A Conversation with THE Rupert Holmes
Mike Ragogna: Okay, let me take a deep breath and do the Rupert Holmes recap...here we go. You've won Tony awards as a playwright, lyricist and composer, your first novel was made into a movie with Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon, you created and wrote the AMC series Remember WENN, received two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America for your thrillers, and yet thirty-five years after writing and recording your #1 record "Escape" -- better known to the world as "The Pina Colada Song" -- that same tune and your voice are back out there again in 2014 and -- wait a sec, let me check something -- yep, at the top of the charts in this summer's megahit Guardians of the Galaxy and its #1 soundtrack album. Did I mention your song is in the biggest movie of the century?
Rupert Holmes: Well, it's reassuring to know that Phase Three of my Ninety-Year Plan for "The Pina Colada Song" has happened precisely as I planned it. But of course, my life won't be complete until I achieve Phase Four.
MR: Uh, Phase Four?
RH: To go with some friends to an open microphone contest in a karaoke bar, get up and sing "The Pina Colada Song" under an assumed name, and lose. Anyway, where Guardians of the Galaxy is concerned, it's just very gratifying and touching that this recording from my distant past can still serve a purpose in a terrifically entertaining film...can still amuse people...and most of all, that it continues to evoke a rush, a mix of emotions in listeners. For many, I think the song simply takes them back to where they were the first time they heard it... usually a pleasant memory, I'm told by a lot of folks. And those hearing it for the first time seem to get right on board with it, which is such a huge treat for me. For those bloggers who dislike the song, I'd say, heartiest congratulations on owning your own laptop computer.
MR: So what are you juggling right now?
RH: A new novel for Simon and Schuster, three musicals, and a play. If they were all about the same subject, I'd be right on schedule.
MR: Yes, you're known as a very heavy-duty worker. How do you schedule your day?
RH: I realized early on in life that to do everything I hoped to do, I'd have to create an extra day in the week. And it dawned on me that if I slept four hours a day instead of eight, I'd gain twenty-eight hours a week. That's an entire extra day...plus a bonus four hours to sleep! I call my extra day Fursday.
MR: Okay, I'll bite. "Fursday." When does that occur?
RH: Well, since Thursday is the new Friday, my additional day is the old Thursday. Anyway, I made this decision decades ago that sleep was not something I should count upon. Pretty soon four hours sleep a night became the norm, three hours for a tight deadline, and, if necessary, God help me, none. I wrote one episode of my TV series Remember WENN in seventy-two hours without even a nap. Not surprisingly, the episode was called "And If I Die Before I Sleep."
As for my schedule, I found I'm most productive between the hours of 10PM and 6AM, because it's unlikely I'll be interrupted. After all, if someone calls me at 2AM, it's perfectly all right for me to ignore them because why the hell are they calling me at 2AM?
MR: Can you get us up-to-date as far as your latest musicals since The Mystery of Edwin Drood?
RH: Well, writing the book for the Broadway musical Curtains was an incredibly rewarding experience. To have as collaborators John Kander, Fred Ebb, Rob Ashford, and Scott Ellis...this is as good as life gets. David Hyde Pierce, who won the Tony for Best Actor in Curtains, is as gracious a comic wizard as there is on the planet. Likewise, the dreamy Deb Monk...actually, the entire cast was a dream.
MR: And Curtains earned you another Drama Desk for Best Book, and Tony nominations for book and additional lyrics, so how bad could that be?
RH: Well, awards don't matter that much, as I tell my three sons Tony, Tony and Tony. A more recent career highlight has been creating a musical of Jerry Lewis's classic The Nutty Professor with my dearly missed collaborator Marvin Hamlisch. Marvin was a genius and a mensch, and you rarely find both those qualities in one person. And to work with Jerry Lewis, I mean, Jerry Lewis...my boyhood idol...
MR: Incredible. I mean about the boyhood idol part. Kidding, go on!
RH: You know, when Marvin and I met with Jerry in San Diego, I had to sing him some of the first songs we'd written, to show him what the character he created, Professor Kelp, would sound like if he could sing. And I suddenly realized, standing right in front of this king of comedy, that I was now going to have to do Jerry Lewis for Jerry Lewis. Try that on for size. When I was done, he said, "Holmes, you're a real ham." And I thought, 'That's interesting. Jerry Lewis is calling me a ham.' I only wished I could travel back in time and find the boy I once was, sitting in the Central Theatre in Pearl River watching Martin and Lewis in Pardners for twenty-five cents with a dime for popcorn, and whisper to him, "You know, someday Jerry Lewis is going to be your friend."
Nutty Professor got wonderful reviews and a satchel full of awards out-of-town, and then Marvin's tragic death brought us to a dreadful halt. But Marvin's music is, like Marvin, so charming and giddy -- vintage Hamlisch really -- that it's my hope and belief the show will reach Broadway in the next few years. The story is very good-hearted. Oh, and funny as well, I'm told.
From there I plunged straight into the revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood on Broadway at Studio 54. I had to re-orchestrate the show for a second time, a huge undertaking. With Scott Ellis's savvy direction and Warren Carlyle's elegant choreography, it felt more like a reinvention than a revival.
MR: Any other musicals in development?
RH: Plenty. These days, musicals are taking five, ten years or more to develop for Broadway. So in the last six years alone I've been commissioned to write stage adaptations of the movies First Wives Club, Robin and the Seven Hoods, My Man Godfrey with a beautiful score from Mark Hollmann who did Urinetown...and most recently, this extremely uplifting musical of the movie Secondhand Lions, written with the terrific songwriting team of Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. Last fall, we did a huge production at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theater, it went extremely well, and we're looking at an east coast debut this coming year.
I'm also finishing a very unusual musical with Melissa Manchester and Sharon Vaughn called Sweet Potato Queens, based on some outrageous best sellers by Jill Conner Browne, and I'm continuing work on my solo musical based on Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.
As for non-musicals, last fall in a limited Broadway run was my adaptation of John Grisham's classic novel A Time To Kill, the first Grisham work to take the stage. Oh and I've done a new stage adaptation of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution, written with the approval of Dame Agatha's estate. We've had readings with Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Kim Cattral and Roger Rees. Pretty damn nifty. And I have two very exciting stage properties I'm currently scripting, one based on a really quirky film comedy, the other an original drama, but it's too early for me to reveal very much about them.
MR: With this light a schedule, any new books coming?
RH: Since my last novel, I've had a number of short stories anthologized, including "Monks of the Abbey Victoria" in Best American Mystery Stories, which was quite an honor. But the new novel is the first in a series of unusual crime novels I'm writing for Simon & Schuster, with the working title The McMasters Guide to Homicide. The most sheer fun I've had creating a mini-universe since writing Remember WENN. But the main thing is that all this activity keeps me off the streets. This is what the citizens of this great country want and this is what the police want. They want me locked in a room, writing. Or maybe just locked in a room. I've accepted that responsibility as my way of saying, "Thank you, America."
MR: [laughs] That's very honorable of you! So Swing was your last novel. Aren't you at least a little tempted to write sequels?
RH: Well, the new series for Simon and Schuster is an extended series of novels set in a very unique world about some very strangely motivated characters. I've already been sketching out volume two as I'm finishing volume one.
MR: And you do all this writing alone?
RH: No. My grand confession is that much of my writing is now done for me by my characters. Honest. This phenomenon first surfaced with my TV series Remember WENN, for which I wrote over fifty episodes. After the first season, I began to know my characters so well that it was as if I'd become a kind of stenographer, taking down what I knew they'd say in any given situation, and I began to feel as if the characters were now writing the series themselves. It was all I could do to type fast enough to take down what they were saying. I don't recall having to invent any jokes for the comedy series. The characters would just say something unexpected and funny and I'd laugh in genuine surprise, all alone in my office, and write it down.
More than one young writer has asked me if I have any advice for when they get blocked writing a story. The ridiculously obvious advice I'm always embarrassed to offer is that they should simply ask themselves: "Well, what would my characters do next?" Meaning that if you sincerely believe in your characters and know them well, and you can't think of what to write next...stop trying to be a writer for God's sake! Stop trying to invent the next clever line or next plot twist. Instead, pursue your character where they logically would go, watch them do what they would likely do next. If you truly believe in the people you've created (which is an absolute must for all writers...you can't just like the 'idea' of them or think they're cute...you have to believe in them and bleed with them), then simply follow them, shadow them like a gumshoe. Most of the time they'll lead you somewhere you may never have planned to go but which is invariably the completely accurate and honest next turn for them and for your story.
MR: When you see everything that goes into a production, whether it be a musical or a novel, what is usually your first reaction when you finally get to sit back and have at least a virtual Cabernet?
RH: [laughs] Well, for the first decade and a half of my career, I worked in the record business, a medium where you did actually arrive at a final version of your work, and that was the end of it. And when I listen to my own albums or those I recorded with, say, Barbra Streisand, they sound identical now to how they sounded when we finished them thirty or forty years ago. And so I can sit back, as you suggest, and simply enjoy them, most of the time. I do sometimes remember the incredibly long, sometimes torturous hours, particularly writing all the arrangements, but I do have some unabashed appreciation of all the unusual concepts and instrumentation for each song. I agonize now over some of the efforts that fell short or were simply off the mark to begin with, and regret a few soppy lyrics, but generally feel some pride for that guy in his twenties with such ambitious goals and unlimited reserves of energy. I also curse that I didn't record in an era where vocal flaws could be so easily fixed. We had no digital trickery in the seventies. We had to nail it or fail.
But theater is a very different thing. One of the quiet heartbreaks for any creator of a Broadway show is that when that show closes, it will never, ever be quite that show again. You may put it on somewhere else, but it will be a different assemblage of actors with a different spin on who their characters are and how their lines and lyrics should be performed, the orchestra will sound different, it's always in flux, and that's what makes theater so special, because even the grandest production is 'of the moment,' like a jazz improvisation. It's a newborn event that's created not just on the stage but in league with each particular audience. What they bring to the theater that night, not to mention the weather outside, the day of the week, the buzz on the street, can change the feel of each performance.
And so on opening of any show that I write for the stage, I don't have that 'sit back and savor' moment. I continue to think what I might have done differently, and wonder if I might, in a later iteration, make some changes. A high school in nearby Pelham, New York was putting on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and asked if I would like to visit a performance. I chatted with them and mentioned, "You know, there's one scene that's always bothered me a little. Let me send you a new version of page 117." And I sent it to them, and sure enough, thirty years later, it felt better. I had that same experience with the Broadway revival of Edwin Drood. There I was, back on Broadway with an equally incredible cast, brilliant director - and I thought, "Surely I can come up with a better version of that joke now than I could in 1986." Theater invites meddling, and I never really accept that there's a locked version, as opposed to records, movies, and even TV episodes. Novels, again -- you can revise them; there are British editions of my novels where I've made a couple of adjustments to pages that bothered me upon re-reading them. So all of these formats that are capable of being re-sculpted are dangerously tempting, and I never quite feel at any opening or closing that "that's it"...that this work has heard the last from me.
MR: You're one of the few artists who have been majorly anthologized, your five disc box set being such a big statement about the quality of your work. How do you look at your recording career considering your success with musicals, novels and other types of writing?
RH: You know, I look back on the eight solo albums that I recorded, and I realize I was writing for theater from the start, thinking of the recording as the stage where my ten mini-musicals would come to life. Most of my lyrics seem as if they would have been just as comfortable in a theatrical or cabaret setting. They do require more attention than the average pop riff. I remember a music critic, who liked my first album, complaining to me, "Man, your album requires a lot of headphones. I can't do odd jobs around the house and listen to it, I'm forced to sit down and follow the lyrics. Someday, will you make a record I can wash the dishes to?" I have some affection for that young man who was trying to emulate his heroes, Lorenz Hart, Noël Coward, Sammy Cahn, within the pop genres of the seventies. I was searching for how I could bring a sense of narrative and even radio drama to a pop record. I tried really hard, and a couple of times, I believe I succeeded.
MR: I think you did. While Widescreen was my favorite album of yours forever, I recently listened to your last album Scenario and the caliber of its material and production are still pretty impressive. You've been so subtle with your recordings as far as just how smart they are, that some people may just not have gotten it, which kind of makes me sad.
RH: Well, you're very kind. And obviously The Piña Colada Factor causes some people to look at my work through a limited prism, not realizing how late in my career that song came into existence and how musically atypical it was of me...although lyrically it's yet another of the many narrative short stories compressed into two-and-a-half minutes. Anyway, thanks for the kind words.
MR: I love that "Piña Colada" has the dubious honor or the extreme honor of being a hit in two decades.
RH: Number one in December 1979, number one in January 1980. [radio voice] Two unbroken decades of chart topping hits! Sounds pretty impressive, don't you think?
MR: And you have a certain fear of how "Piña Colada" has affected your life, don't you?
RH: It's funny, I first had this vision in 1980, and that vision has only grown more vivid each year, and that is of my tombstone in the shape of a giant pineapple.
MR: One of my favorite stories is one you told on CBS Sunday Morning years ago, right about the time the Cast of Characters box set came out, about saying "yes." Remember that?
RH: Oh yeah...I was 19 years old, had excellent musical training, and a love of literature and theater, and I had no idea how to get into any form of the arts or show business. And very early on, I learned that the trick was to say absolutely yes to absolutely everything. So do I want to write the piano-voice arrangements for the Charley Pride song folio "Did You Think to Pray?" Yes. Do I want to write lead sheets for the Swan Silvertones and The Five Blind Boys of Alabama? Of course. Do I want to write the score to porno films for an 80-dollar budget, including my fee? Absolutely. I just found that by saying yes to everything and doing every job offered, for pennies or for free, things eventually happened.
Some people think it's strange or even shameful that, when I was twenty, I wrote the first Billboard hit about possible cannibalism during a mining disaster. But that song -- "Timothy" -- is actually one of my proudest, if somewhat sordid, achievements. Because it's an example of a young man's tenacity and ingenuity, trying to find any rip in the canvas to sneak into the circus tent, and eventually cutting a hole in the canvas himself. I'd been in the music business for about a year and a half (although of course no one in the music business was aware of this). I did know an equally young junior engineer at Scepter Records named Michael Wright, who told me he had the chance to make one single for Scepter with a group he'd discovered, but that Scepter didn't even know they were on the label. So I suggested he have the group record a song that would get banned. He asked why, and I said, because if the record gets banned, you'll be able to go to other record labels and say, "This is that group that would have had a big hit but their song got banned!" There will be controversy, interest, they'll become a hot property.
So he asked me if I'd write a song that would get banned. I said "yes." Big surprise there, huh? It never occurred to me to think, 'Is that what I want to do? Is this the creative direction I want to take?' Of course not. I just sat in my studio apartment in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and wondered what I could come up with that would be acceptable enough to get some radio airplay but controversial enough to be banned. If the group was willing to record it, I was ready to write it.
At the time I was working, for free of course, on an arrangement of "Sixteen Tons" for a recording artist named Andy Kim. I was arranging on guitar instead of my usual piano, strumming away with a sort of Creedence Clearwater feel going. In the next room, the TV was tuned to a cooking show called "Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet" and as I sang the lyric to "Sixteen Tons," which goes, Some people say a man is made out of mud / a poor man's made out of muscle and blood / Muscle and blood and skin and bones...I thought to myself -- likely because Graham Kerr was listing ingredients in the next room -- "Gee, those lyrics sound like a recipe." And I thought, "Mining disaster, possible cannibalism -- that could get banned!" And I thereby wrote a catchy tune to my guitar strum, about three boys trapped in a mine and when they're pulled free, there's only two of them left, and they don't know what happened to the third one, but they know they're no longer hungry. So this record ["Timothy" by The Buoys-MR] came out and it all went exactly as I intended. It would get played on a station because it had a very catchy feel, the kids listening would get excited about it, and then one of the adult DJs would suddenly realize what the tune was about and pull it off the air. The kids would call in and ask why they weren't playing the record, and the station would say it was because the song was disgusting, which made the kids want to hear it even more. It went up the charts two digits a week over the course of a year, and finally landed at #17 in Billboard. My first top twenty song as a songwriter, basically because I said, "Yes, I can try to do that because who knows what might come of it."
I continued to do that throughout my early career. And I noticed that by saying yes to everything, and thereby doing a bit of everything in the process, I learned how to do a lot of things. That's how I came to write the marching band arrangement of "Frosty the Snowman," and work with The Jackson Five in their home in Gary, Indiana a year before they signed to Motown.
MR: That's amazing. Now the perfect time to ask you, Mr. Rupert Holmes -- master of stage, screen and recording studio -- what advice do you have for new artists?
RH: Obviously, I recommend my own policy of taking every opportunity that's offered when you're first starting out. Beyond that philosophy, though, I'd suggest thinking about your audience as individuals and not some collective organism, and be thankful for them. No one on this Earth is owed an audience. I always find it fascinating that, even though dinosaurs were around much longer than our species has been on this planet, there is no evidence that any dinosaurs did standup comedy. There were no Triceratops who did impressions of a Stegosaurus, or who expected all the other dinosaurs to sit and listen while they sang a medley associated with The Flintstones. This idea that people will pay money to hear what you think is about as absurd a privilege as a human being can have. Personally, I always think that if I can distract someone for one hour from remembering that they have a dentist appointment tomorrow, my existence for at least one day has been justified. Unfortunately, I've just reminded myself that I have a dentist appointment tomorrow.
MR: Beautiful. Is there a medium you want to get to that you haven't yet?
RH: Finger paints. My father used to tell me, "Son, to fingerpaint, that is everything." So that's the next big dream, and I intend, as Latin people say, to carpe diem, which I believe means either "complain about the day" or "seize the momentum" or "that fish costs a dime," I'm never sure which.
And then there's directing. My goal is to never direct. At least nothing I've written. I did once, on a pretty big production. On the first day of rehearsal, I suddenly thought, 'Oh my God, what have I done? The director and the playwright agree on everything!' Not a good idea.
What have I not done yet? Electronic Arts asked me to conceive a video game for them many years ago, and I proposed Apollo, the mythological god of music, using notes, chords and musical modes as his weaponry in Hades, so each player would create their own unique, layered composition as the game progressed. This was before Guitar Hero and I think it frightened them. However, I heard someone is bringing out something extremely similar next year.
MR: How much was the settlement?
RH: [laughs] There are only so many new ideas in the world. People are always saying things to me like, "Why, I had the same idea for that movie five years ago!" And I think, 'Yes, if only you weren't so busy being a litigation attorney in Westchester, you would have been able to bring it to the screen.'
MR: Your Partridge Family song "Echo Valley 2-6809"...did you know people still think that was a single to this day?
RH: It was intended to be, and if you look at the original cover of The Partridge Family Sound Magazine, my song's title is listed in a large font right below the first single "I Woke Up In Love This Morning." But apparently, the label wanted to move on to the next album, so they never released the song. But deejays had been playing it, anticipating its release. David Cassidy told me that he's put the song into his act because audiences expect it, remembering it as one of his hits. I wish it had been a single because if it had, I would have lived in a much better apartment in the years between writing for The Partridge Family and meeting Barbra Streisand.
MR: [laughs] By the way, the box set of all your albums -- you know, Cast of Characters -- is pretty valuable. I've seen it on Amazon for as high as $1,300. That could help you get a better place to live.
RH: [laughs] Clearly, the less known my work is, the more valuable it becomes. If I'd created nothing, I'd be a very rich man by now. Really though, it's flattering to see Cast of Characters going for these incredible amounts of money. I wonder what it was like for Carole King, when her album Tapestry was almost required by zoning regulation. You weren't allowed to be a single woman in New York in the early seventies and not own that album. I think there was a place where it was issued to you. I think you went to the motor vehicle department and were given your driver's license and your mandatory copy of Tapestry.
Transcribed by Emily Fotis
NOAH CHENFELD'S "WE STILL GOT TONIGHT"
Yup, this Noah Chenfeld kid and his music are back. Here is a premiere of his latest video, "We Still Got Tonight," from his new EP Take Me With You, that starts all pop-y innocent in artsy monochrome and then suddenly decides to kick your ass in the fade tag in living color. Simple yet snarly. Added value is the Dylan Chenfeld appearance. Go Team Chenfeld!
Want more? Thought you might...
THE WILD FEATHERS' "LEFT MY WOMAN"
Hey, it's The Wild Feathers. Yay!
MAGGIE ROGERS' "LITTLE JOYS"
According to Maggie Rogers...
"My life has changed in many ways since moving to New York City. The city, like my 20-year-old brain, can be messy, but it is the small moments throughout my days that have allowed me to sustain a sense of momentum. It is the violinist on the L Train and the morning musings from the eccentric man that lives in my building. During that period of transition when change was hard and home was far, it was the small things and I was a big mess of little joys."
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008