He Writes the Songs (& Books and Shows, Too)
Be He Ever So Humble, There’s No One Like rupert Holmes.
By Laurie Yarnell
Scarsdale resident Rupert Holmes is a veritable Renaissance man. He’s a playwright (he’s writing books for the stage musical versions of the films First Wives Club, Secondhand Lions, and My Man Godfrey); a novelist (he wrote Where The Truth Lies and Swing); a composer and lyricist (he’s writing the score and lyrics, plus the book, for the stage version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray); and an all-around theater phenomenon (he’s the first person in Broadway history to have won Tony awards for both Best Book and Best Score for his musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
But if you’re not a Broadway aficionado, you might know him for the 1979 number-one pop tune, “The PiÃ±a Colada Song,” which he wrote and sang. Holmes, 61, admits that he never anticipated how wildly successful the song would become. So is he tired of being referred to as “The â€˜PiÃ±a Colada Song’ guy?” “It’s tough because, even though it’s been twenty-six years, every young journalist thinks they’re the very first person to discover I wrote it. There’d be a wonderful review of my work, and they’d say, â€˜Rupert Holmes, otherwise best known for “The PiÃ±a Colada Song.”’ It always gives the impression that I did that and nothing else. On the other hand, I’ll be giving an award at a high school and kids born long after it was a hit start singing the tune.”
As a kid himself, Holmes says he couldn’t decide if he wanted to be a writer or a composer. “I started falling in love with the idea of writing songs that told stories when I was about eighteen. â€˜Do I want to be in music or be a writer?’ I asked myself. â€˜Wait, I can write songs and still be a storyteller. And I can get someone to hear my songs that tell stories.’ That was a feasible dream. But,” he notes, “it was still a dream and so it took me years to become an overnight success.”
Born in England, Holmes was three years old when his family moved to Nanuet, New York. Though he and his wife of 38 years, Liza, originally met there when they were about five, their first recollection of each other is as seventh graders. “I always remember Rupert as being very creative,” says Liza, a White Plains-based defense attorney. “He was a very fine classical clarinetist in high school, and he also wrote plays that would be performed by other students. And he wrote songs for a rock group he was in.”
Holmes’s professional life took off in 1974 when his first album caught the attention of Barbra Streisand, who called him and asked to record songs from it. Five years later, he recorded his fifth album. Its lead song? Yep, “The PiÃ±a Colada Song.” Then, in 1983, came the shows The Mystery of Edwin Drood, followed by Accomplice, Say Goodnight Gracie, and Curtains, which opened last year.
But as Holmes’s career was taking off, his family was struck by tragedy. In 1986, when the couple was living in Tenafly, New Jersey, their 10-year-old daughter died suddenly from an undiagnosed brain tumor. “It was a lightning bolt striking,” Holmes says. “And it became impossible for us to stay there. I just was trying to find someplace peaceful and tranquil. And when I first came down this street, I saw the park across from our house and it seemed like a place where she and I would have spent a lot of time together.” The Holmeses have two other children, Nick, a 20-year-old college student, and Tim, 19, who has autism and lives most of the year in a residential school.
His daughter’s death, he says, “made me not apologetic for writing comedy and not apologetic for writing to entertain. For me, tragedy is the human condition; we all know we’re going to die and lose people, and comedy is what human beings have invented to deal with that. We’re the only species on the planet that has comedy—it was very unlikely that a stegosaurus was witty.”
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