background and analysis by Scott Miller
“Here now the phenomenon is taking place: the beginning, the Genesis, of a cultural revolution. It is taking place out of utter necessity to survive... Personally, I have little hope for the survival of our civilization. But whatever hope we have lies with our artists. For they alone have the ability (if we do not continue to corrupt them) to withstand the onslaught of the mass media and the multitude of false gods. They alone have the ability to show us ourselves.”
– Ralph Cook, quoted in Eight Plays from Off Off Broadway
On the surface, Bat Boy: The Musical seems to be a wacky, big-hearted satire about American prejudice. But dig a little deeper, venture down into the dark caves and chambers of human emotion, and you’ll find a bigger, more interesting idea that underpins everything else in the show: we all have an animal side, a primitive, primordial beast in us that lashes out when we’re afraid, that drives our hungers for sex, for food, for power, for control – and fear of The Other. The last line of the show implores us, “Don’t deny your beast inside.” And that’s the heart of Bat Boy, the knowledge that we are, all of us, animal to one degree or another, and that we must embrace and integrate that side rather than fear it. The creators of Bat Boy: The Musical, Keythe Farley, Brian Flemming, and Laurence O’Keefe, have given us a hero who literally, physically embodies that dangerous mix. Edgar the Bat Boy represents every one of us, always trying to control our beast with only the thinnest layer of civilization as protection.
Every one of the characters gives in to his or her inner beast at some point in the story, but because Edgar is different on the surface, he is to ridiculed, scorned, feared. We see in this beautiful, hilarious fable not only our own inner struggles, but also echoes of racism past and present (even the rationale for slavery); and as technology moves forward faster than our ethics can, who knows what next? We face our inner Neanderthal in the characters of Bat Boy, and it’s a hell of a ride.
But Bat Boy is also about storytelling itself. In Act II of the show, a Pan-like figure called simply “King of the Forest” appears to sing the slyly subversive song “Children, Children.” The opening lines, “Children, welcome home to where we all began,” not only invite the young lovers Edgar and Shelley back to the roots of humanity and sex, urging them to embrace their more primal, animal natures, but they also invite the audience back to the roots of theatre, back to mythic stories told around a fire, back to Grotowski’s “poor theatre,” where it’s about the storytelling, not the budget, where originality is more important than money or technology, where the audience’s imagination is the final vital ingredient.
In the late 1990s, the American musical began returning once again to the roots of George M. Cohan and the earliest musical comedies, though now with a postmodern layer of irony on top. With the musicals built on the Rodgers and Hammerstein model, the actors and audiences have all agreed for the last sixty-plus years to pretend what was happening on stage was real. Of course, that was always a big stretch since the orchestra kept firing up and the actors would break into song. But with the early musical comedies, and now again with what many are calling postmodern musicals, the artifice of musical theatre isn’t just acknowledged (as the concept musicals of the 70s did), it’s actively and aggressively referenced. These new shows remove the burden of “suspension of disbelief,” acknowledging it as fundamentally silly, completely taking that issue off the table. These new shows (Bat Boy, Urinetown, Avenue Q, Spelling Bee, and others) essentially say to their audiences, We know and you know that none of this is real. We’re not pretending it is. We just want to tell you a great story. And without the burden of naturalism, which musical theatre never really conquered, endless new possibilities are opened up.
To be fair, Bat Boy is not about the conventions of Broadway musicals. Its authors have not written a musical about Broadway musicals. No, they wrote a show about a boy trying to find his place in the world, about the search for love, about past mistakes never really being past. But Bat Boy succeeds on more than one level, even on levels that may not have been contemplated by its authors. And while it tells its beautiful, touching, wacky story, it also laughs hard at the conventions of traditional musical comedy – gently and affectionately, but it still laughs. The big Act I production number, “Show You a Thing or Two,” recalls other time-telescoping sequences like the “Poor Professor Higgins”/“Rain in Spain” scene in My Fair Lady (the bat boy even exclaims “I think I’ve got it!”) or the prologue in West Side Story. “Children, Children” was originally meant to wink at any play or movie that anthropomorphizes wild animals into cuddly human-like creatures, but today it’s hard not to see it more specifically as a parody of the overly artsy pretensions of the stage version of The Lion King (a show that didn’t yet exist when Bat Boy was created), which not only makes animals human but also projects onto them some kind of faux-primitive Great Art. Bat Boy laughs at big cast shows like Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera by making so very obvious the practice of actors playing multiple parts, but in this case, switching gender and switching wigs in full view of the audience. Bat Boy laughs at big, unmotivated dance numbers by giving us a sudden, old-fashioned, song-and-dance number (“Show You a Thing or Two”) in the middle of a gothic thriller. It laughs at the oh-so-serious, tragic-poetic musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Jekyll & Hyde and Jane Eyre, shows that try so hard to be dark and important, that fall flat most often because of uninspired lyrics that are only sometimes obscured by lush orchestrations and lavish sets.
Composer Larry O’Keefe says:
We did set out to foil people's expectations of what a musical does – making the love story perverse, the ending unhappy and the moral absurd – but we never intended to remind people of other songs or shows while watching ours. Unfortunately, our director for the off Broadway production misinterpreted our intentions and did occasionally play up some faint similarities to other shows: for instance “Children, Children” contains a lot of singing celebrating forest animals, so he staged it like a parody of Julie Taymor using costumes and staging cribbed from The Lion King; but these were unnecessary surface references. We also unfortunately opened in NYC around the same time as Urinetown, which does in fact contain specific parodies of songs and shows, so we got tarred with the same brush.
Still, by rejecting some of the more ridiculous conventions of contemporary commercial theatre (musical or non-), by insisting on a theatre of imagination instead of high-tech machines, by using imaginative techniques from the world of improv and experimental theatre, Bat Boy does indeed comment on other musicals, intentionally or not. By its very existence and its success, Bat Boy argues that too many musicals have gone too far, have gotten too high-tech, have lost the simplicity and joy of story-telling. Bat Boy has a small cast, a small budget, no helicopters or chandeliers, no special effects, and yet it doesn’t suffer for all that – it ends up being more fun, more transporting, more magical, more emotional, because it goes back to the roots of storytelling and relies on its audience to participate in the magic. Edgar the Bat Boy tries to teach the people of his town about tolerance and acceptance, while Bat Boy the musical tries to teach us, the audience, about what really matters in the theatre – people, emotion, relationships.
Birth of the Bat
It all started with the satirical supermarket tabloid, Weekly World News. This brilliantly funny newspaper boasted outrageous headlines over the years like “Dead Rock Stars Return on Ghost Plane!” and “Faces of Howard Stern, Pamela Anderson and Satan Appear in Volcano Smoke!” and the classic, “Bill Catches Hillary With Space Alien!,” a story that claimed one of the best subheads in the history of newsprint: “I thought she was gay, says stunned ex-Prez.” It did a story called, “Surprising Bible Prophecies Your Preacher Doesn't Want You to Read,” about a “turncoat Vatican librarian” who has revealed parts edited out of the Bible, including an unknown corollary to the Tenth Commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife unless you in turn are willing to share thine own wife with him.”
In 2001, The Washington Post did a tribute article to the tabloid, saying, “Funnier than Saturday Night Live, deeper than Leno or Letterman, smarter than Mad, more outrageous than The Onion, Weekly World News just might be America's best purveyor of social satire. The fact that it's disguised as a sleazy tabloid just makes it that much more delicious.”
In 1992, the Weekly World News began following every twist and turn in the bizarre life of a poor half-bat/half-boy who was found in a rural West Virginia cave, dispatching a crack team of twenty-four reporters and photographers assigned exclusively to the bat boy story. The paper described him this way: “Discovered in a cave in Hope Falls, West Virginia, this half-bat has escaped from captivity and is currently at large. He can be identified by large, pointy ears and oversized eyes that make him profoundly sensitive to sound and light. The creature has reportedly attacked at least three people with his razor-sharp fangs and should be considered extremely dangerous.” The paper chronicled how he initially attacked a 10-year-old girl; how he was captured by the government and then got sick; how he received 17,402,901 get-well cards in the hospital from Weekly World News readers, how sympathetic nurses fed him flies; how he escaped from the hospital by crawling from a sixth-story window; how his abrupt withdrawal from hospital drugs caused him to go crazy and attempt to mate with a scarecrow; how he was chased by a bloodthirsty bounty hunter; how he was run over by an exterminator's truck; how he showed up mysteriously at Al Gore’s campaign headquarters in 2000, wanting to officially endorse Gore; how he tried to sneak into the White House to visit Jenna Bush; and most notably, how he joined the U.S. military in Afghanistan because his special bat vision made it easy for him to find the Taliban in all those caves.
In November 1996, two writers were standing in the lobby of the Actors’ Gang Theatre in Los Angeles. Keythe Farley, Gang member and director, and Brian Flemming, a screenwriter and film director, were working the concession stand for intermission of the musical Euphoria, when in wandered Laurence O’Keefe, the composer-lyricist and music director of Euphoria, taking a break. Farley and Flemming told O’Keefe they liked his music and lyrics and asked if O’Keefe would be interested in a project of theirs, based on a character from the pages of the Weekly World News named Bat Boy. They showed O’Keefe a cover of the Weekly World News featuring the bat boy’s picture, a baby with huge fangs, bulging eyes and pointy ears. They were determined to tell this poor creature’s story – from the beginning. O’Keefe was shocked. “That’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “I’ll do it.”
On Halloween 1997, Bat Boy made its world premiere at the Actors’ Gang Theatre, perhaps the only place where this show would be understood and properly nurtured. The Actors’ Gang is Los Angeles’ premier repertory theatre company, creating original works and reinterpreting classics, through the prism of The Style, a performance method derived from commedia dell’arte, from the work of the Theatre du Soleil in Paris, from vaudeville, from the political agitprop theatre of the 1930s, and from the off off Broadway movement of the 1960s, particularly the work of the Play-House of the Ridiculous. The Style is artificial and presentational, yet insists on deep truthfulness and high emotional stakes. All the authors agree today that The Style was instrumental in both the writing and the execution of Bat Boy: The Musical.
O’Keefe says, “The Actors' Gang is a hyperactive and politically committed theater company that teaches if you show an emotion, always make it a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. People pay money to see a show portray terror, rage, despair and joy, so we might as well sell it in megadoses. We were consciously trying to dig up the deepest and most volcanic emotions, the most inflammatory questions – what is it like to be a scapegoat? what is it like to be loved by one parent and hated by another? What is it like to have no idea who your parents are? What is it like to have an insatiable hunger for blood?”
Director and co-author Keythe Farley developed what Flemming likes to call the “take-it-so-seriously-it's-funny-but-it-also-hurts” style of Bat Boy. Both Deven May (as Edgar) and Kaitlin Hopkins (as Meredith) were in this first production and, together with Farley, they found the extremely sincere approach that this outrageous musical demands. Farley’s mantra throughout the development process was “the height of expression, the depth of sincerity,” a style of truthful acting that marked all the work at the Actors’ Gang – something the cast took to heart and something which guided them throughout the L.A. and New York productions. Brain Flemming says of his partner, “Keythe's major contribution to Bat Boy has gone largely unmentioned, but it was great and permanent.” Unlike musicals in which the goal is to be as silly as possible (The Producers, Spamalot, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), with Bat Boy, the goal is to be as serious as possible within the context of an utterly silly universe.
About half the songs from the L.A. production remained largely unchanged in the off Broadway production, including “Christian Charity,” “Show You A Thing Or Two,” and “Children, Children.” The music for the opening number “Hold Me Bat Boy” was nearly identical to the final version, although the lyrics were changed over time. Other songs from 1997 were more substantially altered, or replaced, in later versions. Julio Martinez wrote in Variety, “The clever scenario, though outrageous, always contains an aura of intriguing plausibility. And to his credit, [director Keythe] Farley creates a supercharged mix of heightened realism, surrealism and fantasy that is always engrossing. The work is magnificently served by the emotion-charged, thoroughly realistic performance of [Devon] May [as the Bat Boy], who catapults himself body and soul into the seared psyche of this child who possesses the mind of a genius but the uncontrollable, blood-craving appetite of a beast.”
Throughout 1999 and 2000, the show went through staged readings at the Directors’ Company in New York, now with director Scott Schwartz at the helm. The pace of the work was stepped up, aiming toward a 2001 New York opening, with rewrites continuing even after opening. And the collaboration among the writers was an unusually close one, free of ego. O’Keefe says, “I would take a character's speech and replace it with sung lyrics, or sometimes even take a line of dialogue and set it verbatim to music. Sometimes it worked in the opposite direction – we'd try a song in one place and realize it stole ideas or energy from a better song later, so the song would disappear and be replaced by new dialogue.”
Bat Boy the Musical opened at the Union Square Theatre in New York in March 2001, where it was a big hit but suffered the same fate as many other New York shows after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and it closed that December. It’s tempting to guess how long the show would have run if not for the terrorist attacks and whether it would have moved uptown to Broadway like Urinetown did. But in a post-9/11 world, the hatred and discrimination leveled against the Bat Boy in the show took on a whole new dimension, as anyone in America with a Middle Eastern background was now a potential victim of abuse, harassment, and even imprisonment, based only on their appearance, their ethnicity, their clothing. The metaphor that was Bat Boy now held a power wholly unanticipated by its creators.
One of the many achievements of the show’s creators was their fierce adherence to the Ten-Minute Rule of Musicals. This rule says that you can do anything you want in a musical (or play or movie, for that matter) – talk to the audience, sing the dialogue, use obscene language, move out into the audience, establish a bizarre premise (as in Little Shop of Horrors, Reefer Madness, or Urinetown), anything you want, as long as you do it in the first ten minutes, to tell the audience what the rules are for the evening, to make clear how this show will function. Frank Hauser writes, in Notes on Directing, “In all the best material, the outcome is inevitable and inherent in the opening moment and in every moment in between. From the audience’s perspective, this can only be understood and appreciated backwards, after the play has run its course.” Bat Boy starts with a very short scene in a cave that establishes the central conflict – the bat boy against an uncivilized “civilization,” the classic Man vs. Society. The show then moves into its opening number, “Hold Me, Bat Boy,” during which the faux-serious tone of the show is established. Several short dialogue scenes inside the song establish the community (arguably the show’s antagonist), performance style, the central plot premise, the style of music, major musical themes, and the show’s offbeat sense of humor (“They beat him like a gong, and he was kicked repeatedly. And that was wrong, so wrong.”), and the main textual themes are introduced, as well. And they do all this while keeping the audience laughing and their toes tapping. All in the first ten minutes.
The structure of the show is also interesting. The whole story is told in flashback. The opening number, “Hold Me, Bat Boy,” a sort of prologue (and later, epilogue) tells the basics of the story in the past tense. The singers already know the outcome. They have already learned the lessons. They sing to us, “You are here not to laugh, but to learn” – which is funny in context because clearly the show’s first priority is to laughs. One of the more subtle comic moments comes before the reprise of “Hold Me, Bat Boy” at the end of the show. The Man from the Institute finally shows up – too late – and asks what has happened. The Sheriff says, “It’s a long story. I don’t where to begin.” Of course, he does know where to begin. They’ve just finished telling us this story. Just a little bit of funny, self-referential playfulness.
And then there’s the name of the town – Hope Falls – more descriptive than anyone living there would like to admit. The town is plagued with tragedy. It’s there that Edgar finds love and loses it. It’s there that Mrs. Taylor loses her family. It’s there that the Parkers family is torn apart. And there are those dead cows. The story starts out loaded with hope, but that hope falls before the story is done.
The New York Times said of the off Broadway show, “It's remarkable what intelligent wit can accomplish... the show is a jaggedly imaginative mix of skewering humor and energetic glee.” The New York Post said, “Bat Boy soars! An instant classic!” The New York Daily News called it “an outrageously silly and totally charming show. . . wickedly funny! A wacky, hilarious musical!” USA Today called it “immensely satisfying.” Backstage said, “Rarely do we see a piece of theatre that is at once so smart, silly, self-aware, and easy to enjoy as Bat Boy the Musical.” It ran 260 performances.
Ah, the Children of the Night
Among his many models, Bat Boy is primarily built on two classic horror models – Count Dracula and the Frankenstein monster –both models updated to the twenty-first century. The Bat Boy feeds contemporary, small-town, fundamentalist Christian anxieties just as Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula fed Victorian English anxieties – about sex, promiscuity, pre-marital sex (not just immoral but deadly), and the passing of bodily fluids. Like Dracula, the bat boy is both pathetic and dangerous, both lonely and predatory, both sexual and dangerous. In Victorian England, Count Dracula represented a kind of unfettered sexuality, a freedom of sexual expression, a freedom of women to be fully sexual and to enjoy their bodies without responsibility. In today’s world, the Bat Boy represents non-conventional sexuality, both in his mysterious creation and in his desire to love and marry a human girl and to make a family. The people of Hope Falls find all this disgusting, unnatural, morally wrong, just as many Christians today believe that cloning, another new kind of life-creation, is the same. Edgar’s desire for inter-species sex offers up a not-so-veiled parallel to fundamentalist Christian’s claims that condoning and legalizing gay sex will lead to widespread and uncontrolled bestiality. Dracula and Bat Boy are about a “moral” society’s reaction to “outsiders” – ironic quotation marks noted – in the form of foreigners moving into London in Stoker’s time, non-Christians (particularly Muslims these days) moving into a “Christian America” in our time.
Bat Boy also raises the specter of the most recent Christian bogey man – Darwin’s theory of human evolution. In recent years, fundamentalist Christians have begun arguing aggressively that Darwin’s theories of evolution are not “real” science, that they can’t possibly be true, that the only possible truth is the story of spontaneous creation by God. They argue that our schools should teach Christian “Creationism,” the idea that the universe was created in seven days by an intelligent God. But Edgar is a shadow figure that doesn’t fit into theories of either evolution or creationism, the worst kind of threat to the black-and-white world these fundamentalists yearn for. How could they explain God’s creation of a bat boy that lives off the blood and death of others? Would they say he has a soul? If it’s okay to kill animals but not humans, which category does Edgar fit into? Would it have been ethical to have aborted Edgar?
The song “Children, Children” is sung by a version of Pan, the Greek God of male sexuality (and early model for the Christian devil), and its lyric is entirely about inter-species sex, shamelessly referencing the Bible in the process, both foreshadowing the secret of Edgar’s birth, and simultaneously encouraging the fully human Shelley and the only-half-human Edgar to have sex, thereby presumably creating another hybrid creature, this time only one-quarter bat? It conjures up once very vocal fears of interracial marriage in America. The lyric could not be more explicit:
Now let the turtle and the dove,
Let the lion and the lamb,
Let the owl and wolf and ram embrace
Across the countryside.
Fur and feathers making love,
Paws and claws and jaws and beaks.
. . .
The Earth’s asleep time to wake it.
If you have clothing, forsake it.
We want you breathless and naked!
Choose your mate;
And then let’s see what we create…!
“Let’s see what we create” indeed – a throwaway phrase that invokes the bizarre premise of the story itself, the wacky-genius musical we’re watching, but also the abomination of a half-boy-half-bat. This lyric slyly starts with a Bible reference, referring to Isaiah 11:6-7, which says, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” But this song sexualizes this idea of inter-species fraternization and creates a comic, “natural” counterpart to the bio-engineering that has been advancing by leaps and bounds in the real world in recent decades, that also scares many Christians, and that sits at the heart of this tragedy.
The inter-species sex is also quite humorously foreshadowed, in G-rated form, by the children’s book that Meredith uses to teach Edgar to read, earlier in Act I. The book reads:
Here is a cat. There is a goose.
This is a rat. And that is a moose.
The cat crept up behind the goose
But then away it flew.
The rat was jealous of the moose
Who loved a kangaroo
The cat and rat made up and found
A flat in Timbuktu.
Might this be the moment that Edgar is taught that loving Shelley is okay because apparently all animals cross-breed? It’s probably his first encounter with a story about love and it’s illustrated by innocent, cute, little cross-breeding animals. This image will be developed later when those animals of the forest come to orgiastic life and sing “Children Children” to Edgar and Shelley.
Bat Boy Superstar
The famous Polish theatre director and theorist Jerzy Grotowski says that all theatre is rooted in some shared myth, and what could be more powerful than the classic myths and stories of the Outsider – Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, Jesus Christ, Hamlet, the Elephant Man, Sweeney Todd, Hair’s Claude Bukowski, Rocky Horror’s Rocky, and others. Edgar is the ultimate outsider, equally connected to all these but also to more ordinary, real world people, African Americans, immigrants, Muslims, any gay kid tormented by his peers, any teenage geek who can’t get a date, people with disabilities, and many more. (We have to wonder if Edgar would be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act…)
Edgar shares many parallels with Christ. He is born in a kind of “virgin” birth. He is the victim of profound persecution, false charges, insults, abuse, and a kind of metaphorical crucifixion. He lives a life of tolerance and tries to spread that message. There are two moments that are clear Christ references. First, at the end of Act I, during the extended musical scene, “Comfort and Joy,” Edgar prays to God. He sings:
But please my thirst grows every day.
I feel it burn in my glands.
Please won’t you change the way I am,
Or prove I’m human underneath;
Or if you just don’t give a damn…
This parallels Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, where he prays to God, asking him to stop the process that he knows will lead ultimately to his death. Also, at the beginning of Act II, at Reverend Hightower’s revival meeting, Edgar gets up to speak and sings, “Let me walk among you,” a very clear reference to Leviticus 26:12, in which God says, “I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you will be my people.” This subtly sets Edgar up as a God-like figure.
Edgar’s similarities to Frankenstein’s monster are just as interesting. He is made by an “unnatural” process, as a result of scientific experiments “run amok.” His creator rejects him. He is not allowed to love, though he is desperate to find a mate. He is gentle as a kitten when treated with kindness, and deadly as any madman when provoked. And as an example of Science Run Amok, Bat Boy resonates with other contemporary scientific ethics issues – human cloning, genetic engineering of food, stem cell research, and more. Bat Boy has the same message as many 1950s science fiction movies, that technology is evil and will only cause heartache and death. Of course, Bat Boy doesn’t really believe it. Still, the show’s prologue, “Hold Me, Bat Boy,” pretends to the same solemnity and pretension of some of the great sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s.
Bat Boy also finds its roots in another ground-breaking rock musical: The Rocky Horror Show. Like Rocky, Bat Boy is full of Christ references, Dracula references, Frankenstein references, and deals with the issue of America’s sexual Puritanism. Both shows also set up parallels to Shakespeare plays – The Tempest in Rocky Horror, and Romeo and Juliet in Bat Boy. And the end of the Bat Boy, with the bodies of the main characters strewn about the stage, even pays comic homage to the final scene of Hamlet.
Touch Me, Bat Boy
Bat Boy opened in New York the same year as another satiric musical Urinetown. Both shows satirized conventional musicals. Both shows were hilarious. Both shows kept audiences laughing by taking Broadway musical conventions and either turning them upside-down or taking them to such an extreme they no longer could be taken seriously. But the difference between the two shows was palpable. Urinetown was intellectually brilliant but cold as ice. Bat Boy was intellectually brilliant but also had a heart so big and tender that some audience members were crying at the end. And this is because, even though both shows are satires, they couldn’t be more different at their cores. Urinetown is about overthrowing a corporate monster, and the love story at the side of the central plot is nothing but a target for derision.
Bat Boy is about a defenseless boy who, through no fault of his own, has been cast aside, a boy who wants nothing more than to be loved, a boy with a big heart and lots of love to give. Even through all the satire, even through all the craziness, you can’t help but care about Edgar. He takes an incredible journey, not only to learn to be literate, to learn to be a part of a community, but also to learn self-respect, to stand up for himself, to improve himself, to demand equality, to rebel against injustice, and ultimately to learn (sadly) that the world is inherently unfair. Edgar is every great civil rights movement in America and around the world, all wrapped up in one person. O’Keefe says, “Keythe and Brian set out to build a darkly comic world around deadly serious themes, primarily the notion of scapegoating – how societies will blame their fears and failures on the unusual, the weak and the gifted. We decided to make Bat Boy all three.”
And to extend the metaphor a bit, Edgar’s growing rage throughout Act II could be compared to the growing rage in the Black civil rights movement in the1960s which gave rise to groups like the Black Panthers. As injustice grows, so too grows the fury against it. Still, as the show comes to a close, Edgar’s last line before the finale is, “I am not a boy. I’m an animal…” And in this resignation, it’s not hard to hear the voices of thousands of gay teens who’ve committed suicide because they believed the lies about them, the thousands of blacks who accepted horrific racial prejudice for hundreds of years, the voices of millions of oppressed people around the world and throughout history. Yes, Bat Boy is largely funny and there even jokes in the tragic finale, but there are also emotions too big to be contained and it’s not unusual for a performance to end with some tears in the audience – partly because we love Edgar and partly because we know in our hearts there is truth in this strange morality tale.
Edgar takes the same journey as a normal infant, though much more quickly (because apparently the drinking of blood makes him an over-achiever). He learns everything by imitation, just like a child. First, he learns to communicate with Meredith in “A Home for You” by imitating her singing. This is an interesting moment because it steps outside the reality of the story for a moment and offers a subtle wink at the conventions of musical theatre. In most musicals, characters are not aware that they’re singing; music and rhymed lyrics are merely the language of the art form, just as iambic pentameter is the language of Shakespeare’s plays. So, logically, neither Meredith nor Edgar is aware that Meredith is singing in “A Home for You” – within the reality of the show, she’s just talking to Edgar. And yet somehow, Edgar knows she’s singing because he sings back in imitation. And then the two of them harmonize (illustrating their emotional connection), which certainly implies an awareness of the music. Or maybe, Meredith does know she’s singing; maybe she is singing Edgar a lullaby – a really sophisticated one – making this music diegetic (music that exists within the story rather than just as an expression of the story, like the club numbers in Cabaret).
Edgar learns everything else by imitation too. He learns to talk by imitating Meredith. He learns his British accent by listening to and imitating BBC language tapes. He learns to love by watching Meredith. He learns to dance by imitating Shelley. He learns to have sex by watching the other forest animals in “Children, Children.” And most, importantly, he learns to hate by watching the townspeople of Hope Falls. And once again, O’Keefe’s music and lyrics do some important storytelling work as Edgar learns more and more; the best contemporary theatre writers (especially those taking up the mantle of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim) write lyrics that tell us a great deal more than what’s on the surface. Specifically, the best contemporary musicals follow the rule that the more intelligent and present of mind a character is, the more he or she rhymes; and the more emotional or the more uneducated a character may be, the less he or she rhymes. As Edgar presents his high school equivalency essay to the Parkers in “Show You a Thing or Two,” note the acrobatic interior rhymes that reveal his newfound genius. Edgar sings:
I will discuss
Who ruined all our fun,
And showed we’re just
A ball of dust
That limps around the sun.
Which brings me then
To Darwin, when
He bent us out of shape,
As he began
To prove that man
Is nephew to an ape.
We were annoyed
When Dr. Freud
Declared it’s not a soul;
It is your blind
That’s always in control.
But I submit
That any twit,
If he has eyes to see,
Can seize his fate,
And turn out just like me!
Real craftsmanship is evident here, as it is in the brilliant rhyme scheme of the flash cards list in the same song. Not only does O’Keefe cram these moments with fun, interior rhymes, but he does it without contorting sentences, without unnatural vocabulary, and all while maintaining a coherent paragraph that moves forward both character and plot. In another bit of hidden self-reference, Edgar’s essay addresses the four central issues which swirl around the subtext of Bat Boy: the nature of God and the natural world, the idea that humans evolved from animals, the concept of the human soul, and the idea that education transforms.
O’Keefe has some strong ideas about musical theatre writing:
In any show I try never to slow the plot down too much – I think audiences get bored and antsy when a character sings “What is this feeling I'm feeeeeling...” when we've just seen him get kissed, or shot at. We already know exactly what he's feeling; we want to know what he's going to do next. We should never let the audience get ahead of the characters. A song can make the audience feel the impact of an event much more strongly than just dialogue alone, true. But I think in general audiences are not as patient as they once were. So during my songs I always try to have the characters ask for something new, or change their minds violently, or sometimes die. My cliche is, you have a honeymoon during the first verse and chorus. If you get to the end of that first sixty seconds of singing without a major new plot development, your song is over; you should move on and get to that plot development.
One of the show’s biggest moments, when Meredith names Edgar, is deceptive. It seems like a throwaway, like another laugh. But it’s the turning point of the entire story. Consciously or not, Meredith’s choice for a name for the bat boy means everything. By choosing a human name no one would use for a pet or other animal, Meredith humanizes Edgar for the first time, both to Shelley and to the audience. And this is, arguably, the beginning of Shelley’s attraction to Edgar. We stop seeing Edgar as an animal and start seeing him as a person. Before Meredith names him, he’s a bat boy; after she names him, he’s a sweet young man. Shelley complains that they never know the names of the stray animals Dr. Parker has to put down, and she’s too young to understand why that is – if they name the animals, they personalize them, and killing them becomes much harder. The naming of Edgar sets all of them down a path that leads directly to the climax of the show. And despite Edgar’s apparent humanness later in the show, the authors of Bat Boy keep Edgar’s animal nature in the back of our minds through the entire show by peppering animal references everywhere – Dr. Parker’s geese, the sick cows, the animals in the children’s book, the animals mentioned in “A Joyful Noise,” in the orgy in the forest, in the flashback, and elsewhere. Animals are everywhere in Bat Boy making it impossible for Edgar – and for us – to forget his animal nature.
And significantly, Dr. Parker himself becomes animal, becomes a “monster” like Edgar, as he pursues more and more fervently his plans to destroy Edgar. His desire to remove Edgar from their lives becomes a metaphor for his fear of his own animal side; but the harder he battles, the more his animal side emerges, and eventually, he must be destroyed just as surely as Edgar must be. Likewise, Edgar unintentionally drags Shelley into a fate parallel to the what we see Meredith suffer in the flashback, due to the actions of Dr. Parker. Edgar and Dr. Parker not only share their own fates, but also force the women they love into shared fates.
Of course, the great challenge of performing Bat Boy is to play these very real emotions, very real relationships, hopes, fears, and desires, and to focus them through the lens of a bigger-than-life style of performance, to play the character’s inner lives honestly while playing their outer lives outrageously. There are only a few shows that require that dichotomy (The Cradle Will Rock, Little Shop of Horrors, and the stage version of Rocky Horror come to mind), probably because it’s just so difficult. Larry O’Keefe says of Bat Boy, “Even in its first embryonic form, the show had already found its tone: a balance between farce and high tragedy, in which any given moment might elicit snorts and guffaws from one viewer, yet tears from his neighbor in the next seat over.”
Perhaps the silliest and also most interesting aspect of Edgar’s personality is that he’s been raised by bats so that, as the show opens, he doesn’t behave like other humans; he behaves like bats. As actual bats would be, Edgar is afraid of humans at first – bats are not aggressive creatures and rarely attack people – but he eventually attacks when threatened. Big credit should go not only to the show’s creators but also to Deven May, who created the role, for making real and logical the ridiculous, sublime premise upon which the show rests.
Sex and the Single Bat
It’s fun to watch Edgar learn about human sex. The first reference to Edgar and sex is when Shelley sings, “I’m afraid he’ll reproduce” (which is on the cast album, but not in the printed score) – a strangely prescient comment. Rick then references the idea of alternative sexuality when he threatens to dress Edgar up in drag and make-up. (Rick and Shelley also taunt Edgar by telling him his father was a pig and his mother was a snake, a statement that takes on entirely new meaning by the end of the show.) Edgar then sees Shelley and Rick making out in and he tries to imitate their sexual behavior alone in his cage, which of course enrages Rick – it’s too human and it implies an understanding that makes Rick uncomfortable. Later, living in the same house with Shelley naturally leads to feelings between the two. When they each see the other dressed up for the first time, late in Act I, they begin flirting. Shelley sees the “ugly boy” who was brought to her house in a bag suddenly now as boyfriend material. The more Edgar is “civilized” the more Shelley wants him. Finally, their eventual descent into the world of “star-crossed lovers” in Act II brings them even closer together and they consummate their love. Just as Edgar grows up and becomes civilized very quickly, he also goes through an accelerated kind of puberty as well.
And Shelley changes too, as she is touched by Edgar’s sweetness and as she slowly finds she loves him. Her Act I song “Ugly Boy” is transformed into “Lovely Boy” in Act II. Shelley’s music tells us (very subtly) that she is more like Meredith than she’d like to think, that she is just as empathetic as Meredith, just as kind; it’s just that Shelley fights being like Meredith and tries to hide that side of her, especially in front of Rick. But once she switches her romantic interest from Rick to Edgar, her music changes as well, from the aggressive rap song “Watcha Wanna Do” and the dissonant “Ugly Boy” in Act I, to the gorgeous sweeping ballads she sings in Act II. Also, the melody of her big love song, “Inside Your Heart” is foreshadowed as the accompaniment to the second verse of Meredith’s lullaby to Edgar, “A Home for You,” and another part of the “Inside Your Heart” melody shows up as a short figure between phrases in the same song. On top of that, a piece of melody from “A Home for You” shows up as accompaniment in the last verse of “Inside Your Heart” – Shelley and Meredith are sharing music here. This links Meredith and Shelley musically, and by extension, temperamentally. Shelley is just as nice and kind as Meredith. (Maybe Shelley is what Meredith would have been if not for the Great Tragedy in her past.) Perhaps the first indication of this is that, very early in the show, Shelley first joins Rick’s rap song, “Watcha Wanna Do,” but changes sides during the song and eventually tries to stop the song when she sees Edgar might be in danger, finally yelling for Meredith to come to the rescue and stop the song for her.
Like many of Shakespeare’s young lovers, Edgar and Shelley run away into the woods, where the rules of civilization no longer apply, where sexuality is open and unfettered, where love can find its way without the obstacles of “polite society.” And Bat Boy even follows a common Shakespearean structure, with Act I set in town and almost all of Act II set out in the woods. The major difference is that there is no return to “civilization” in Bat Boy the way there always is in Shakespeare. The other difference is that in this case, there’s one obstacle Shakespeare’s lovers never faced – Edgar and Shelley aren’t of the same species. And that’s why the animals of the forest must assemble to sing to the lovers and let them know that in nature there is no morality, that civilization has created layers of shame and control over sexuality that are, in fact, unnatural. In this story, it is the town’s bloodlust and hatred that is unnatural, not Edgar and Shelley’s love.
An example of how Edgar’s dramatic arc changed over time – one of the last changes to the show before opening in New York was a rewrite of the surprisingly powerful “Apology To A Cow”, Edgar’s soliloquy of despair and rage. The number, interestingly, had never gotten much audience reaction in its previous incarnations, and the problem was at last identified. The audience didn’t want to see Edgar in despair; they wanted to see him rise again to fight. The ending was changed, and instead of a mad scene and a collapse into an animal state of howls and rage and dissonant crashing chords, now Edgar resolves to take revenge on all humanity (like Sweeney Todd and Dr. Parker), singing his heroic/vengeful high notes as he accepts his animal nature and raises the severed cow head over his head in triumph. After the show has made the audience fall in love with Edgar, he is now revealed to be as dangerous as Dr. Parker warned, a genuine monster. Edgar is now fully active, not passive; the moment is still tragic (though with comic echoes of the final scene of Hamlet), but much more dramatically satisfying.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Todd
Dr. Parker has two literary forefathers – Dr. Jekyll and Sweeney Todd. Part of the comedy of Dr. Parker’s character comes from his abrupt shifts from mild-mannered veterinarian into crazed madman, and sometimes, right back again. And his tragedy comes from his parallel to Sweeney Todd, both men beat up by the world, their lives ruined by forces outside their control, their lives now controlled – obsessed – by an event from years before that they are still trying to resolve that robbed them of a happy family life. Long ago, Dr. Parker and Meredith were truly in love, but their marriage began in tragedy and it never recovered. Still, all these years later, the wounds have not healed. As much as Dr. Parker still loves Meredith, she cannot love him in return; or perhaps, more accurately, she cannot face whatever love she may still feel for him. She avoids sex with him because it conjures up terrible images from past that she just can’t face. He can only get her affection by making a deal with her, by promising her something in return; and even then, it’s not real affection, just the appearance of it. When Edgar shows up, he’s only one more reminder of how alone and unloved Dr. Parker is. And Meredith’s deep and tender love for Edgar only makes it worse for Parker. His tumultuous character arc is illustrated by two parallel coming-home scenes. In the first, he arrives home to find an empty, dark house. He calls out into the darkness, but no one answers. He is utterly alone. But the second time we see him come home, in the middle of “Show Me a Thing or Two,” he enters to a Leave It to Beaver cheerfulness that makes the earlier scene even more potent:
PARKER: Honey, I’m home!
SHELLEY: Hi, Daddy! How was work?
PARKER: Great! How is Edgar coming along?
This stands in stark contrast to his first entrance, and the immediate reference to Edgar reminds us that this sitcom happiness will continue only as long as Parker keeps Edgar alive and happy. The happiness is artificial and Parker knows it.
We laugh at the extremity of Dr. Parker’s madness, at the increasing level of “evil” in him, but it’s not hard to see what has driven him to this place. Every time he asks for love, Meredith turns to Edgar instead. Over and over, Dr. Parker is rejected, humiliated, and in some way, he must blame himself for all this as well – and we can assume this is how it’s been their entire marriage. It is enough to explain his violence, his madness? Maybe, maybe not. We can’t forget, despite the English accent, that Edgar is part animal and that he attacked both Ruthie and Dr. Parker. But Parker’s love for Meredith does give us some insight into Dr. Parker’s situation. Even as he plots murderous acts late in Act I, their commission depends on how he thinks Meredith will react, whether or not it will affect Parker’s chances at winning her back. He is single-minded, just like Sweeney Todd – he must put things right again. He must have loved her very deeply, and now knowing that he may never be loved in return again, it is torture for him to live in the same house with her, especially now seeing her display such affection to Edgar. As with much of Bat Boy, Dr. Parker is funny, but there is a very sad, very dark, very dangerous underside to his character that can’t be dismissed.
Parker is a fascinating villain, one you can’t totally hate, one you can’t totally judge, and yet one who threatens the safety of our hero and those he loves. He shares more with Edgar than is immediately apparent – he too just wants to be loved and live a normal life, but the prospects are just as bleak for him as they are for Edgar. As they both sink into despair and then rage, Dr. Parker and Edgar both get their Sweeney Todd “Epiphany” moments, Parker with “Parker’s Epiphany” and also “More Blood,” and Edgar with “Apology to a Cow.” Just as Sweeney declares in “A Little Priest” that the world is divided up into who gets eaten and who gets to eat, so too Edgar declares in “Apology to a Cow” that he must “eat or be eaten.” And interestingly, both Edgar and Dr. Parker sing about the impact on them of the smiles of their beloved. In “Dance with Me Darling,” Parker sings to Meredith:
But there was a time, you know,
When you would smile at me.
Once long ago there was love in your eyes.
Similarly, in “I Imagine You’re Upset,” Edgar sings of Shelley:
Once in a while, she would meet my stare.
Then I’d forget the cage.
Surely her smile wasn’t meant for me...
Sadly, though Dr. Parker and Edgar both want the same things, each of them can only have those things if the other one doesn’t get them, or more to the point, if the other one is eliminated. But even at his most feral, it’s clear that only one thing ever motivates Parker – his love for Meredith. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in the entire show is at the end when Parker sings, “Your eyes, Meredith, he has your eyes…” It’s at that moment that we forget the ranting, the drunken rage, the savage side of Parker; at that moment, all we see is his deep, dark, unrequited, unconditional love for Meredith and the uncontrollable tragedy that has forever stained that love. And there, Bat Boy rises confidently to the level of Greek tragedy.
The actors playing the townspeople, as they repeatedly change characters in full view of the audience, and with only the slightest change in appearance, also become a physical metaphor for the transformations that Edgar, Dr. Parker, Shelley and Meredith undergo. As one actor constantly changes from Rick to Lorraine to Mr. Dillon, as another actor switches between Bud, Daisy, and the King of the Forest (sometimes with only one dialogue line separating the two characters), these quick costume/character changes underline the theme of inner transformation that informs the entire story. Edgar transforms from animal to human, from lonely individual to family member, and from outsider to insider. Dr. Parker moves from neglected husband to megalomaniac to latter day King Lear. Shelley changes from selfish teenager to empathetic girlfriend to tragic lover. Meredith changes from passive housewife to proud mother to terrified mother to strong-willed rescuer. And, as with the end of West Side Story, we hope at the end of Bat Boy that the townspeople will soon change their ways as well. Although, in one of the great comic strokes in the show, as the townspeople list the lessons they’ve learned in the final song, some of them haven’t really learned the right lessons…
In talking about the population of Hope Falls, co-author Keythe Farley recommends a book called Depth Psychology and a New Ethic by Erich Neumann. Farley says, “Neumann argues that the repression of the shadow in society causes a deep need for that energy to find a target, someone, other than us, to be the shadow that we can't own, someone who we can destroy in the hopes of creating a feeling of stability for ourselves. This dynamic is at work from our first playground scuffle to the mightiest wars of our age. Neumann goes on to identify the three types of people that society tends to scapegoat: those whom we perceive as being different (immigrants, people of color, most notably today, Muslims), those who appear weaker (‘welfare mothers,’ ‘wimps,’ the homeless) and those who we see as ‘better than us’ (Holy People, Do-Gooders, rich people, smart people, ‘the elite’). Edgar is all three: a sweet, sensitive freak of nature with a fierce intellect and a nasty bite.”
Like the town in Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, Hope Falls, the setting for Bat Boy, is a town in crisis. Its primary industry, coal mining, is gone, and the people of Hope Falls have turned to ranching, at which they do not excel. Their cattle are dying because they don’t know how to raise cattle (“A mountain’s no place to raise cows,” the finale reminds us), but rather than accept their own inadequacies, they look for a scapegoat. Edgar shows up in town and they get their scapegoat.
Bat Boy satirizes religious extremism and also religion as a misused socio-political force, but it doesn’t really poke fun at Christianity itself or at people of genuine faith. The people of Hope Falls frequently proclaim their “Christian Charity,” but it’s clear from their behavior that they aren’t nearly as Christian as they claim to be. It seems everyone in town loves exclaiming “Sweet wounded Jesus!” when they’re surprised, and yet one would assume that a serious Christian would never take the Lord’s name in vain. They initially blame the death of their cows on God, rather than recognizing how badly they are at cattle ranching. They talk about doing horrible things to Edgar and later, they threaten Dr. Parker, all the while pretending that their actions reflect their “Christian charity.” The song “Comfort and Joy” shows how misguided the people of Hope Falls are. 2nd Corinthians 1:23-24 says, “Our strength and ability are owing to faith; and our comfort and joy must flow from faith.” But these people are asking God to give them comfort and joy outright. They’ve got it backwards; they don’t get that it must come from faith, which they don’t have. They believe their comfort and joy will result from the destruction of an innocent life – Edgar’s. They sing:
Comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy!
Kill the bat boy,
Kill the bat boy!
On the other hand Meredith has it right. She knows that comfort and joy comes from faith. She sings:
He will show them he’s not
What they’re terrified of.
He will show them a love
They can never destroy.
If we prove that they’re wrong,
They’ll come ‘round before long,
And we’ll all sing a song
Full of comfort and joy.
It’s significant that Meredith understands the teachings of the Bible and that she alone in Hope Falls practices actual Christian charity by insisting on caring for Edgar, by teaching him, by making him a part of the family. In the first dialogue scene in the show, Meredith even quotes Romans 6:23 at Shelley: “For the wages of sin is death…”, though she conveniently leaves out the more positive rest of the sentence. In this story, the wages of sin are death, and maybe Meredith’s past and present circumstances lead her in that direction unconsciously. In this world of faux Christians, only Edgar sincerely seeks God, first praying to him in “Comfort and Joy,” then hoping for divine healing at the revival meeting, then in his testimony before the congregation. Edgar believes that God can help him. But the people of Hope Falls practice a poisoned, hypocritical brand of Christianity that has corrupted American culture today, and because this is the only kind of Christianity Edgar experiences, it prevents Edgar from finding God as he had hoped.
It’s also significant that the one explicitly religious figure in the show, the Reverend Hightower, is not a source of satire. He is completely sincere. He accepts Edgar without reservation. Even though the people of Hope Falls have asked him to come to town for all the wrong reasons, he’s still there hoping to do some good. And like Meredith, he accepts Edgar unconditionally. The Reverend Hightower, the one genuine Christian in the story, invites Edgar up on stage to be healed and urges the congregation to accept him. They do, if only for a moment.
He Shoots, He Scores
The Bat Boy score is one of the most sophisticated, most carefully and artfully built theatre scores of the 1990s, matching in its artistry some of the great scores of the American theatre – Sweeney Todd, Ragtime, West Side Story, Carousel, Show Boat. Its music succeeds on three levels at once. First, this beautiful, emotional, soaring music delivers an emotional punch only a few musicals can equal. Second, it’s skillfully enough built that it uses music to reinforce drama, to make dramatic connections, to foreshadow events, to define characters and relationships, to give us more information than the dialogue and lyrics alone supply. Like the legendary theatre composer Stephen Sondheim, O’Keefe doesn’t use a reprise in Bat Boy unless it has a very different meaning and dramatic function from the first time we heard it. Third, Bat Boy is unashamedly funny. There are musical jokes everywhere and the frequent and sudden explosions of melodramatic horror-movie chords at just the right moments throughout the show supply both dramatic intensity and inevitable laughs at their aggressive obviousness.
One of Bat Boy’s greatest strengths is the depth of characterization its music achieves. One example of this can be found in the song, “A Home for You.” Meredith is singing to Edgar, showing him his first ever taste of human tenderness. The song is almost a lullaby, yet also a powerful ballad. It sets up musical themes that will be used throughout the evening. But one moment in the song defines the relationship between Meredith and Edgar better than any line of dialogue ever could. As Meredith sings to him, she is interrupted by Edgar singing for the first time, picking up her melody, trying to communicate with him. At this point, he still hasn’t learned to talk; he’s only been in the house a short time. But he wants desperately to communicate and so he picks up the language Meredith is using, the language of the pop ballad. As he will through much of Act I, he communicates by imitation.
That by itself would be a powerfully dramatic moment – the first time Edgar sings, the first time he communicates, even if only in an abstract way. But composer Larry O’Keefe develops this moment further. Meredith tries to communicate further. She sings another line and waits for his musical response, which comes quickly. Then the two of them sing together – no words, just ooo’s – but we see that they have made a connection. It’s only a basic connection – they’re not singing any harmony yet – but it’s a connection. (Actually they do sing harmony on the cast album, but not in the printed score, which is a better dramatic choice.) This subtle, sweet, funny moment not only begins to develop what may be the most important relationship in the show, but it also foreshadows the surprise at the end of the show. Then O’Keefe goes even further. Meredith returns to her words in the next verse and Edgar sings a complex, Baroque counter-melody. They are developing their relationship, both emotionally and musically. Their connection is more complex than it first appeared (again, foreshadowing). The music tells us that these two people are very different – they don’t sing the same melody – but they fit together. They belong together. They are in harmony with one another.
And once again O’Keefe scores laughs in two separate directions. First, it’s funny that this boy who can’t even talk yet understands classical harmony and counterpoint and can improvise a counter-melody; it could only happen in a musical comedy. Second, it’s funny because his counter-melody is so sophisticated, so artful, and though we don’t know it yet, it foreshadows the genius and quick mind that we will discover Edgar possesses later in Act I. And as the song ends, Meredith hits her final note and holds it while Edgar sings a lovely final counter-melody that ends in perfect, simple harmony. In fact, it’s important to notice that Edgar sings and harmonizes with both Meredith and Shelley, but never with Dr. Parker. He does not have the same connection to Dr Parker that he has with the two women (even more foreshadowing).
O’Keefe says of his songs, “I noticed something I did unintentionally throughout the score: just about every song contains a right angle turn, a plot development that interrupts or completely wrecks the emotion that was just building. The animal celebration turns pornographic. The optimistic mother-daughter gonna-get-out-of-here song turns ugly. Bat Boy's aria pleading for acceptance asks for too much and horrifies the townspeople. And in most of the songs, someone makes a big mistake or miscalculation too. Maybe one of my major themes is that life doesn't stop just because someone opens his mouth to sing…”
Making a Connection
One interesting element of the Bat Boy score is the fact that several songs in the show don’t actually end. This kind of musical coitus interruptus focuses dramatic incidents, intensifies the twists and turns the plot takes throughout the story, and, most important, it also dramatically increases the level of tension, frequently robbing the audience of their chance to applaud, to respond, to release their tension. Stephen Sondheim’s Passion does the same thing, but in Bat Boy the effect is both dramatic and often very funny. The opening number “Hold Me, Bat Boy,” ends normally, but it’s a prologue, not part of the main story, and this normal ending sets up audience’s expectations that will get intentionally frustrated later on. At the end of “Christian Charity,” instead of a conventional “button” (the final chord or note the signals the end of a song), the music segues directly into the horror-movie chords. The next song, “Ugly Boy,” never finishes but just moves into underscoring music. Edgar’s reprise of “A Home for You” isn’t allowed to finish because Edgar is not allowed to finish his argument; Dr. Parker cuts him off and refuses Edgar’s request. Rick’s Act II song “All Hell Breaks Loose” is interrupted by Edgar’s attack, so it never finishes. “Three Bedroom House” is interrupted by Shelley dropping a bombshell on Meredith. And then there are other songs that the soloist doesn’t get to finish because the ensemble jumps in to finish it for them with lots of scary chords.
Even though there are many wonderful things in this score, the most interesting and probably least obvious element is its dramatic structure. One of the primary ways composer Larry O’Keefe uses music in Bat Boy is though musical themes (longer musical passages used and developed throughout the score, connected to a important idea or character) and musical leitmotifs (shorter phrases that do the same), music that clearly defines action and relationships. Most of these work subliminally on an audience. Most audiences won’t consciously recognize or assign meaning to these themes and motifs, but they will work on the audience’s ears and subconscious nonetheless. It’s a device born in the world of opera but adopted by the best musical theatre composers as well, including Stephen Sondheim (really the first to make it his modus operandi, to do it consistently, intelligently, and fully), Adam Guettel, Stephen Flaherty, and others.
The first major leitmotif in Bat Boy is a short phrase (just four notes) repeated four times as the introduction to the opening number, “Hold Me, Bat Boy,” and it accompanies and often presages danger throughout the show. It shows up inside the accompaniment throughout the rap song “Watcha Wanna Do,” which precedes an attack by Rick against Edgar. It shows up again in the accompaniment at the end of the song, “Another Dead Cow,” after the townspeople have decided Edgar is responsible for their cows dying, a decision that will lead to great danger for Edgar later in the show. It shows up in “Dance With Me, Darling” as Dr. Parker slits the throats of the geese and feeds Edgar blood for the first time. It shows up in the accompaniment in the middle of “Mrs. Taylor’s Lullaby,” in which she demands Edgar be destroyed. It shows up under dialogue before the reprise of “A Home for You,” as the Parkers tell Edgar he can’t go to the revival meeting. It shows up again in “Comfort and Joy” before the Sheriff sings about the revival meeting. It appears, sung by the chorus, at the end of “Comfort and Joy,” after Dr. Parker arranges to frame Edgar for murder. It appears again in an Act II musical sequence called “All Hell Breaks Loose,” right after Edgar attacks Rick. We hear it as scene change music (labeled “Babe in the Woods” in the score) as Shelley goes off into the woods by herself to find Edgar, and again right before Mrs. Taylor sets the slaughterhouse on fire. It appears in the accompaniment to Edgar’s “Apology to a Cow,” as Edgar embraces his dark side. (Also, in the middle of that song, the accompaniment refers back to Rick’s rap song, telling us that Edgar is turning mean like Rick.)
The second major motif is also found in the opening number, accompanying the lyric, “Hold me, Bat Boy; touch me, Bat Boy.” This melody shows up again at the end of Act I, near the end of “Comfort and Joy,” only now the lyric has changed to “Stop the Bat Boy.” It’s also the last thing we hear in Act I. It shows up again in Act II in a piece called “Stop the Bat Boy,” with the lyric “Find the Bat Boy, stop the Bat Boy.” Later, in Act II, the same melody comes back, this time with the words, “Find the Bat Boy! Kill the Bat Boy!” The melody stays the same but the words grow progressively darker and more deadly as the story moves forward. A close variation on this melody shows up at the end of “Apology to a Cow” as Edgar’s life starts to crumble.
Another motif is a phrase from “A Home for You” that accompanies the lyric, ‘Then we will find a home for you” at the end of the first verse. This shows up, though in a very distorted, dissonant version (that’s somewhat reminiscent of Sweeney Todd) in the accompaniment of the song, “Dance With Me, Darling,” right after the lyric “I know how you feel,” the first time Dr. Parker has expressed his sadness at the terrible state of his marriage. This is a love motif, but Thomas’ love for Meredith has been horribly distorted by past events. This motif shows up again in the accompaniment for “Inside Your Heart” as Shelley discovers her love for Edgar.
Shelley and Edgar’s big Act II love song “Inside Your Heart” is based melodically on “A Home for You,” connecting the two women who show love to Edgar. Also, most significantly, Shelley’s early song, “Ugly Boy,” is transformed in Act II into “Lovely Boy” as she declares her love for Edgar. Edgar’s testimony at the revival meeting (“Let Me Walk Among You”) is also related melodically to “A Home for You” though less exactly than in other instances (although the accompaniments are very closely related). Another phrase from “A Home for You” shows up in the accompaniment in the middle of “Three Bedroom House” as Meredith and Shelley dream of a new house for them and Edgar.
The opening melody for Edgar’s Act II “Apology to a Cow,” is foreshadowed several times during the show, but always sung without words, on open vowels, by the “scary chorus.” O’Keefe establishes this melody so firmly as “bad news” that when it finally shows up in “Apology” with words, it packs quite an emotional wallop. There’s also a very sad musical motif in this song. Edgar’s melody to the lyric “Deep in a cave under miles of stone,” later turns into rage in the finale, under the lyric, “Is that what you call it, that empty pit…” The great sadness here is that the melody first shows up in “A Home for You,” early in Act I, as Meredith sings to Edgar, “Poor little person with eyes so sad…” By the end of the story, that first touch of kindness shown to Edgar has now festered and soured as he loses his family, and that sweet lullaby turns to a blistering rage. Very sad.
Because the song “Revelations” late in Act II happens entirely in flashback, it uses melodies from throughout the show, effectively flashing back musically as well to reveal the secret truths behind many of the scenes we’ve already witnessed. (“Revelations” also starts with a funny-creepy nod to “Tubular Bells,” the theme from The Exorcist, to set the mood.) Here we find out what has really been going on, and by returning to these melodies, we see everything that’s already happened again in a new light as we hear music we’ve already heard now used in a new context. This musical scene begins with a requiting of Edgar’s “Apology to a Cow,” the moment that necessitates this flashback. As Meredith and Dr. Parker begin to tell their story, we start with “Dance with Me, Darling,” a song that not only returns to their first scene together in Act I, but also back to their earlier, more romantic days when their future seemed bright. Next we hear a very funny, very creepy quotation of “Three Bedroom House” set to a frantic waltz tempo as Meredith tells her story of the destruction of her dreams of blissful domesticity. Soon, the piece moves into a scene of Meredith giving birth, musically quoting the melody of “A Home for You” but this time with the accompaniment figure from Mrs. Taylor’s lullaby to Ruthie. As horror comes to Meredith’s world, we hear again the horror movie music from the Act I finale, and finally move into an even sadder quotation of “Dance with Me, Darling,” as Dr. Parker finishes the tragic tale.
As the final scene of the show continues, Edgar sings again his melody from “Apology to a Cow,” his anger and hurt growing even deeper and more painful now. Soon, Edgar moves into a requoting of his redemption and forgiveness theme from “Let Me Walk Among You,” a theme Dr. Parker will pick up moments later as he asks Meredith’s forgiveness for all he’s done wrong, this time with Meredith singing a heart-wrenching counter-melody. Even though Edgar and Dr. Parker have still never actually sung together, at long last they share a melody. They do have some connection, the music tells us; but though this melody was hopeful and open-hearted when we first heard it, now it’s tragic and full of doom.
Is all this interweaving of themes and motifs just musical overkill? Is it just a way for O’Keefe to avoid composing new music for these moments? Not at all. First of all, most people won’t even hear this stuff the first time they hear the score; it’s very subtly done. Second of all, it achieves dramatic purposes. These themes and motifs don’t just appear at random (as they do in shows like Phantom of the Opera or Jekyll & Hyde). The reason the “Home for You” melody seems to show up everywhere in the score is that the desire for a normal, loving home is the engine that drives the entire story, both from Edgar’s side and from Dr. Parker’s side. That idea is everywhere and so is its accompanying motif. Just as Shakespeare dealt with recurring images in his words with each of his plays, so too do the best modern musical theatre composers deal with recurring images in their music. It’s the same practice, just in a different theatrical language.
And not only does all this provide structural signposts for the audience, but it also provides a strong dramatic structure for the actors. And again, even though it may not be consciously recognized by the audience, it does the job of making the score sound like a unified whole, like it all “belongs” together, like it’s all in the same language, the same musical world, and it allows the audience to stay inside that world (and its emotions) more easily. And certainly, the danger motif accompanies bad things so often in the show, that it turns the audience into Pavlov’s dogs; they hear those four notes, in whatever context, and they get the feeling that something bad is coming. They may not know why they feel that way, but they do. And perhaps the mark of a truly talented composer is that he can do all this, make it work, make it function effectively, and still make it effectively invisible to the audience’s ears. Sondheim did it in Sweeney Todd, Passion, and Merrily We Roll Along, Bernstein did it in West Side Story, Flaherty did it in Ragtime, and O’Keefe does it with Bat Boy.
O’Keefe says, “It’s useful to note there are no swear words in Bat Boy. So aside from the lust and rage and interspecies mating and the stage littered with bodies at the end, it’s absolutely suitable for kids over sixty and adults under ten. They say that Rent is the musical for people who hate musicals. I think Bat Boy is the musical for people who hate everybody.”
Copyright 2003. Excerpt from Scott Miller's book Sex, Drugs,
Rock & Roll, and Musicals.
. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of
Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre
Deconstructing Harold Hill
Rebels with Applause
, From Assassins to West Side Story
Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR