Fynsworth Alley: 10 Questions with Rupert Holmes

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

10 Questions with Rupert Holmes


With his hit Broadway musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Rupert Holmes became the first person in theatrical history to be the sole winner of Tony Awards for Best Book, Best Music and Best Lyrics, with Drood also winning the Tony for Best Broadway Musical. After a record-breaking run in Los Angeles, the Broadway production of Holmes’ comedy-thriller Accomplice starring Jason Alexander and Michael McKean won the coveted “Edgar” Award from The Mystery Writers of America. His tour-de-force for actor Stacy Keach, Solitary Confinement, also set a new Kennedy Center box-office record. For the last five years, Holmes has created and co-produced the critically-acclaimed, Emmy award-winning television series Remember WENN. His latest play based on the life of George Burns (produced with the endorsement of the Burns & Allen estate) entitled Say Goodnight, Gracie starring Frank Gorshin is an out-of-town smash and will be coming shortly to New York. Currently he is collaborating with Broadway legends Charles Strouse and Lee Adams on a musical adaptation of the Academy Award-winning motion picture Marty… finishing his own epic musical based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray… and completing his first novel for Random House. Holmes’ popular songs have been recorded by many of our greatest vocalists, most notably and frequently Barbra Streisand, for whom he has written, arranged, conducted and produced multi-platinum albums, including Lazy Afternoon and his songs for the Grammy Award-winning soundtrack of A Star Is Born. He is still probably best known to the general public as the singer and songwriter whose multi-platinum recordings include several Billboard #1 hits.

You’re both a writer and a performer. Are you more comfortable in one than the other, and how do those roles affect each other?

Let’s make those questions one and two.

One: in all my years of performing, no audience member has ever actually assaulted me. I consider this to be the singular triumph of my performing career. I did win “Best Performance” at the Yamaha World Popular Song Festival and I assumed I’d receive a motorcycle. I got a medallion instead. It burns very little gas.

The truth is, I initially became a singer-songwriter while still in my teens because it was the only way to guarantee that somebody on earth would sing the songs I was writing. Since then, I’ve performed just about everywhere: rock clubs, concerts halls, arenas, TV… when I wrote the score for the movie No Small Affair they also had me play a bandleader who had five lines of dialogue with Demi Moore. (When people ask me what the film was about, I shrug, “Oh, it’s about a bandleader.”)

So I’ve always been comfortable performing. But if I had to choose between being a performer of other people’s work or a writer of words and music for other people to perform, I’d definitely opt for the latter. 

Question two: I believe my experiences as a performer have greatly influenced my work as a writer. My years in clubs and cabaret make me very at ease with my characters playing to the audience, either directly or self-reflexively through the text. In addition to this, many of my plays (as well as my TV series Remember WENN) have, in one way or another, been about actors putting on a show. I suppose this is because actors do so professionally and skillfully what most of us do much more ineptly: adopt facades to hide and protect who we really think we are.

I once had a small role in one of my own plays, a thriller which happened to become a big hit on the West Coast. Its run was extended month after month and thus for over a year I found myself living the life of a stage actor: eight shows a week, with only one day off, a day dedicated solely to recovering from the five-show weekend I’d just turned in… knowing that no matter where on earth I might be at six PM, at seven-thirty I’d be checking in with the stage manager… making my two hundredth “first” entrance and searching for a way to make the play feel new not only for the audience but for myself as well. It was a wonderful and massively humbling experience. Because of this, I always try to listen very intently when an actor has a problem with a line or a moment in one of my scripts. I know from my own performing career what it’s like to be out there on a stage, alone. When the much-missed Wilford Leach accepted an award for directing Drood, he said to the audience, “I thank you for this award… and I thank God for the actors.” Hear, hear.

What are the differences between writing songs for your albums and songs for the theatre?

When you write a song for a contemporary album, you are writing for the world the way it is at this very moment and you must speak the language of the day. If you dared these days to write,”I’m wild again, beguiled again, a simpering, whimpering child again,” a squad of MPs from MTV would pull you over and take away your artistic license.

When you write songs for the theatre — particularly if you are also the author of the libretto — you can create any world you want… and then you get to write the songs that people who live in that world would sing.

Having written songs for radio and songs for musicals, I think writing for a world one has invented can be infinitely more interesting than writing for the world we’ve all inherited.

What CDs are currently in your CD player?

On my five CD turntable, I have – honestly – the advance copy of The Stephen Sondheim Album on your own label. Terrific. The New Radical’s CD. The first Lost in Boston collection from Varese Sarabande. Howard Hanson’s Romantic Symphony. And the newly-issued Rupert Holmes’ Greatest Hits from Universal, just in case I should at any moment of the day forget the lyrics to “The Pina Colada Song.” You have be prepared for emergencies.

If you had to choose one song to be remembered by, what would it be and why?

In the pop medium, I suppose a ballad of mine called “The People That You Never Get To Love.” The spectacularly splendid Susannah McCorkle, Margaret Whiting and Amanda McBroom were among the first to record and perform the lines: “You’re browsing through a second-hand bookstore / And you see him in Non-Fiction V through Y / He looks up from World War Two and then you catch him catching you catching his eye / And you quickly turn away your wishful stare / And take a sudden interest in your shoes…” et cetera. Probably as good a pop lyric as I know how to write (especially that part about ‘et cetera’). Barbra’s renditions of “Letters That Cross In The Mail” or “Lullaby For Myself” would also more than suffice as my musical epitaph.

For theatre, “Moonfall” from The Mystery of Edwin Drood is as pristine a melody as I’ve ever written, with a lyric that turned out to be exactly what I hoped for: repressed, aroused, Victorian, erotic, frightened yet abandoned. It’s been wonderful to hear Patti Cohenour, Judy Kuhn, Rebecca Luker, Judy Collins, Lorna Dallas, Barbra Streisand and literally hundreds of marvelous “Rosa”s around the world each make the song their own.

You’ve written in so many different genres of music, not to mention plays, musicals, and television shows. Do you have a favorite genre to write in?

Nothing to me is as exciting or rewarding as writing for the stage, whether it be musicals or straight plays. The fact that one’s entire story is reborn each evening at eight PM for a new assembly of strangers… the illusion that the jokes are being invented fresh on the premises of your plot by the actors… the possibility that the actors may discover something new in a line of dialogue they’ve delivered a hundred times before… while a thousand different factors (ranging from the unexpected thunderstorm outside the theatre to the hurried dinners now rumbling in the audience’s stomachs) put an always unpredictable spin on the reception your “immutable” script receives… no wonder Theatre will be celebrating its third millennium around the time that Movies celebrate their first century.

I must rush to add that I feel the Remember WENN series belongs as much to Theatre as to Television. With one (albeit huge) standing set, no laugh track, no commercials, a regular cast of Broadway’s best, guests like Jason Alexander, Phil Bosco, Greg Germann, Malcolm Gets, Joe Grifasi and Irene Worth, and the chance to write songs for Betty Buckley, Carolee Carmello, Patti LuPone, Donna Murphy, Amanda Naughton, Peter Noone and Mary Stout (note that I’ve named all the above in alphabetical order), I consider the fifty-plus scripts I penned over the last five years to simply be the world’s longest one-act farce. I’ve never been happier than writing Remember WENN.

You’re currently writing the book of the musical Marty. What’s the experience like, and how is it different from writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

I’m working with three lifelong heroes: Charles Strouse, Lee Adams and Paddy Chayevsky. Despite my awe, Charles and Lee are both so charming and funny that I occasionally forget that these are the guys who together wrote “Put On A Happy Face,” “Once Upon A Time,” All In The Family’s theme song and Golden Boy. Why, sometimes I forget for as much as four or five minutes. You can’t imagine what it’s like to sit as the sole first audience to what they’ve come up with since our previous meeting. And I get paid to do this?

More challenging is to rework the late Paddy Chayevsky’s classic script into a stage musical. I try wherever possible not to rewrite his words. I’m most at ease creating new scenes with his memorable characters that may be better suited to the musical format… scenes that I hope sound and feel as if they might have taken place in Chayevsky’s screenplay but simply not in front of the camera.

How do you feel about workshopping musicals?

I don’t like the practice and try not to do it unless it’s solely for the benefit of the creative team. Sometimes I feel that the last good thing to come out of a workshop was Pinocchio. Not the movie. The dummy.

What is the one Broadway show you wish you had written?

So many. And play or musical? We’re not even considering Hamlet, The Homecoming, Uncle Vanya or James Barrie’s What Every Woman Knows, are we? Even hypothetical questions have to be grounded in some reality. I’m sure Cecil B. DeMille wishes he had written The Bible, but as far as I know he only took credit for the screenplays.

Okay, in the category of non-musicals that debuted on Broadway in my lifetime, I certainly wish I’d written Simon Gray’s Otherwise Engaged or Anthony Schaffer’s Sleuth. Both are gorgeously constructed and genuinely witty, with lots of nasty currents lurking darkly beneath their gleaming ice rink surface. Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound would be right up there too but I only saw it off-Broadway.

Musical? Well, we all wish we’d written My Fair Lady or West Side Story, don’t we? Everyone at my Tuesday night poker game does. I’m told my first words as a child were, “Did I write My Fair Lady? I didn’t?? Damn!” I also consider David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and Frederick Knotts’ Dial ‘M’ For Murder to be musicals, so beautifully do they sing.

You’ve worked with a lot of big personalities: Barbra Streisand, Jason Alexander, Betty Buckley, Cleo Laine. What are the special challenges (or joys) of working with stars?

Fran Leibowitz once advised all whimsical, innovative chefs that if two thousand years have gone by without anyone adding lime to mashed potatoes, know that there is a reason for this.

The first challenge of working with a star is to remember that if they are admired by millions of people, know that there is a reason for this. Not only that, but the star often has a very keen grasp of what they do, what is at the core of their appeal, how their stardom came to be and what material would be inappropriate for them. You need to listen very attentively and thoughtfully to what they have to say. They are right far more often than they are wrong.

Some stars are like twelve-year olds who for Christmas have been given a thermonuclear device. The above stars are not examples of this, I’m thankful to say. Generally, I’ve found the more talented the star, the more reasonable they are to work with. An extremely big star once complimented me, and when I thanked her, she shrugged, “Hey, when you have it, you can give it away.” Try not to catch a falling star, though, unless they have a sense of humor about the vagaries of show business. When they go for a supernova, you may find yourself standing in the blackest hole in all creation.

Why haven’t you written a musical since The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

I was asked this question by David Shire a few weeks ago and, perhaps because we have much in common, I found myself giving him a more open answer than I’ve given this question in the past.

My usual (and not dishonest) answer has been that it took me almost four years to write the book, music and lyrics for Edwin Drood and four more eye-blearying months to pencil all the orchestrations myself. It is daunting to start another musical, working alone, knowing that its completion may be half a decade away. I had also longed to write a one set, two act, four actor thriller, which I did with Accomplice (which followed Drood to Broadway, as did my tour de force for Stacy Keach, Solitary Confinement). Hollywood then sang me its mandatory song of seduction, as it has to promising playwrights for decades, and I was paid several princely sums to create a number of movie scripts that may yet see the light of day-for-night photography. Then along came Remember WENN. I wrote the pilot, and unwittingly but happily committed to spending the next five years creating scripts for as superb a repertory company as I’ve ever written for, comforted by the knowledge that any given episode was being seen by more people than viewed Drood in its entire Broadway run.

All the above is the truth, but it’s not that simple.

What I rarely talk about — because for the last decade it has simply been too difficult — is that a few months after the bliss of winning the Tony awards, my ten-year-old daughter Wendy died without warning from an undiagnosed brain tumor. At the time, she was being treated by some very bright doctors who believed she was anorexic. One morning she awoke with a severe headache and before the afternoon was over, she was gone.

If the Fates had wanted to rob me of everything I could ever love and treasure, they couldn’t have done better than to give me (and then forever deprive me of) Wendy, who was just the most witty, gentle, sensitive, beautiful child. Even more crushing was the thought of the lifetime Wendy had been deprived of.

For several years after that, I went through the motions of living, but you don’t ever want to know what that life feels like. Still, I had others to support, so I sought shelter in my work. Writing came back to me but there was something too painful about composing music. You can somewhat protect yourself against words, since they are specific and concrete, but there’s no way to filter out the emotions evoked by abstract music. It became too painful to compose because life hurt too much to sing.

In all the years that followed, I never gave up music completely, but could only create it within a very limited context. I had a few pop hits (recorded by other artists) which were actually revamped from songs I’d written before Wendy died. I also wrote quite a bit of incidental music for my stage thrillers, but again, that was music that served a clear dramatic function: comic, or suspenseful, but rarely poignant.

The passing of time and Remember WENN helped me find my way back. First it began with composing the underscore for the series. Invariably toward the end of each episode, I would find myself inventing some lyrical theme to accompany a wistful speech I’d penned months earlier. It was almost like writing a song. Then I found myself writing original songs for cast members and guests to sing in different episodes. Soon Remember WENN was filled with more music than any other non-musical TV series on the air, and before I knew it, I was writing words and music together again. I like to think some of them are songs Wendy might have hummed to herself as she went about the life she might have lived.

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