Arts » Performing Arts

The Comforts of Blood and Gore

A conversation with playwright Rupert Holmes


Back in 1985, Rupert Holmes had the audacity to write a Broadway musical that had no fewer than eight possible endings for his cast to memorize. Based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood wound up capturing five Tony Awards for Holmes, including individual triumphs in the Best Book and Best Score categories -- an unprecedented double. Holmes has been prolific and successful in both the theater and music realms. Two years ago, Actor's Theatre staged the playwright's Accomplice in Charlotte to great acclaim after the thriller had already won the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award. The Burns & Allen Estate gave Holmes its approval -- and access to unpublished documents -- in preparation for Say Goodnight, Gracie, scheduled for a Broadway opening in March 2002.

Meanwhile, the composer's songs have been sung by Barbara Streisand on multi-platinum albums, by cartoon critters in Shrek, and by Britney Spears, for crissake. Holmes's soundtrack for A Star Is Born won a Grammy Award. Toss in some prime work in TV. He wrote the Emmy Award-winning Remember WENN for AMC.

This week, Holmes's newest play, Thumbs, gets a World Preview opening at Spirit Square. Holmes is in town to see how well his script works on Charlotte's theater audience.

We were able to catch Holmes a couple of weeks ago at his New York office and chat with him about the mad swirl of his career, about Thumbs, and about the medicinal effect of mystery thrillers.

Creative Loafing: Looking over your press bio, I guess lazy and laid-back aren't proper descriptions for Rupert Holmes.

Rupert Holmes: People ask me my hobby, and I say it's sleeping -- and I've really neglected my hobby. I work until about four or five in the morning, and I get up about eight or nine. Then they say, Oh, you're one of those people who doesn't need eight hours of sleep. And I say, I need eight hours of sleep. I just can't afford it. I don't know. I've always wanted to do lots of different things. Somehow, I never got it into my head that I had to necessarily choose. It's an old habit from my early days in the record business. I found the most productive sentence I could say to people was, Yes!

All the different things you do must presuppose that you have an omnivorous interest in things -- such as mysteries.

I do. I'm a wealth of information that is of no use to anyone. If you need to know the entire cast of the first season of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, I'm the man to turn to. If it's information that is not particularly vital to anyone's daily life, my brain soaks it up and retains it for decades.

So were you absorbed by reading and consuming mysteries at one point?

Yeah. My love affair with mysteries goes back to when I was like 10 or 11. Because I had to wear glasses when I was eight. This was in the 50s, when if you wore glasses, about 90 percent of your options in life were automatically ruled out for you. So I kind of felt very forlorn, because I was obviously not going to be Flash Gordon or anybody like that. Suddenly I discovered there were these things called mysteries where the hero sometimes wore glasses. Ellery Queen, for example, who was on TV at that time. And he wore glasses!

I loved reading mysteries because it's as if someone has glued a magnet on the inside back cover of the book. If it gets a little slow, you still pull through the book because there's that reward at the end where you find out whodunnit. Kind of like why you might work your way through a lime Tootsie Pop knowing eventually there is a chocolate center that I'm going to get to.

Despite the fact that they seem to involve violence and blood, mysteries are actually very reassuring, especially in our unstable times. You have this universe where, suddenly, the social order has been thrown completely into chaos. My favorite line in Thumbs is baby simple: You're not supposed to kill people.

We count on people behaving the way they should behave. We count on the fact that life, being hard enough to get through as it is, is not going to be shortened by some stupid act. And into this terrible chaos comes the great detective, who sometimes takes the form of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot and sometimes takes the form of someone quite obscenely innocuous, like Miss Marple or Father Brown. Somehow they see the same information that we see, and they're able to perceive something that we can't get.