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Hit Musical 'Bat Boy,' a Strange Beast, Seemed Unlikely to Fly

Theater: The show, playing to raves off-Broadway, began as a low-budget production by the Actors' Gang in Hollywood and two novice playwrights.

April 21, 2001|LAURIE PIKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

O'Keefe was another member of the Actors' Gang whom Farley and Flemming approached after they had written their script. In him, they knew they found a composer and lyricist who understood their title character: "He's a brilliant savant with the soul of a poet but also a vicious animal who feels the constant urge to drink blood and squat in his own filth," says O'Keefe, whose comedic chops were cut doing Hasty Pudding Theatricals at Harvard. "I don't think there has been such a character in public consciousness since, I don't know, Bill Clinton."

The three creators brought the musical to the Actors' Gang in 1997. "I know almost nothing about traditional musicals," Farley says. "In fact, musical-theater types were always the ones we made fun of in high school. And with 'Bat Boy,' I guess we still are." The Actors' Gang, which is known for such experimental pieces, helped get a grant for the production and provided their small, secondary space in back of the main theater.

"The workshop space gives people a low-cost, low-impact way of growing a piece," Robbins says. "It's a place where you can risk failure, and even failing is OK in that space because there's no better way to learn."

"Bat Boy" didn't fail. It sold out every night of its seven-week run and was later awarded a total of $80,000 in development grants from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It was named musical of the year by the "LA Weekly" and garnered six Drama-Logue Awards, three Garland Awards from Backstage West and four nominations for Theatre LA's Ovation Awards.

Deven May, who played Bat Boy, won an Ovation Award for best actor for his ability to embody a violent beast who is somehow sympathetic--and also for his ability to belt out songs while hanging upside-down from one arm. (He reprises the role in New York, to much acclaim.)

Energized by "Bat Boy's" success, its creators found an agent and shopped the strange little show around. In a turn of events almost as unlikely as in a musical, the novices attracted a gaggle of veteran producers, including Kevin McCollum, a producer on "Rent"; Nancy Nagel Gibbs, the manager of the original "Little Shop of Horrors"; and Jean Doumanian, who produces Woody Allen films.

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In a subplot worthy of "42nd Street," Nagel Gibbs, who also manages the hit "De La Guarda," had been invited to the first New York staged reading of "Bat Boy" but initially declined. "The postcard had this scary face on it, and I thought, 'This is not for me,' " says Nagel Gibbs. But a colleague dragged her to the show, and Nagel Gibbs was smitten. "It was not predictable," she says. "It was not superficial in the human emotions, and that excited me. I became obsessed with it."

Though Farley had directed the L.A. production himself, the writers now recruited Scott Schwartz, an ambitious young director who co-directed "Jane Eyre" on Broadway and is directing "Lavender Girl," another musical in "3hree." Schwartz helped bring the show from its "ghetto production" (as Flemming called it) to its relatively high-budget spectacle in downtown New York. So far, the critics approve: Two papers ran the headline "Bat Boy Hits Home Run," and Schwartz is hailed for staging that's "mad fun at 100 miles an hour." Like Bat Boy himself, Farley and Flemming have learned a bit about the world outside their own microcosm.

They are now fielding offers for international rights and a movie deal. But their tenacious love of "Bat Boy" has kept them protective of him from the start. Even before the New York production, when producers were sniffing around this possible cult hit, the budding playwrights took a meeting on film rights to the show. "We walked out of the meeting, and Brian [Flemming] was laughing at the offer," says Mitch Watson, who produced the L.A. run of "Bat Boy." "Brian said, "If we're going to sell this, it's going to be for a million dollars.' "

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