Broadway Bound 'Curtains': Rupert Holmes, Part 1: 'Curtains' Rises
This is the first installment in the 2006 “Broadway Bound” series looking at “Curtains.”
Composer John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote Broadway shows that changed the landscape of American musical theater - "Chicago" and "Cabaret" among them.
When Fred Ebb died on Sept. 11, 2004, the team still had one more show in the hopper, a musical murder mystery called "Curtains" that was getting a healthy rewrite from a book writer with his own Broadway credentials: Rupert Holmes.
On Wednesday, at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, that final Kander and Ebb musical - starring David Hyde Pierce ("Spamalot"), Debra Monk ("Chicago") and Karen Ziemba ("Contact") - will see the light of day.
"Curtains" Pierce plays Boston detective Frank Cioffi (Pierce), who is called to the Colonial Theater in 1959 to investigate a backstage murder at an already troubled Broadway-bound musical, a Wild West version of Robin Hood called "Robbin' Hood."
For Cioffi, a big fan of Broadway musicals, rubbing elbows with show people is a dream come true: He'll solve the crime and cure the ailing musical at the same time.
"Curtains" is a $12 million Broadway-bound musical with a cast and production team full of Tony winners - director Scott Ellis, choreographer Rob Ashford, costume designer William Ivey Long, wig designer Paul Huntley.
Holmes, who talked about the making of "Curtains" from Los Angeles, is credited with writing the book and additional lyrics (with John Kander).
He was born in Nyack and now lives in Scarsdale and will forever be known as the man who sang "The Piña Colada Song." He won three Tonys for writing the score and the book for "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" in 1986. "Drood" was also named the year's best musical. He has received the Mystery Writers of America's "Edgar" award twice and was the writer of the TV series "Remember WENN," a backstage look at radio days.
"Curtains" sounds a bit like "Noises Off" meets "Ten Little Indians" meets "Bullets Over Broadway."
"I have used the "Noises Off" analogy myself. The difference between all of that is it also has a Kander and Ebb score. It's as if, in "Noises Off," instead of trying to sleep with each other, people are trying to murder each other. It's got an element of farce, so it is a comedy mystery not a deadpan mystery. "
So there's no Agatha Christie here.
"There are clues planted right before your eyes and there is a detective who is, hopefully, one step ahead of everybody else and hopefully some surprises along the way, about the murders and the methods and motives."
The original book and concept was by Peter Stone, who wrote the book for "1776," "My One and Only" and "The Will Rogers Follies," among others. He died in 2003. Were you involved back then as well?
"No. I was brought in later. There's a lot of misinformation on the Internet, which I've come to view as the dark side of democracy. I was asked to take a look at what I could do with the project after Peter Stone died, but a year before Fred Ebb died. Sometimes I read that I came in after Fred died.
From the outset, it was Kander, Ebb and Stone, but it had stalled?
"Right. They had done some readings but there didn't seem to be a lot of enthusiasm for it. I came in and read the script and felt that to do the basic premise - a detective trying to solve a mystery of a show that's in trouble and becoming involved in the show and the people in the show as well as the mystery itself - I felt I had to write a new book basically from scratch.
"If you write a play or musical about a backstage Broadway musical play, you're going to have a diva. And I'd written a diva in `Remember WENN.' And I had written a number of things that involved backstage murder mysteries. … So I took a lot and said, `I have to reinvent the script.'"
The producers needed a new book writer, someone with a murder-mystery background. You've got an Edgar Award on your mantelpiece.
"Yes. Two, actually."
They needed someone who had written for Broadway. You've got a couple of Tonys, or is it three?
And they needed someone who understands the `50s. and your first novel was "Where the Truth Lies," set in the `50s.
Was there one of those Hollywood scenes, in a backroom somewhere, where one of the producers says "You know what we need? We need a Rupert Holmes," and someone says, "How about calling Rupert Holmes?"
"Once in a while, there's an assignment where I say "You have to hire me. You don't really have a choice." It also helps that as a composer and lyricist myself, I was better than some book writers might be able to interface with the songs from the existing musical that everyone liked and that they wished to keep. I was better able to know how to fit my story around certain wonderful numbers which were in the show and are still in the show. At the same time, I also knew where I could say `These just don't work' but you could give me something like this?"
Where did you start?
"The first decision I made was to make it a period story. The version they were working on was in a contemporary setting. And I said, `No, this has got to be 1959.'"
"Several reasons, some logical, some emotional. The second you tell a murder mystery that involves the police, if you set it in 2006, you're going to suddenly have `CSI: The Musical.' You're going to have `Law & Order: Musical Intent.' And that does not sing and dance well. There's really no good blood-spatter production number you can do. Forensic scientists do not burst into song.
"I felt the period of the late `50s would do several things. It would allow these people to be the larger than life characters they need to be and let you do a nice melodramatic mystery with all the standard things you expect: The gunshot from the unknown source and that moment where you say, `Hey! What are you doing there?' and you don't see who it is. You want to have those moments.
And that distance allows that to happen?
"Absolutely. Then you can paint them. Broadway right now is about Disney, it's about corporate underwriters. If you had a murder on Broadway now, you'd have an airline come in and say, `We want to subsidize the investigation.'
"I also wanted to share with a contemporary audience some of the joy I felt when I saw my first Broadway shows as a kid in 1959. The first Broadway show I saw, I guess I was about 10, was `My Fair Lady' at the Mark Hellinger. That's not a bad start. Musicals back then were done differently. Things were brasher and brighter and in a way more open-hearted.
“So we have things you haven't seen in awhile, like painted drops, where the desert is represented by one huge painting that hangs at the back of the stage. We have all kinds of things like that, that are a throwback to another time. I thought that would be enjoyable, especially when the score is being written by the team that really wrote much of the history of American musical theater from the 1960s on."
Talk about working with Kander and Ebb. I suppose you didn't work as much with Fred as he died a year into the process.
"I worked a lot with both of them. We had many wonderful long meetings around Fred's kitchen table. All the meetings with John, Fred, Scott Ellis and myself always took place at Fred's kitchen table in his apartment on Central Park West. And we just sat at this small table and cookies would come out or donuts would come out - Fred loved them and bought them for us as an excuse to have them for himself - and we would sit and thrash out the story, and what we wanted to do and where we were going and what we would say and what we wanted to do with certain songs.
"Occasionally, Fred would hum some tune that they hadn't thought about in a while and I'd say `Gee, you know, there's a way we can probably use that.' And it was really wonderful. He had read all of Act 1 and knew where we were going with Act 2. The last couple of months, I really felt that I had been accepted as part of his family.
"... He faxed me a lyric for one of the songs on a Friday and a few days later, Scott Ellis called to tell me that he was gone. He was working on the show and had contributed most of what we needed to put on this show before he died."
And working with Kander?
"I didn't know him that well. I met him briefly in the '70s at a meeting of playwrights and I was kind of in awe of him. [In 1985,] `The Mystery of Edwin Drood' ran at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park before coming to Broadway. I was Shakespeare in the Park that year. And the very first performance we gave in Central Park, the audience went wild, standing ovation. I'm watching 1,000 people cheering this musical and we suddenly realize we may be on to something here. This show may go to Broadway. As the audience stood, a man grabbed me and started hugging me. I turned and it was John Kander, who I had only met once before. And he said, `Isn't it great? You did it. And when it works, there's nothing like it, is there?'
"And that was the last time I saw John until we met to discuss `Curtains.' He is truly one of the good men in musical theater. He's one of these open-hearted generous spirits who will not tolerate bad words about other people. He doesn't like gossip, he doesn't like back-stabbing. He just won't be a part of it.
How did he ever get anywhere in theater?
Sometimes talent will out. He writes a pretty damn catchy tune.