A Conversation with Writer/Composer: Rupert Holmes
TS: Where are you from?
RH: Well, that’s a bit tricky. Most of my youth was spent in and about the endearing Hudson River village of Nyack, New York, where I went to school and dreamed all my earliest dreams. I consider it to be my home town. But I was born in the county of Cheshire, England, the son of an American military band leader stationed overseas and the lovely and literate English girl he married, and so my memories during my first four years are of the hauntingly smoky factory town of Northwich about twenty-five miles outside of Manchester, fish markets in the street and purring green double-decker buses. The influence of my British mother, grandmother and my English family has never left me. However, I am very much an American, both by persuasion and passport, and have always lived no more than an hour from midtown Manhattan.
TS: Where were you educated?
RH: First in the Nyack Public School system, where I played the sax and sang in my band The Nomads, for whom I started writing songs because we didn’t know enough chords to play other people’s songs. It was also where my first play premiered, a one-act entitled Countdown for George, performed by my fellow seniors…a life-changing experience.
After high school, I went to Crouse College of Music at Syracuse University for my freshman year, then transferred to the Manhattan School of Music, where I also changed my major from clarinet to music theory. At both schools, I found myself just as interested in studying drama as composition. While still at MSM, I started arranging pop recording sessions for groups like the Drifters and the Platters, and from then on my education came largely from on-the-job training. Sometimes I even got paid.
TS: When did you decide to write music and lyrics?
RH: By the time I was fifteen, I longed to be both a composer and a writer, preferably in some populist form. It eventually dawned on me that writing story songs might be an achievable first step. My lyrics could serve as narrative or character study, while my music and arrangements could carry or underscore my story. It wasn’t theatre, but each song could at least feel to me like a short musical scene or monologue.
TS: How did you get involved with creating work for the theatre?
RH: By 1983, I’d had almost a decade of decent success as a songwriter. My words and music had been recorded by many of the top vocalists of the time. I’d written, arranged, and conducted platinum albums for Barbra Streisand, contributed to the score of the movie A Star is Born, I’d even had a couple of hit records of my own. But I still yearned to write for theatre, not just musicals but comedies and stage thrillers as well. I hoped that someone would notice that I’d been writing mini-musicals on my own record albums in a range of musical styles with self-penned orchestrations. In 1983, I was performing at Rodney Dangerfield’s club in Manhattan (back when Rodney still performed there) and got a nice review from Stephen Holden in the New York Times. Gail Merrifield, who was the director of play development for the New York Shakespeare Festival and the wife of its illustrious founder Joe Papp, came to see me perform. After the show, she sent me a card saying, “Have you ever thought about writing a musical? If so, we should talk.” It had taken me years, but finally a window into theatre had opened for me, one as impressive and illuminating as staiNed Glass. I met with Gail shortly thereafter and told her of an idea I’d been mulling over since the early seventies, of a musical based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens. Gail was intrigued, and with her encouragement and that of Joe Papp, I devoted the next two years of my life to writing and composing The Mystery of Edwin Drood.