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Broadway Bound 'Curtains': Rupert Holmes, Part 2: A Team, A Cast, At Last

This is the second installment in the 2006 “Broadway Bound” series looking at “Curtains.”

"Curtains," the Broadway-bound backstage murder-mystery musical comedy that opened Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, brings together a technical crew and cast that has racked up 34 Tony Awards.

From producer Roger Berlind ("The History Boys") to John Kander and the late Fred Ebb ("Cabaret") to costumer William Ivey Long ("Hairspray," "The Producers"), the show's pedigree is strong.

Starring David Hyde Pierce ("Spamalot"), Debra Monk ("Chicago") and Karen Ziemba ("Contact"), "Curtains" involves 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."

Cioffi, a fan of Broadway musicals, hopes to solve the crime and cure the ailing musical at the same time.

Another of the ringers working on "Curtains" is its book writer - two-time Tony-winner Rupert Holmes, whose "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" won him two Tonys (for score and book) and was named best musical for 1986.

Holmes, a Nyack native who now lives in Scarsdale, talked recently about getting involved in the Broadway-bound musical.

"Curtains" has a big cast.

"A big cast for a Broadway musical - in the mid to high 20s. I saw `Pajama Game,' which is a wonderful production, but they had a picnic and I thought it was the loneliest picnic I had ever seen. It's hard to make 14 people be a crowd. So it's a very big cast. A lot of wonderful singing, a lot of fabulous dancing, and some quite impressive and fun sets by Anna Louizas, who did `Avenue Q.' And Rob Ashford, who won the Tony for choreographing `Thoroughly Modern Millie,' is doing our dance work here as well.

Tell me about Anna Louizos' design.

The show is set in 1959 at the Colonial Theater in Boston and I'm pleased to say that the Ahmanson, which is usually a pretty characterless stage, now has an exact replica of the proscenium of the Colonial Theater in 1959 as its façade. It's as if we stole it - it's literally the same marble pillars. So you walk in and you see this fabulous old-fashioned theater and I'm sure about half the people who come will not realize that's not the Ahmanson's proscenium, that's ours. It's quite an extravagant production at every turn."

You've got a bunch of ringers, don't you?

"Our cast includes Karen Ziemba, who won a Tony for `Contact' …"

And the design team, Paul Huntley's wigs and William Ivey Long's costumes…

"William Ivey Long has just come up with a costume orgy. I don't know if I've ever seen a show with more changes. He heard about the show, heard about where it was set, what it was about. Usually it's very hard to get him on the phone. He actually started making the phone calls, came to the first reading that we did and has been on board ever since.

"What we get to do within the show is feature costumes that might have been on the stage in 1959, but also right alongside that the wardrobe from 1959, because we see the people as characters in a lavish musical and also how they would dress in rehearsal and for Opening Night and in casual clothes."

That means a lot of costumes.

Beautiful costumes that are the most elegant dress of the late 1950s - a lot of tuxedos because there's an Opening Night in the story, and the gowns are stunning - but also we have this Robin Hood musical. The musical within the musical is something you might have seen in 1959, which is a Wild West version of Robin Hood, done as a musical. That's `Robbin' Hood!' - that thievin' stealin' robbin' Hood. And the musical with the musical has a star who's something short of mediocre, played by Patti Goble."

And you've got David Hyde Pierce.

At Opening Night of its Boston tryout, a murder occurs and sent in to solve the murder is Lt. Frank Cioffi. He's not only one of the better sleuths with the Boston police, but he also believes that there's no higher form of life on earth than musical theater. ... David Hyde Pierce is funny and charming and a delight and touching and he dances up a storm. It's a very physical part and he does some spectacular stuff in it."

They didn't use a lot of those talents in "Spamalot."

"I don't way to say yea or nay to that, but once he makes his first entrance in our show, he's on for the entire show and gets a real workout. He's going to be able to eat as many Big Macs as he wants for the run of the show."

What does "Curtains" sound like?

"I think you listen to this score and you say `Boy, that's a Kander and Ebb score.' That's not to say it's derivative, but it's got that same spirit, with all the components of a great Kander and Ebb score."

And those are?

"Great theatricality, there's always a great sense of showbiz in the songs, a strutting sense to it. A joy and pride in it. Whether you think of `New York, New York' or `Cabaret,' it's that unquenchable, unstoppable optimism that's in so much of their work. And it has that other quality, a sad slight heartbreak to it. They always have that, a kind of tug at the heart that they can pull off. All of that is in this show, but because it's such a splashy show, it leans more to the sunny side than the sad side.

"One of my favorite songs is this very gentle, touching song called `Lunch Counter Mornings and Coffee Shop Nights.' It's the first solo song that Frank Cioffi sings.

"It lets you know that this character, the detective, doesn't have much of a life, that he doesn't eat at home, doesn't have anyone to eat with. He eats at the lunch counter and the coffee shop. It's not self-pitying at all. It's just sweetly touching."

How have the rehearsals been going?

Oh, I don't know! Seeing 80 costumes a day? Watching 25 people do kicklines? Watching entire sets fly to the sky? And I'm sitting there saying `I'm not paying anyone to see this?'

"The tone is set by Kander and by David Hyde Pierce, who is probably the nicest celebrity I've ever met. He is gracious and thoughtful, and knows absolutely everyone's name - including all the production assistants and the person who gets the coffee - and he has time for everybody. There are no tirades, so it's an entirely congenial atmosphere."

[Wednesday's opening] will be the first time audiences have heard this musical. How do you prepare for that?

"One of the amazing things about theater is that a show is all these different things then you put it in front of an audience. And that first performance in front of an audience probably teaches you 100 percent more than you did in all the time prior to that. And this is a rule. I've never known an exception to it. You find that a joke you believed to be the funniest joke in the show gets a mild laugh, if any, but you also discover about five jokes you didn't know you'd written."

Knowing that you don't know everything at this point, do you expect to make major changes, or is it a line here or there?

"My expectation is that we will make adjustments and tweaks and maybe, because of time, some cuts. Either the audience is going to be on board with the giddiness of this premise or not. … The show we're rehearsing is the show we're going to present. In a murder-mystery, you're always working toward a solution. To change it would be like saying, "I'm going to have a Tootsie Pop, but I won't have the chocolate center this time" or "I'll have a jelly donut, but not the jelly this time."

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