Credited with writing one of the silliest songs of the ’70s, "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)," Rupert Holmes found far more admirers with his recent work in theater.
His "Say Goodnight, Gracie," which opens with Jamie Farr for a three-night run at Robinson Center Music Hall on Monday, Oct. 11, was the 2003 Tony Award nominee and 2003-04 National Broadway Theatre award-winner for Best Play. With "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," Holmes was the first in theatrical history to win Tony Awards for Best Book, Best Music and Best Lyrics for the same work, while the play won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Holmes also picked up New York Drama Desk honors for "Edwin Drood." His Broadway comedy-mystery "Accomplice" also took several awards. His "Solitary Confinement," starring Stacy Keach, set Kennedy Center box-office records and reached Broadway.
Still, when people visit with Holmes, the first line to come up is usually, "Do you like pina coladas?" (Oh how ’70s music, and Holmes’ career, might have been different had his original line, "Do you like Humphrey Bogart?" stayed in the story-song about personal ads.)
"We’re going on 25 years with that song," he said by telephone from his Westchester County, N.Y., office. Coincidentally, an episode of NBC’s "Las Vegas" a week before this interview had used the song as part of a storyline about card-counters. "There’s an alert system out there that tells me every time it’s mentioned," he added, laughing.
Holmes put the pina colada aside long ago — few probably know he wrote the Jets’ hit "You Got It All (Over Him)." And his novel-writing and play-writing success, too, might surprise some ’70s music fans.
The Nyack, N.J., native — "Its main attribute was it rhymed with kayak," he said — migrated from struggling singer-songwriter to playwright in the ’80s on the strength of his storytelling. Joe Papp, a producer of "A Chorus Line" and Shakespeare in the Park, pointed out to Holmes that when he was performing his songs, he really was performing a la theater. So, from that push, Holmes worked for three years on an idea about the extended life of Charles Dickens that became "Edwin Drood," which Papp produced in Central Park before it went to Broadway and London’s West End at the Savoy.
"Suddenly, I was in theater," he said. Then, he said, "I decided I would write something that didn’t rhyme."
"Say Goodnight, Gracie" is an offshoot of the Emmy-winning TV series Holmes created and wrote, "Remember WENN," about the golden age of radio.
"I was born in 1947 when the golden age was going out," he said. "I collected old radio shows. Half of it was what you’d hear, but you were the cinematographer, the vision was yours. It was a wonderful world. It was quite a unique artform that lasted only a short while because TV made it obsolete."
George Burns and Gracie Allen were a big part of that radio world, as well as vaudeville on its back end and TV in its early years. Approached about writing a show on the life of George Burns, Holmes jumped, and spent almost the next year and a half immersing himself in all things Burns.
"When you write the story of George Burns, because he lived to 100, you are writing about American entertainment," Holmes said, adding that Burns "did some things that were theater of the absurd, that were way ahead of their time."
Gracie Allen completed Burns, and "Say Goodnight, Gracie," he says, "is a love story. It’s as much about Gracie as it is George."
Farr, best known for his role as Cpl. Max Klinger on "M.A.S.H.," has stepped in for impressionist Frank Gorshin, who originated the role on Broadway. Coincidentally, Holmes as a child took a liking to the actor and his style when he saw Farr bespectacled (as Holmes was at age 8) in "The Blackboard Jungle." Farr, a semi-regular on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" in the 1960s, was taken under the wing of Red Skelton.
"He has a real sense of show business history as well," Holmes said. "He’s very endearing in the role. Jamie’s found me some new laughs that I didn’t have before."
Holmes’ first novel, "Where the Truth Lies," is being made into a movie starring Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth and Alison Lohman and directed by Atom Egoyan ("The Sweet Hereafter"). He’s wrapping up the book to a musical written by John Kander and the late Fred Epp that will open in Los Angeles in 2005, and recently finished a musical based on the 1956 movie "Marty" and starring John C. Reilly. Then there’s a new novel in the works, set in the big-band era.
"It’s all slightly mind-boggling right now," he said. It’s almost enough to drive one to drink — at least pina coladas.
"I’ve never had one," Holmes said.
Showtimes for "Say Goodnight, Gracie" are 7:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, and tickets range from $13 to $33. Call Celebrity Attractions at 244-8800 or order through Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com).