Editor's Note: This interview was conducted several days before the unexpected Aug. 6 death of composer Marvin Hamlisch.
Dramatist Rupert Holmes has a Broadway revival of his musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood on his plate for the fall. The show earned Tony Awards as Best Musical and Best Book and Score, launching him into a successful stage career following international success as a writer-singer of pop music ("The Pina Colada Song," anyone?). This summer, Holmes has been calculating and adjusting the formula for the success of his latest musical, The Nutty Professor, for which he wrote book and lyrics, to the music of Tony winner Marvin Hamlisch. Jerry Lewis, who starred, directed and co-wrote the 1963 film comedy of the same name, directs the musical reinvention in its current out-of-town tryout in Nashville.
We reached out to Holmes — whose works for the stage also include Say Goodnight, Gracie; Curtains; Accomplice; Robin and the 7 Hoods; and A Time to Kill — during the preview period of The Nutty Professor. Performances continue to Aug. 19 at the James K. Polk Theater in the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. (For more information, visit nuttyprofessormusical.com.)
One of the things people associate with the source material of your new show is the "nutty" quality of the story — the outrageous and the absurd. A geeky professor's potion turns him into a handsome, crooning lover. Does this make The Nutty Professor – The Musical a purely comic musical full of whimsy, or is there a sincere heart — a reality — at the middle of it, as well? That is, how much has "finding the sincere heart" been part of the writing process, or is it all delicious daffiness?
Rupert Holmes: Marvin and I have tried to write a Nutty Professor for the stage which, beneath all its colorful cartoonery, possesses a genuine and vulnerable heart. I always try to keep in mind that while the characters in a farce may find themselves in outrageous dilemmas, and may behave in a way that the audience finds amusing, the characters themselves don't have the consolation of knowing they're in a comedy. When Professor Kelp's heart is broken, or when he discovers he's an object of ridicule, his pain is very real to himself even while his response may be sadly comical to the audience.
|photo by Rick Malkin|
Certainly I find that our audiences seem very touched and even made a little misty by our Professor Kelp. Part of this can certainly be ascribed to the music. Marvin's signature poignancy is in full flower in The Nutty Professor, and I certainly have tried to make my lyrics worthy of that setting. I also credit our lead Michael Andrew for creating a hero who is instantly funny but equally endearing and sympathetic, even while his alter ego Buddy Love is horrifically shallow and snide. It's quite a remarkable performance. Imagine if Cyrano could physically transform himself into Christian, losing all his poetry and panache, only to discover Roxane prefers him that way!
Our story is as much about finding a sense of self, and accepting who we are despite all our inherent flaws, as it is about exploding laboratories and Alaskan Polar Bear Heaters.
What period are we in?
RH: We are resolutely in the pre-Beatles '60s, when the movie itself was set, and this time frame serves our purpose wonderfully. I know first-hand that this was a time when conformity was an attribute, good looks were narrowly defined for both men and women, people with brains were eggheads, and a prescription for eyeglasses was a social death sentence.
What flavors does the score flirt with?
RH: It's Hamlisch at his best, with a number of deeply touching and timeless ballads, but also with several charm songs and production numbers compatible with classic American musical comedy. There is also the occasional nod to dance music of the period, including the Hully-Gully, the Swim, and that ultimate expression of world-weary sophistication, the extremely Slow Twist.
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