Musical Cutup Rupert Holmes Made the Best Stab at the Tonys with the Mystery of Edwin Drood

updated 06/02/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/02/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Talking, laughing, singing and gesturing wildly, Rupert Holmes makes a variety show out of the commute from Manhattan to his home in Tenafly, N.J. First, he tries to list all of the last names Lucille Ball used on her sitcoms. Then he sings a bit from Timothy, a 1971 hit song about cannibalism that he wrote as a joke. An hour later, as the car pulls into his driveway, he's still going strong, with a tribute to his home, sung to the tune of Camelot.

Though this sort of performance may play best from a car seat, Holmes, 39, has a much grander outlet for his energy. Last October, Holmes, best known for seven pop albums and his frothy 1980 hit Escape (The Piña Colada Song), brought his music to Broadway for the first time with The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Loosely based on Charles Dickens' unfinished novel, Drood invigorated a mostly moribund season, earned 11 Tony nominations (the most for any show this year) and ranks as the odds-on favorite to win the Best Musical prize this Sunday. Unlike anyone else in recent history, Holmes has proved himself a consummate one-man musical machine. He composed the book, lyrics, music and album, acted in a Drood video and—rare among Broadway composers—even wrote his own orchestrations. Still to come are two pop singles he adapted from the musical: Judy Collins singing Moonfall and a Holmes duet with Rita Coolidge on Perfect Strangers. If they let him usher at Drood performances, he might do that too.

"I broke a lot of rules," says Holmes, "but it worked." Rather than play Drood straight, Holmes re-created an 1870s British music hall in which a bawdy acting troupe presents an excessively melodramatic version of Dickens' mystery story. The actors often step out of character to share Holmes' hammy jokes with the crowd. Emcee George (Pirates of Penzance) Rose explains the absence of one "massively indisposed" actor who suffered injuries "while fighting for a lady's honor. Apparently the lady wished to keep it." Toward the end of the show, the cast asks the audience to "vote" for the actor whom they think is the murderer. Once that is done, the script shifts gears accordingly. To make this work, Holmes has concocted a special song and ending for every eventuality. "Last week, one actor, rarely picked as the killer, was chosen," says Holmes. "A look of ashen horror came over his face but, thank God, he remembered all his lines."

Such gimmicks may keep the show fresh, but the real treats in Drood are singer Betty Buckley (who belted out the memorable Memory in Cats) and pop-jazz great Cleo Laine, who deliver tunes that you can still remember after the show. "I wouldn't have agreed to be in it if it didn't have a great score," says Laine.

Holmes insists that writing for Broadway is "infinitely easier than writing pop songs. In the Top 40 your vocabulary is tremendously limited. But the second I said, 'This is 1870s music,' I found a wealth of words, rhymes and puns I never used before."

Holmes rarely remembers a time without music. He was born in Northwich, England; his British mother had married his American father, a U.S. Infantry bandleader who was stationed in Britain during World War II. When Rupert was 3, his family moved to Nyack, N.Y., where his dad ran the high school music department. Though Rupert learned to play clarinet brilliantly, he actually despised the instrument and preferred writing songs for his own rock band, the Nomads.

After studying at the Manhattan School of Music, Holmes started arranging music for such groups as the Platters and the Drifters. "I was willing to do almost any job for almost no money," he says. "I didn't know what I was doing, but I learned the business by making records." He arranged and sometimes sang backup vocals for about 400 tunes, including bubblegum hits by the Partridge Family and the Cuff Links (Tracy, When Julie Comes Around). Critics loved his 1974 solo debut album, but with only 10,000 copies pressed, it went almost unheard. One important person—Barbra Streisand—did hear it. She signed Holmes to help create her 1975 Lazy Afternoon album and a year later chose him to write music for A Star Is Born. Holmes composed three songs before walking out after a heated run-in with Streisand's then boyfriend Jon Peters, who wanted rock songs, not pop. But Rupert stayed friends with Streisand: "Because she sang my work, other people started paying attention to what I was doing."

Piña Colada and Him made Holmes's fifth album in 1980 a hit and launched 2½ years of lucrative concert tours. Though Barry Manilow, Dionne Warwick and Dolly Parton recorded his songs, neither of Holmes's next two albums produced a big hit. So when producer Joe Papp's wife, Gail Merrifield, asked mystery buff Holmes to try a musical, he gladly revived an old idea: Edwin Drood.

Getting to work on the project played havoc with Holmes's time at home. His wife, Liza, a 38-year-old attorney who has known Rupert since he was 14, remembers that he worked sometimes 22 hours a day for three years on his musical. But somehow she and their daughter, Wendy, 10, survived their housemate's erratic behavior. "I started to think Dickens didn't want me to finish his story," says Holmes.

Liza says that putting together Drood was a catharsis for Rupert, since "he was able to create an entire world—characters, dialogue, music." Right now he's at it again, working on a second mystery musical, this one set in the 1940s. When asked if he'll win the Tony, Holmes shakes his head. Of course, he doesn't mean it. "I believe in negative thinking," he says with a laugh. Tony or not, the success of Drood should forever end one of Holmes's greatest fears: going to his grave as the Piña Colada man.

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