PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Rupert Holmes

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Rupert Holmes Rupert Holmes ruled Broadway in 1986, when the long running musical he scripted and scored, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, won five Tony Awards. But after two thrillers—Accomplice in 1990 and Solitary Confinement in 1992—Holmes disappeared from the New York stage, instead devoting himself to "Remember WENN," the television series about a struggling 1930s Pittsburgh radio station which developed and retains a cult following. With the program's conclusion, Holmes returned to stagework and this season it will be tough to avoid him. His first Broadway effort in a decade, Say Goodnight, Gracie, a one-man show starring Frank Gorshin as George Burns, begins previews Sept. 17 at the Helen Hayes Theatre. Marty, the musical he wrote with composers Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, will debut at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company on Oct. 18, with John C. Reilly in the title role and a Broadway future possible. His latest thriller, Thumbs, had regional productions this year and may reach Off Broadway this season. And he is working on a musical version of "Remember WENN," which has been announced for The Helen Hayes Theatre Company in Nyack, NY, for early 2003. As if that weren't enough, Holmes has just completed his first novel. Playbill On Line's Robert Simonson talked to Renaissance man Holmes about his many projects.

Rupert Holmes ruled Broadway in 1986, when the long running musical he scripted and scored, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, won five Tony Awards. But after two thrillers—Accomplice in 1990 and Solitary Confinement in 1992—Holmes disappeared from the New York stage, instead devoting himself to "Remember WENN," the television series about a struggling 1930s Pittsburgh radio station which developed and retains a cult following. With the program's conclusion, Holmes returned to stagework and this season it will be tough to avoid him. His first Broadway effort in a decade, Say Goodnight, Gracie, a one-man show starring Frank Gorshin as George Burns, begins previews Sept. 17 at the Helen Hayes Theatre. Marty, the musical he wrote with composers Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, will debut at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company on Oct. 18, with John C. Reilly in the title role and a Broadway future possible. His latest thriller, Thumbs, had regional productions this year and may reach Off Broadway this season. And he is working on a musical version of "Remember WENN," which has been announced for The Helen Hayes Theatre Company in Nyack, NY, for early 2003. As if that weren't enough, Holmes has just completed his first novel. Playbill On Line's Robert Simonson talked to Renaissance man Holmes about his many projects.

Playbill On-Line: The first preview of Say Goodnight, Gracie is on Sept. 17, the same day as the first rehearsal of Marty at the Huntington. Which are you going to attend?
Rupert Holmes: I'm going to see if I can make both. If I can maybe duck out of rehearsal at Marty an hour early or so, and catch a plane, I can make the 8 PM curtain for Gracie.

PBOL: You have three shows on their feet, another in development and you've just completed your first novel. Is this one of the busiest times in your career?
RH: It's creatively one of the busiest, because I'm doing a lot of different shows, each of which has a very unique flavor. The novel is a new thing to me. I've tried in my career to do most everything, because it all intrigues me. And I've found the first time I work in a new form, I discover all the things that make that an exciting medium. I've been very busy most of my career. I've had very few vacations. And my work has been a vacation of sorts, because I've enjoyed most of the work I've done.

PBOL: Is Marty your first musical since The Mystery of Edwin Drood?
RH: Pretty much, yes. The thing is, I always viewed "Remember WENN" as a play I wrote. It just happened to get filmed. And in "Remember WENN" I wrote a lot of musical numbers, which got sung by people like Patti LuPone and Carolee Carmello and Donna Murphy. I feel like I was working on a musical. For almost five years, I was every day writing the book and underscore and original songs for the show. And I had this great cast.

PBOL: You wrote a completely new book when you came on board for Marty. How closely did you stick to the story of the original teleplay and film?
RH: I have never looked at what [original librettist] Aaron Sorkin wrote. When I came to the project, I said it's enough to adapt Paddy Chayefsky. I had to restructure the work to some degree and obviously you have to find a way to lead the characters to moments where the logical way they would next express themselves is in song. But I would say anyone who saw the movie would say this is compatible. There are true book scenes. We have scenes where if you walked into the theatre at that particular moment and you didn't see the orchestra, you might think it was a play. And Mark [Brokaw, the director] has encouraged me to do that. PBOL: How would you characterize Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' score in light of what they've done in the past?
RH: I think it's a lyrical and poignant score. It moves interestingly through different styles of music that co existed when Marty happens, in the '50s. You have to remember that Marty takes place in an old Italian neighborhood in the Bronx that's beginning to give way the new American lifestyle. So you have old Italian cheese and fruit shops giving way to Howard Johnson's. Some of the score is enjoyably raucous and some moments are very Old World.

PBOL: Say Goodnight, Gracie is much further along in its development.
RH: It's been performed in several cities. And it's also essentially a one-man show, though you hear the voice of Gracie Allen in the show, supplied by Didi Conn.

PBOL: What was the genesis of Gracie.
RH: The producer, William Franzblau, came to me and asked if I'd be interested in writing a play about the life George Burns. He knew from "Remember WENN" that I am deeply smitten with all that happened in the golden age of radio. And Burns and Allen were among the biggest players then. My love of radio comes second hand. Live radio pretty much went off the air in 1960. I can remember listening to "Suspense," "Yours Truly," "Johnny Dollar," "Have Gun Will Travel" and "Gunsmoke." That was really all that was left of radio when I started listening. I started collecting old radio shows when I was in my 20s. So I knew the Burns and Allen radio show pretty well, but I grew up watching Burns and Allen on TV. They did some amazing things on the TV show, they did surreal things. Gracie would be conspiring with her neighbor Blanche to put something over on George. She would be concocting this plot in her living room. George would be in his den upstairs and turn on the TV and watch Gracie hatching this plot on the Burns and Allen TV show. And then he would turn to us and say, "If Gracie thinks I'm going to do that...." It so impressed me. He had always done this; this was George's hand. He loved absurd humor. He didn't get enough credit as the editor of what Gracie was and what their style was. He was very modest about it.

PBOL: Broadway audiences and critics can be tougher than those at, say, the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Do you think there's an audience for Gracie here in New York?
RH: Well, yeah. It's about a world that no longer exists. He was born in the 1800s and almost made it to the year 2000. One of the challenges of the show was that I was aware that, for a considerable amount of people, George Burns was the guy from the "Oh, God!" films. I had to write about his growing up on the Lower East Side, his overwhelming desire to be in show business. I had to make sure that the audience has a little sense of what vaudeville was. He walked through most mass entertainment forms, from vaudeville to radio to television to film.

PBOL: You've said before that Thumbs' future is contingent on the schedule of its star, Kathie Lee Gifford.
RH: She really wants to be with her family a lot. Los Angeles is almost impossible, because she doesn't have a home there. Something like the Coconut Grove Playhouse is doable because she has a home there. I'd prefer to do it Off-Broadway.

PBOL: Are you ready to talk about the stage musical version of Remember WENN?
RH: It's funny. It's been announced and I have the material. I have to dedicate some time to it. First I have to take care of Marty and then I have a couple other projects I can't talk about right now. There are a couple songs from "Remember WENN" that I know if I didn't have them in the musical—there's a very hardcore cult on the web—there would be an uprising. Also, my goal would be to get as many people who did the series to do the show. I would look at the cast and say, this is a musical comedy cast. There was Amanda Naughton and Melissa Dye, who're in Into the Woods, Mary Stout who's in Beauty and the Beast, Carolee Carmello and John Bedford Lloyd.

—By Robert Simonson