Playbill.com takes a look at the production as part of our new Playbillder.com Spotlight series. Organizations across the country can now create an authentic Playbill as part of this new venture.
History repeats itself.
"There was this production of Merrily We Roll Along at Harvard — an undergrad production — and I was in it," recalled Bay Boy songwriter Laurence O'Keefe. "Our director, a guy no older than me, contacted George Furth and said, 'Hey do you want to come visit?' And, George Furth said, 'It just so happens, I've been working on updates and revisions on Merrily We Roll Along. Do you want to do them?' And, so we did. I guess I'm just copying what happened to me as an undergrad, and it was really wonderful to have that chance and get [to work] with George. I'm just a copycat I guess."
This time, O'Keefe was on the opposite end of the phone call. Cynthia Meng, a Harvard undergrad and the music director of Bat Boy, met O'Keefe through The Hasty Pudding Theatricals (a theatrical student society at Harvard known for putting up drag musicals) and sent him an email asking if he'd like to check out a rehearsal. He responded with, "Can you have your director give me a call?" "I called Larry in August, and he told me that he and the other writers had always wanted to take a stab at making the show better," said director Ally Kiley. "My producer, Sam Moore, and I went to the Office for the Arts at Harvard to speak to them about the opportunity, and they were able to provide very generous funding to bring Larry and Brian and Keythe over here for three visits."
O'Keefe and book writers Brian Flemming and Keythe Farley live in three different cities and have been trying for years to be in the same place at the same time to make changes to Bat Boy, the cult musical about an angst-ridden teenage bat child named Edgar, who is struggling to find his place in society.
"We did some great revisions for the London production, and we felt we'd never finished the job," explained O'Keefe. "The one thing we promised ourselves would be that we would accept no time pressure."
They told the students of the student-run Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club that if they didn't like what was brought to the table, they could stick with the original, licensed version of Bat Boy. But, if they did, they could be the first to debut the new material.
"Keythe and Brian and I have always known that there are places where it slows down more than it has to, or where some of the characters deserve more content or the audience deserves a deeper understanding of the character," said O'Keefe. "We're not done with fleshing out parts, but I'd say that the easiest example is the first 20 minutes of the show.
"The first 20 minutes can be tighter and faster to answer the important questions: 'Will Bat Boy starve before we get a chance to get to know him?' or 'Will people kill him before we have a chance to get to know him?' We get those questions answered, and then we get as quickly as possible to a walking, talking Bat Boy who is desperate to join society and find his place in the world. Until he can express himself, the audience really only has one question: 'Will he live?' Those [original] first 20 minutes are hinged on that. It shouldn't have been 20 minutes; it should have been 12 at the most."
Student director Kiley said that the newer version "runs much cleaner, and we get a much better sense of the characters. It's so much more heartbreaking. That voice is definitely a more sympathetic character right from the start."
In its original incarnation, it isn't until halfway through the first act that the bat boy is transformed into Edgar, a walking, talking, functioning member of society — taught language and manners by BBC language tapes.
Now, in its new state, songs and scenes have been condensed, and a new song for Dr. Parker, entitled "Twenty Feet Off the Floor," has been added. It replaces the previous "Dance With Me, Darling."
"That song is not my proudest moment," admitted O'Keefe, "and hundreds of great actors have now done that song, and they deserved better. Sean McCourt did a great job with a song that should have given him more to work with, so I've always felt a little guilty about that."
He continued, "The opening number has a different approach, slightly. The second number of the show where Bat Boy winds up in the Parker house has a tiny bit of new material; we've introduced some of the concerns of the townspeople. And, in every way we've tried to make everything tighter and more logical and keep the pace up — because our show works best when it's fast and furious and when the audience doesn't have time to relax. We've got to keep the surprises coming. In some cases, we've tightened a lot of different scenes so that the surprises are closer together. In other cases we've instituted a surprise." Luckily, student director Kiley recently assisted on the A.R.T. production of Finding Neverland and is used to a show changing by the minute.
"Your first inclination, especially as a student when you're talking to a professional, is to say what you like about something. But, luckily, Larry, Brian and Keythe are all really welcoming, really down to earth and created a space where I felt comfortable saying, 'This isn't working.' And, I think that they appreciated that feedback," she said. "The actors also have great feedback to give. They're people who have been sitting with these characters for a while and I think have already gotten to know them really well and could offer a lot of insight to the writers."
As for Bat Boy's future, O'Keefe said his goals are "utterly predictable. We would love Bat Boy to make it to Broadway. It had a close shave. It came close in New York. It was doing well before 9/11. We'd love it to finally make it there.
"We would love to be able to say to the various movie and Broadway-type people who have periodically expressed interest, 'Hey, yes. Not only do we agree with you that we'd love Bat Boy to come in and have a Broadway life, but we've been thinking about it, and we've been working on it. We haven't been sleeping on it. We've been trying to make it better.' Our goal is to make this show more attractive, better, more like itself — not go off on tangents because we think we have a fairly good handle on when the show is right and when the show isn't — and we would very much like it to be worthy of the attention.
"Every couple months, some smart guy from New York or Hollywood expresses some interest, and we've always been, like, 'Yeah, we're very flattered by your interest.' Deep down, we kind of know the show probably could benefit from some more attention and revision before we start going down the extensive routes of production… Keythe and Brian and I love to tinker with it, but we don't just tinker with it to tinker. We'd love for it to just be a better thing that is suddenly so attractive that everybody wants to do it. We'll see."
Performances of Bat Boy are offered Nov. 14-16 at 7:30 PM, Nov. 20-22 at 7:30 PM and Nov. 23 at 2:30 PM.
Just like the Playbills found on and Off-Broadway and in numerous theatres across the country, the Playbillder contains billing features identical to those used by award-winning theatre professionals for decades. Click here to view the Playbillder for Bat Boy.
Visit Playbillder.com to explore more exciting productions across the U.S. and to build one of your own.
To learn more about arts programs at colleges and universities across the country, including Harvard University, visit PlaybillEDU.com.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)