekend, the students will be presenting the world premiere of Life of the Party, a new show about movie musicals in the Soviet Union, directed by Paul Lincoln. Featuring a talented (and enormous cast) and a 45 piece orchestra, this ain’t your Mama’s high school musical.
I had a chance to play “he said/she said” with the husband & wife writing team as they made final preparations for the big debut — and they had a lot to say about their cast, their inspirations and their own high school dreams.
Let’s get the basic facts out of the way first: how did you end up working with LaGuardia High School on a new piece?
Larry: We ended up working there because we were floored by the production Paul Lincoln directed there last year. It was Kismet, with a cast of about 70, an orchestra of about 45, all singing these amazing, operatic tunes. And everyone was so young, but so committed and so well trained; and the production itself looked like it cost millions. It was an amazing evening, and everything I like to see in theater but seldom get to: huge commitment, passionate execution and huge scale. And for only 20 bucks!
So when our old friends (Paul and Mary Ann Swerdfeger, the head of LaGuardia’s opera workshop) came to us after and said “would you like to create a show for the 2012 school year?”, we were very tempted. Yet at first we were doubtful we could think of anything. At first we went “uh oh, what show could we possibly do that would be 1) big enough, 2) appropriate for legit voices instead of our usual pop belting songs, 3) appropriate for students?” But then we remembered an idea for a show that we had been turning over in our heads for more than a decade.
Nell: Back in 1997 we saw this documentary called East Side Story about movie musicals made behind the Iron Curtain, and it was fascinating. When you make a musical in general, it’s so collaborative that you have to pay attention to a lot of different opinions and sometimes you factor them into your final work, and sometimes you stick to your own vision. Now imagine if sticking to your own vision got you hauled off to a prison camp or shot. There’s something both tragic and funny about being killed for an insufficiently revolutionary musical number. It’s the highest-stakes version of what we do, and we really wanted to find a way to do a show about it.
It just seemed a little too dark and absurd for a traditional musical, but when we saw the production of Kismet,and Paul asked us if we wanted to write something original for LaGuardia, we thought maybe this was our chance. We worried it might be too dark for high school, but if anyone knows about regimes built on intimidation and bullying, it’s kids in high school.
Did knowing who would be performing the show influence how you wrote the piece?
Larry: Absolutely. We’d already met many of them and knew they were great. We knew a few things: that the kids were great singers; that most of them were unusually focused for 17- and 18-year-olds, but still, most of them were 17 or 18 and their voices are still developing, so their energy can sometimes outstrip their endurance, so we have to remind them to pace themselves. We knew the guys didn’t like to sing too high but the girls absolutely love to sing high. And we knew that out of the 60-plus singers in the cast, most of them would be women.
So we found ourselves working with unusual parameters, which helped shape our material in ways we never expected. Having over 40 female voices at our disposal forced us to get inventive to create lots of interesting and weird characters so that as many girls as possible would have opportunities to shine on stage. And it turns out that they were very open to acting advice and very willing to try new things. So that was a pleasant surprise.
Nell: We spent several weeks bringing in scenes and asking our performers to read them, to see if we could develop characters around their strengths. As Larry mentions, we have a lot of female cast members, so it was important to us to create opportunities for female characters in the show. Instead of making them one monolithic chorus, we have them be different choral groups in different numbers. Sometimes they are Russian women, waiting outside a prison for news of their husbands. Sometimes they are inmates in a local women’s asylum. Sometimes they are merry bandit maids, roaming the Caucasus. We wanted as many people to have a moment on stage as possible, and with a cast this size, that’s a lot of people. One thing we never had to do was simplify any of our writing, either dramatically or musically for this cast. They may be students but they have all the talent and work ethic of professionals. They rise to every challenge. One night we posted a brand new seven page trio on the rehearsal website. When the three kids arrived at rehearsal the next afternoon they had learned the music and memorized it during school with no one teaching them the music, no coaches – while they were doing their history and calculus classes. Amazing!
I’m sure the students are learning a lot working with you but what have you learned working with them?
Larry: Young artists are just as perceptive as grownups are; they’re just not as practiced in the art of hiding skepticism when something isn’t right. And I love that lesson, because it means the feedback is faster and more honest. In turn it reminds me that most of the battle is decided before you walk in the room. If you want to have a smooth rehearsal with a maximum of attentiveness and hard work and a minimum of messing around, then make sure beforehand that you’ve written something compelling, surprising, logical and heartfelt. When we bring in a new piece to learn, they are very perceptive about where a moment, a melody, a lyric or an idea is half-baked or half-assed. It reminds us to work very hard beforehand yet be prepared to make fast changes immediately to make things work.
Nell: The students remind me why I love theater in the first place: when everyone is working hard on something they’re excited about, it doesn’t feel like work.
Think back to when you were in high school; whom would you have wanted to show up to workshop a new show? If you weren’t interested in musical theater, what other famous performer/artist’s arrival would have blown your mind?
Larry: In high school I had heard the name Stephen Sondheim, but it wasn’t till college that I really got to know his work and he became the master of my universe like he was for everyone else. So at the time he wouldn’t have been in my top five, but I sure would have appreciated it if he visited.
In high school I knew Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz through West Side Story, Pippin and Godspell: having them come teach would have exploded my brains. Billy Joel would have been awesome, even if he weren’t teaching anything theatrical. I had been a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan since my 5th grade production of The Pirates Of Penzance, so if either of them arrived at school I would have either yelled omigod I love you guys!, or more likely, run for your lives THE DEAD LIVE.
Nell: When I was in high school, I was in a few Shakespeare plays and the director brought in videos of John Barton working with various Royal Shakespeare Company members like Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. I had previously thought of Shakespeare as Literature that you write papers about, but here people were saying: “No, it’s dialogue. It’s drama. Sometimes…it’s even jokes!”It was so eye opening that I became pretentiously fascinated with the Royal Shakespeare Company and I think I tried very hard to maintain an English accent through tenth grade. It was not a success.
If you could go back and give your high school self some advice based on what you’ve learned since then, what would you say?
Larry: Find a piano teacher who knows jazz theory and keep at it. Go to the computer lab and have them teach you that cool program that notates sheet music. Take more music courses. Harass your mom to get her to take you to more Broadway shows and opera. And stay away from Jennifer, she’s trouble.
Nell: Lose the English accent.
Tickets are on sale now for Life of the Party at LaGuardia High School.