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    Monday, June 24, 2024

    Rupert Holmes talks Streisand, ‘Pina Colada Song’ and his ‘Edwin Drood’ at Goodspeed

    Writer/composer Rupert Holmes, right, talks about his show “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” to actors and director Rob Ruggiero, center.
    Rupert Holmes, right, talks during a rehearsal earlier this month of his musical “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at Goodspeed Musicals. Director Rob Ruggiero is at left.
    A rehearsal of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at Goodspeed Musicals.
    Actors rehearse “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at Goodspeed Musicals.
    The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ production of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” rehearses.

    He is the man behind “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” He collaborated with Barbra Streisand. He wrote songs that were recorded by everyone from Dolly Parton to Barry Manilow. He has penned best-selling mystery novels and a sold-out play about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

    Rupert Holmes has done a lot over the course of his decades-spanning career, and he stopped at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam on March 5 to meet the cast of a new production of his Tony-winning musical “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

    “Drood” is based on an unfinished work by Charles Dickens about a young man named Edwin Drood who is engaged to Rosa. She is the music student of Edwin’s uncle John Jasper, who also happens to be obsessed with Rosa. An array of characters fill out the cast, and everyone is a suspect when a murder happens. Who killed Drood? The audience decides.

    Coming to Goodspeed

    On the first day of Goodspeed rehearsals, Holmes was asked to talk to the cast about the history of the show and what motivated him to write it. He also took time that day to sit for an interview with The Day.

    “I always thought this would be as perfect a home as the show could ever find,” he said of the Goodspeed Opera House.

    That’s not only because of the beauty of the theater and the quality of the productions but also because of how it works as the setting for “Drood.” The show’s conceit is that the audience is attending a Music Hall Royale in 1895. With the scenic design for the production, Holmes said, “What they’re doing is making it feel as if this is 1895 and we are in London and we are in the absolute perfect place for the show, we are in the Music Hall Royale.”

    Holmes had spoken with Goodspeed about staging “Drood” in 2012-13, but then a Broadway theater, the Roundabout Theatre Company, did the show there.

    “I’ve always been envious of other shows that have been here (at Goodspeed) when I thought the only show that should be here is ‘Edwin Drood,’” Holmes said.

    He also said that, based on his research, Dickens sailed by the Goodspeed, which is located on the shores of the Connecticut River, twice in his life.

    “He did two American tours, he came down this river — I don’t know any way he could have gotten from A to B without having passed by this place,” Holmes said, adding that “there’s something lovely” about imagining Dickens traveling down the river.

    From Tweety to Dickens

    As for Holmes, he spent the first three years of his life in England, the child of a British mother and an American GI father. He has the distinct memory of being 3 years old and seeing a Christmas panto, a uniquely English type of musical that appeals to popular taste and boasts certain elements, such as having a woman play the role of a young boy.

    Audience participation is part of a panto, too, and Holmes recalls singing along to Mel Blanc’s Tweety song “I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat” there.

    “It was the first theater I had ever seen, and it made a huge impression on me,” he said.

    The bespectacled Holmes said he was interested in detective novels as a youngster, too, because it seemed they were the only place where the hero wore glasses. He remembers noticing “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” among his parent’s Dickens collection. His father explained that the book wasn’t a mystery in the way young Rupert was thinking, and it was unfinished; Dickens had written six installments of what were to be 12, but then he died unexpectedly.

    Holmes remained fascinated by the idea of it: the fact that it was the last novel by one of the greatest novelists who ever lived but no one knew how it was supposed to end.

    Holmes finally got a chance to read “Drood” when he took a cross-country train trip in 1971. He used to travel between Los Angeles and New York by train “for a variety of reasons. One was it forced me to read things I always meant to read.” He saw a copy of “Drood” at the train station and bought it.

    As he read it, the first thing that occurred to him was it could be a musical. The protagonist is a crazed choir master in love with his music student, and there are many other musical components in the novel.

    And then, by mid-trip, the book was over.

    “I went mad trying to figure out what he might have done,” Holmes said.

    He started trying to write “Drood” as a musical that same year.

    “It was so dark and so somber, and I thought, ‘I don’t know if the world is ready for something this dark. I set it aside. I continued to write story songs and continued to try to tell stories in that form,” he said.

    In 1983, he was performing as a headliner at Dangerfield’s club in New York City, and famed producer/director Joe Papp was in the audience. He knew Holmes from the story songs on his albums.

    After the show, Papp and wife Gail Merrifield talked with Holmes, and she told him, “What you’re doing up there is musical theater really. Just a one-man show. Have you ever thought about writing a musical?”

    Holmes’s instant reply: “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” Papp and Merrifield didn’t know what it was, since it was a very obscure work. But they were intrigued.

    Holmes took a week off to think about how he might approach “Drood” as a musical.

    “Just the day before I was to meet with them to present what this might be, I came up with the idea of not writing a musical story of Edwin Drood but writing a musical about a motley music hall company eager to steal scenes, to ham it up, to do an encore, to sing favorite songs their audience expected them to sing, putting on ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood.’ That would allow me to take some liberties with the novel and add more humor to the story both in terms of dealing with the story itself and the outer frame of the performers putting on the show, many of whom are not quite like the characters they are portraying,” he said.

    All the actors would play two roles — a performer in the Music Hall Royale and the character in the music hall’s production of “Drood.”

    Holmes presented the idea to Papp and Merrifield, and while they thought it was really interesting, Papp asked how Holmes would end it. Was Holmes saying he knew what Dickens was going to write?

    “I said, ‘No, the audience will decide. I think that’s the height of theatricality. I think I can write this with myriad combinations of endings so that you could see the show eight nights in a row and see eight different endings with eight different murderers confessing for eight different motives and any pairing of 36 possible lovers at the end having a happy ending,’” Holmes said.

    It’s an intriguing conceit: The audience goes to the show realizing that even the cast doesn’t know who the killer will be at the end of the night. The actors all have to be prepared to be the star of the evening, even though they might have been the understudy the previous day — or vice versa.

    It also makes theatergoers aware that they have a genuine effect on the outcome. In various ways, of course, all performances are affected by the audience, Holmes said, “but this was the first time someone built into a permanent structure as big as a musical with 20-plus people in the cast, 10-plus in the orchestra, this sense of: we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”

    Ultimately, the show is as much about putting on a musical as it is about who killed Edwin Drood.

    “Drood” debuted in 1985 at the New York Shakespeare Festival, which Papp founded.

    It transferred to Broadway and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Holmes won for Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score.

    Working with Streisand

    Holmes said, “I’ve had certain events that not only altered the path of my life but set the path on a different planet.”

    One of those events was working with Streisand on her 1975 album “Lazy Afternoon.

    In her 2023 memoir, Streisand wrote fondly of Holmes. A friend had given her his first album, “Widescreen,” and she said of his songs, “There was something about them that spoke to me. Each one was like a little play, with lyrics that were quirky and smart, funny and delightful and sad (sometimes all at the same time). I found myself listening to the record again and again, which is very unusual for me. Normally I hear something once, and that’s enough.”

    She asked him to work on her next album.

    “I was going on instinct,” she wrote of deciding to work with him. “We just hit it off, and it didn’t bother me that he was basically unknown and had never done anything on this scale before. … After only a few weeks we were already communicating on the level of good friends. And it was uncanny how he could give voice to feelings I hadn’t even articulated.”

    At the time Streisand contacted him, Holmes was a struggling singer/songwriter with just one album out. She told him she’d been listening to his album and liked his songs. She noticed he did his own arrangements, too, so she suggested they do some sessions together, and he could do the arrangements as well.

    Holmes doesn’t drive, so Streisand picked him up from a friend’s house in California where he was staying. She said she had to stop to see a rough cut of the “Funny Lady” movie at 20th Century Fox (even though it wasn’t a 20th Century Fox film) before they headed to Malibu.

    “So Streisand is driving me, and we’re going under the elevated railroad from ‘Hello, Dolly,’ which is still standing,” he recalled, with wonder.

    She then drove him to Malibu and, he said, “She puts on my album and she lip syncs to my album without the lyric sheet in her hand, which means she has listened to them enough that she knows the lyrics. I thought, ‘If this is a dream, I will kill the person who wakes me.”’

    Holmes went from someone whose first album had been supported by some critics but didn’t have any top-40 songs to someone who was arranging and conducting a Streisand album. “Lazy Afternoon” also featured four songs he had written, one of which he co-wrote with Streisand.

    “People started saying, ‘Who’s this guy?’ Suddenly, Barry Manilow is recording my songs, Dionne Warwick … Dolly Parton …” Holmes remembered.

    ‘Pina Colada Song’

    Another thing that changed his life: the release in 1979 of “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” from his “Partners in Crime” album. It became a #1 hit.

    Here’s how the songwriting went: Holmes had to come up with a lyric that fit the track they had recorded, which was rather repetitive. So he felt he had to devise a surprising narrative. He came up with an O. Henry-like story with a twist.

    Instead of “pina colada,” Holmes originally had “Humphrey Bogart” in the lyrics but reconsidered. Since the song was about a couple trying to find an escape, he pondered what drink someone might sip on such a getaway. He came up with pina colada, just before he recorded the song, and it became a defining lyric (so much so that the parenthetical “The Pina Colada Song” was added because that’s how listeners were identifying it).

    Holmes had never tried a pina colada before writing that song. And people have wanted to buy him pina coladas ever since.

    “Because people are nice and it means something to them, I have to drink it. … After (the song) went to #1, I had more pina coladas than anyone on Earth,” he said.

    Bartenders don’t like him, Holmes said, because pina coladas are a nuisance drink to make.

    “One guy went, ‘Couldn’t you have done scotch on the rocks?’” he said.

    RBG and Gilbert & Sullivan

    It’s hard to peg what a “Rupert Holmes project” is, because his work has been so wide-ranging.

    Here’s what he has coming up:

    He’s working on a follow-up to his New York Times best-selling mystery “Murder Your Employer,” which was the first volume in his “McMasters Guide to Homicide” series. His publisher wants to bring out this one, titled “Murder Your Own Mate,” on Valentine’s Day 2025. He said that “mate” has many meanings and so “covers a wider gamut than you may think.”

    Holmes wrote a play about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “All Things Equal – The Life and Trials of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” that is selling out shows from Boston to San Francisco.

    “It’s not just that it’s selling out, but people are going, I think, (because) they’re longing for a voice of reason and people who know how to disagree politically and yet remain civil with each other. … She was an incredible woman, and the audience seems to think within minutes they’re having a private conversation with her,” Holmes said of the one-woman show that stars Michelle Azar.

    Holmes has also written a new adaptation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance,” which will debut at the Roundabout Theatre in 2025. David Hyde Pierce is set to play the Modern Major-General.

    He has also written a musical with Mark Hollmann, who co-created “Urinetown.” It’s based on the screwball movie comedy “My Man Godfrey,” and it’s set to be staged in Phoenix this spring.

    If you go

    What: “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”

    Where: Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam

    When: April 5-June 2; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun. Also, 2 p.m. on select Thursdays and 6:30 p.m. on select Sundays.

    Tickets: Start at $30

    Contact: (860) 873-8668, goodspeed.org

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