Composer/lyricist Nell Benjamin made her first splash with the score to Legally Blonde the Musical, co-written with her husband, Laurence O’Keefe. As a playwright, she garnered attention with The Explorers’ Club, a farce that debuted in June at Manhattan Theatre Club. She’s currently writing lyrics for Tina Fey and Jeff Richmond’s Mean Girls, and next month Because of Winn-Dixie, with her book and music by Duncan Sheik, opens at Arkansas Repertory Theatre.
What’s your first vivid theatrical memory?
A startlingly ambitious company called L.O.O.M., the Light Opera of Manhattan, run by two guys on the Upper East Side, where I grew up. One year, when I was seven, they did the entire works of Gilbert & Sullivan in repertory, and I think my family took me to see all of them. After, the actors would come and shake hands with the audience, and I remember after The Mikado shaking the hands of all these fantastic people—you know, the Emperor of Japan—and that seemed like the most glamorous thing in the world.
I recently looked back at the program and saw that the orchestra was one organ and a timpani. It seemed totally symphonic to me at the time. It’s a good thing to remember when you’re doing theatre and you think, “Oh, that’s not as spectacular as I thought it would be.” It probably is for someone else.
Who are your favorite lyricists?
Sondheim is up there, and Gilbert. I’m a big Frank Loesser fan; he often gets left off the lyricist list, though he’s phenomenal at writing lyrics that sound like people speaking. It’s hard line to walk as lyricist—you wanna show off how smart you are, and write brilliant lyrics in the Noël Coward or Cole Porter tradition—but it should sound like the character singing, not the lyricist. Loesser always erred on the side of it sounding like the characters. But my favorite lyricist, bar none, is Larry O’Keefe. I learn from him every day.
How would you compare working with him versus working with Duncan Sheik?Obviously, I love Larry’s work so much I married the guy, and it won’t be a surprise to learn that we have a certain shorthand, having lived and worked together so long. Duncan and I had to learn a shorthand. They’re both brilliant. Though Duncan sometimes makes fun of my obsession with perfect rhymes; he thinks I’m a little OCD about that.
Yeah, what’s wrong with a few imprecise rhymes?
My feeling is that the English language is vast and beautiful; there are a lot of rhymes out there. It doesn’t take that much effort; just get a rhyming dictionary and do your job.
You seem to relish collaboration—most of your work has been made with others.
I play well with others. I like the sandbox. Half the fun of comedy is getting laughs you didn’t expect, and the other half is getting the laughs you did expect. As you can tell from Mean Girls, Legally Blonde and Heathers [a musical O’Keefe is writing with Kevin Murphy], Larry and I like to explore that moment when people suddenly get you. Most of us walk around feeling under-appreciated, misunderstood, thinking, “Why don’t more people get me?” When someone does, you feel that connection: “Now I’m back in the world.”
Winn-Dixie features a dog in a central role, as well as child actors. Didn’t you know that in show business you’re never supposed to work with kids or animals?
I guess I didn’t get that memo. We’re working with Bill Berloni, Broadway’s preeminent dog trainer, and he’s always believed that the stage relationship between dogs and actors could carry a show. I won’t say there aren’t challenges. But the point is to do something that nobody else has done before—to do the hardest possible musical. Larry and I did a musical about Stalin, Life of the Party, that I’m hugely proud of. If it’s something that easily suggests itself as a musical, what’s the point?
Do you have a dog?
No, but my parents do—a border collie called Bucky. This dog and my one-year-old baby are absolutely in love, from the moment they met: He’s her guardian, her protector; when she cries, he comes and gets us. When she was teething, we would give her little pieces of ice, and he loved to chew ice, too, so they would sit on the rug and chew ice together. Dogs and humans decided we would be inseparable hundreds of years ago, and this is how it’s supposed to be. It’s Persephone and Bucky, friends forever.
Your daughter’s name is Persephone?
Yes, we named her after a Greek goddess of spring and the queen of hell. Because women need to call on both sides of that personality at different times.