An Interview With Rupert Holmes
by Michael Buckley, September 24, 1998

"When your first musical wins the Tony Award, and has a magnificent cast, beautiful sets and costumes.... If I'd only done that in my life," says Rupert Holmes, speaking about The Mystery of Edwin Drood, for which he wrote the book and score - winning Tonys for each, "that would have been something pretty good."

The multi-talented Holmes, who orchestrated his music for Drood, also directs. He has written songs, arranged and conducted for Barbra Streisand, among others; has been a performer, who still gets requests to sing "The Piña Colada Song"; and, for the last four TV seasons, has written the successful AMC series, Remember WENN.

Born in Northwich, England - "it's half-way between Manchester and Chester" - Holmes grew up in Nyack, New York. He has dual citizenship, since his father was an American GI and his mother, a Brit. Holmes and his wife, Liza, are the parents of two sons, Nick and Tim. As we caught up with Holmes, he was working on a stage version of the popular children's book series, Goosebumps.

Tony Awards Online: Is Goosebumps a musical?

Rupert Holmes: There is music involved, but it is in no way a musical. It's a comedy thriller, which is accessible by kids, but also designed to entertain adults.

It's not an arena show. It's a work for theatre. I've written and directed it. We'll be traveling with 12 people, who account for about nine characters, and various monsters, specters, spirits, et cetera.

We had hoped to come into New York for Halloween, but couldn't find a right place for it. Quite an extensive tour is being planned.

Tony Awards Online: How did you get involved in the project?

Rupert Holmes: Comedy-thrillers are something I'm particularly fond of. The Goosebumps series happens to be the best-selling children's books of all time. They're written by R.L. Stine, a very nice man, not weird at all. He and Mrs. Stine liked The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and they're big fans of Remember WENN.

I was given the fun of writing new Goosebumps stories, using the style and tradition, the plot twists and kind of characters they depict. These misadventures happen to regular middle-class suburban kids, who get no help whatsoever from the adult world. Mom and Dad never come in and save things. Either Mom and Dad don't understand the problem, or they are the problem.

Kids don't have a comedy thriller - like Sleuth, or Deathtrap. This is in three acts with one intermission. I've written three tales of suspense or horror - linked with an outer-frame story. One of the tales is set in a haunted theatre. That way, I can show some of the mechanics of theatre, too.

Tony Awards Online: How far along are you with your next project, a musical of The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Rupert Holmes: I'm midway through Act Two. The score is mostly written, up to the last third; the book, up to the last quarter. I'm really excited about it. I think it's as good as I know how to write - and compose.

Tony Awards Online: Since it's Dorian Gray, should it be decompose?

Rupert Holmes: I'm going to use that. (Laughs) I'll try to credit you.

Tony Awards Online: In your case, which comes first - the book or the score?

Rupert Holmes: The book is always first. It has to be, I think. Otherwise, you find yourself writing a song that you like, but you have to fit it into the book. If you do that, it usually feels false.

I follow the Rodgers and Hammerstein philosophy: Keep writing prose until a character has something that can only be said by bursting into song.

I do like book musicals. I'm not as fond of sing-through musicals. If I were writing an opera, I would write something different.

Tony Awards Online: Do the words always come first?

Rupert Holmes: Usually, the first thing that comes is the key phrase that kicks the song off. It's often a line of dialogue that works even better as the opening line of a song.

That will spawn the melody line that best accompanies it. Then, the melody line sort of sets a spin-melody of its own. Now, you have the framework of a tree, and you start ornamenting it with further lines or lyrics.

Tony Awards Online: Is it true that you're working on a novel for Random House?

Rupert Holmes: I keep sending my editor notes apologizing for not delivering the first chapters. Luckily, he's gotten addicted to Remember WENN, and he keeps sending back notes, "Don't start the novel just yet. Do another season of Remember WENN. I want to find out what happens to Betty and Victor."

Tony Awards Online: For those who may not have seen it, Remember WENN concerns a troop of actors at a Pittsburgh radio station around 1940.

Rupert Holmes: I view WENN as one long play, the world's longest farce - and I haven't reached intermission yet. The fifth season starts in March.

At the start of the season, I'm four or five scripts ahead. Then, some of the scripts we've commissioned don't turn out the way we'd like them to be. So, I end up writing as we're filming.

It's fun when I occasionally get to write numbers for the cast - Carolee Carmello, or Mary Stout, or Amanda Naughton, or certain guest stars - to sing. We have a great repertory company. We sometimes have to write around someone who's doing a play. When we start our new season, I hope that Carolee Carmello can do the show on her Mondays off from Parade.

Tony Awards Online: What are your memories of Edwin Drood?

Rupert Holmes: It was the most remarkable experience of my life. Joe Papp arranged for a reading of just Act One. Blair Brown was Edwin Drood. We had Peter Gallagher and George Rose - a magnificent talent; he was with it from the very start - and George Hall, who plays Tom, the old fellow at the radio station, in Remember WENN.

We did it at the Delacorte - and then transferred to Broadway. The tragedy was that Larry Shue was in the cast at the Delacorte. You remember Larry Shue; he wrote The Foreigner and The Nerd. He died before we went to Broadway. We were very lucky because George Martin took over the role.

What a company. Rob Marshall was the dance captain. Howard McGillin was magnificent. Donna Murphy was an ensemble member. She ended up covering almost every female role in the cast. She left to do Rags, came back, and succeeded Betty Buckley when it was time for Betty to leave.

I was so proud of the show, because it was at a time when Broadway was depending on lasers and smoke effects.

Tony Awards Online: I remember that the audience had to vote on a number of questions.

Rupert Holmes: Someone worked it out. There were 458 different combinations of endings, although that's not as complicated as it sounds.

There were eight different murderer's confessions - all different plotting, different blocking; seven different choices of who the detective in disguise was; 36 combinations of lovers. I had to write orchestrations for all the possible combinations. The audience had to choose who the lovers were at the end. Only once or twice was an audience perverse enough to pick the brother and sister.

I think the cast stayed fresher than they might with some shows, because there was always a question of who would be in the spotlight at the end.

Tony Awards Online: Did you see every possible choice?

Rupert Holmes: No. (Laughs) After the first 40 times, you say, "I cannot look at it any longer, for a while." I've worked on it in the West End and California. I've seen a lot of productions, and a lot of endings.

Tony Awards Online: Your Broadway plays since then were Accomplice and Solitary Confinement.

Rupert Holmes: I have a very, very warm place in my heart for Accomplice. Jason Alexander and Michael McKeon were brilliant. It was not well received by the Times, in particular, and that was sad - sad that we didn't have a longer run on Broadway. We did have a long run in Los Angeles, and I won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. They don't give out a Best Play award very often, and I'm very proud of receiving it.

Tony Awards Online: You were one of the songwriters who won a Grammy for Barbra Streisand's version of A Star Is Born.

Rupert Holmes: I produced a number of albums for Barbra Streisand, including one that she's said is a favorite of hers, "Lazy Afternoon." I wrote a lot of the songs on it and arranged and conducted it. That was quite an experience. I was a young man.

Tony Awards Online: Did you age quickly?

Rupert Holmes (Laughs): She was wonderful with me, very supportive. We never had a conflict.

When you're working with a man, you say he pays great attention to detail; when it's a woman and the same thing occurs, you wonder why she's giving us such a hard time.

Tony Awards Online: Do you still sing?

Rupert Holmes: Rarely. I became a singer-songwriter because it meant someone would sing my songs. But I think having lived the life of a performer makes me more compassionate as a writer and director.

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