A Conversation With Rupert Holmes: The Man Behind the Music and Mystery of Edwin Drood

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07 Feb 2013

Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes

Tony Award-winning writer Rupert Holmes, the Rennaisance man who authored the book, music, lyrics and orchestrations to Broadway's The Mystery of Edwin Drood, discusses creating the rich theatrical world inspired by Charles Dickens' final and unfinished novel. 


Thirty years after it premiered in Central Park at the Delacorte Theater under the wing of the New York Shakespeare Festival (now the Public Theater), Rupert Holmes' Tony-winning musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood is enjoying a vivacious revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54. Drood's rousing and intricate period score has been preserved anew thanks to a lavishly packaged two-disc revival cast album from DRG Records, which was released in late January.

Playbill.com caught up with Holmes to discuss revisiting Drood for this fresh production, his new revisions, and some of the initial inspirations for the musical. We also look back at his career as a singer-songwriter.

Rupert, before we get to Drood, I have to tell you that a friend turned me on to your solo studio albums from the 1970s and 80s. I know that you're best known for "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)," but I am such a huge fan of the songs "Him," "Partners in Crime," "Wide Screen," "Who, What, When, Where Why" and "Answering Machine." That is some great pop writing and storytelling.

Rupert Holmes: Thank you. People think the first record I ever made had the "Pina Colada Song" on it. In today's music industry, I wouldn't have lasted that long. I wouldn't have gotten to make a fifth album. But thankfully, my first album, "Wide Screen," was sort of a critics' darling — everyone raved about it, but no one bought it. They only manufactured 10,000 copies, I wasn't even in the running for failure!

But one of those albums found its way to Barbra Streisand, and she suddenly wanted to record my songs, and have me arrange and conduct them. I think that alone caused CBS to renew my contract for several years. The cover versions of my songs that were being recorded are what kept me in the running. But it wasn't until my album "Partners in Crime" that I actually had a couple of top ten hits.

Betty Buckley in the original Broadway production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
photo by Martha Swope

A lot of my early career, I wrote story songs that had narratives, that had plots. To some degree I think I was trying to wave my arms frantically at musical theatre and say, "Look over here, I tell stories!" Eventually, it clicked when I was performing at Dangerfields doing comedy and music as a headliner there. That was 1983 and Gail Merrifield Papp, who was also aware of my albums, as was Joe Papp, read a good review that Stephen Holden wrote. They went to the club and sent me a New York Shakespeare Festival card that said, "Have you thought about writing a musical? If so, we should talk." Of course I had, and the idea was Edwin Drood.

It was as if someone finally picked up the message I was trying to send which was, "Please, let me find a way into musical theatre."

Had The Mystery of Edwin Drood been on your mind at that point?
RH: I first had the thought about making a musical of "Edwin Drood" as far back as 1971. I read the novel. I thought it would make a terrific musical because John Jasper is a choir master and organist, and he's madly in love with his muse and pupil, so I knew he would have every reason to write her a song for her birthday that would put into her mouth the word he longed for her to speak to him.

Then there came the thought of, "How do I deal with the fact that it's an unfinished work?" And within a day or two of first considering the show as the subject of a musical, I hit upon the idea that I would not try to do my mock-Dickensian ending. Instead, I would find some way to allow the audience to vote on several of the questions raised in the plot, and have the possibility of a different outcome at every performance. Because, to me, entering the theatre, that would be the absolute height of theatricality, and would do something, especially in those days, that could not be done in any other medium — that of the actors knowing the audience is there and the audience collaborating with the company to create an ending.


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