"How Very": Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy on Collaboration and Competition While Writing Heathers: The Musical
By Carey Purcell
Tony nominee Laurence O'Keefe and Emmy winner Kevin Murphy, writers of Heathers: The Musical, chat with Playbill.com about working together and revisiting high school as teenage girls.
Adapting an eight-second scene featuring a single line from a movie into a three-minute gospel-style musical number might sound like an exercise in insanity for some, but for Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy, it was just another step in a long-standing friendly competition.
The songwriting team behind Heathers: The Musical, which opened March 31 at New World Stages, has shared a friendly rivalry for years, consisting of admiration for each other's creativity, promptly followed by attempts to one-up each other. The most recent outcome — the musical adaptation of the cult favorite 1988 dark comedy about high school cliques — features the results of this contest in its witty, sarcastic score, including the show-stopping second-act song, "I Love My Dead Gay Son," which was inspired by a single line in the film.
"Every time I see his stuff, I'm like, 'I wish I'd thought of that!'" O'Keefe said of Murphy's work. "That's been my reaction 12 times in act one, nine times in act two of Reefer [Madness]. In 'Ed.' In 'Desperate Housewives.' Even yesterday or a few days ago, when we were finishing our latest song, which is my favorite song this week."
O'Keefe and Murphy, whose respective credits include Bat Boy, Legally Blonde and Reefer Madness, are now applying their talents and rivalry to Heathers: The Musical, which tells the story of a high school terrorized by three popular girls (all named Heather) and the rebellious romantic duo Veronica and JD, who set out to change the social status quo — with some disastrous results.
The two spoke highly of the film and the honesty in its portrayal of high school hell.
"It's incredibly funny. It's funny because it's truthful," O'Keefe said. "It told the truth that people didn't want to admit about their kids, their schools, their parents, and faculty, about the 80s. It was a great antidote at the time.
"We live in a much more 'Heathers' world now, which was ruled by cynicism, the expectation that things are wrong, the expectation that people are out to get you," he added. "To us, the subversive thing is to go the other way and to look for glimmers of hope, look for the moments of optimism, the moments of fighting back, seeking justice, where the heroine is active and tries to fix the world."
While researching for the musical, O'Keefe and Murphy read teen psychology books and noticed numerous trends that read almost like a checklist of the characters in "Heathers."
"Dan Waters, instinctively, just by being a journalist and looking around him, by not being a psychiatrist, managed to truthfully identify all the ways that teens find to be horrible to each other," Murphy said. "And he managed an incredible swift wit, which is what makes the movie so incredibly special."
But, Murphy and O'Keefe were quick to add, the movie and the musical both contain a message of hope.
"At the very end of the movie, you see that [Veronica] has accepted her power," O'Keefe said. "She's forgiven her classmates enough to take care of them now. She has learned how to take care of them; she's accepted her responsibility. What makes it awesome is that it just so happens that these moments of optimism and hope are exactly what musical theatre needs. You cannot do a musical about nothing but anger, posing, competition, cruelty and violence."
One area where hope was added to the musical was the song "I Love My Dead Gay Son," a line spoken at a funeral by a father who has been led to believe his son committed suicide due to repressed homosexuality. O'Keefe and Murphy knew they had to take the story one step further by creating conflict between two grieving fathers — one of whom does not support homosexuality.
"It's a grieving dad who has built something positive out of his hideous negative experience," O'Keefe said. "So I was like, 'Aha! We can't do a whole song of that.' In the movie it only took eight seconds. For the musical, we need something else. That dad does not earn a three-minute song singing about how he loves his dead gay son, unless he's educating someone who needs education.
"The other dad is a bigot. The other dad reacts with fear and self-loathing to discovering his son wasn't who he thought he was," he continued. "So the dad who has learned something from this, the sadder but wiser dad, steps up and says, 'How dare you? I can't believe you're saying that. It is ignorant, hateful talk like yours that makes this world a place our boys cannot live in. I have learned something from his death. Stop spreading hate.' And suddenly, you've earned a song."
The song is filled with witty lines, sung so quickly one can barely catch them all, which O'Keefe and Murphy also credit to their competitive nature.
"We're both sort of, as fast as we can, trying to top each other with the first line," O'Keefe said. "If your first line is fantastic and it makes people laugh, just because of the first line, you've already set the ground. So we're fighting each other, trying to come up with that line."
Murphy offered insight into the creative process, saying, "One of the things that's kind of funny — when one of us presents a lyric idea to the other, if we don't like the one that's presented, we don't go back and present the first one. Now the challenge is presented to find something that's even better than either of the two options. That's worked really well, because it's forced us to life more weight, jump higher, and to push ourselves."
The competition must have been easy for Murphy; when asked how he gained insight into the minds of 17 year-old girls, he promptly responded, "I never left." Turning to O'Keefe, he added, "Now top that."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)
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