News Column

Rupert Holmes brings 'Secondhand Lions' to 5th Ave

September 5, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 05--Let's get this out of the way, before we go any further.

Yes, Rupert Holmes, author of the forthcoming 5th Avenue Theatre musical "Secondhand Lions," also wrote "Escape" -- aka "The Pina Colada Song." And no one was more surprised than he was when this bouncy, dashed-off tune about a guy rediscovering his ex via a singles ad became a huge hit single -- and later turned up on the soundtracks of some 19 movies.

"I think my tombstone will be in the shape of a pineapple," cracked Holmes recently, over lunch. "It's strange to be shadowed by something you did 34 years ago. When I wrote it, Kim Kardashian hadn't even been born."

Though he's a good sport when the subject comes up, the prolific, multitalented Holmes has a long list of other, more illustrious achievements to dwell on -- as an author of plays and musicals, a novelist, a composer, a television writer, an arranger-conductor.

So if you can get the catchy chorus of that infernal ditty out of your head, let's move on to his latest project, "Secondhand Lions," for which Holmes is crafting the book, and composer-lyricists Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner ("First Date") the score. The world premiere of the piece, which is based on a 2003 movie featuring Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, starts previews at the 5th Avenue on Saturday.

"I usually feel hesitation about adapting films for theater because people often expect to see the same scenes and dialogue they loved from the movie," noted Holmes, a New Yorker who exudes enthusiasm and bonhomie. "But I really felt this musical could have an identity and life and depth of its own. That excited me."

Bankrolled by New Line Cinema (which also produced the film), "Secondhand Lions" depicts a shy, neglected adolescent boy's coming-of-age summer with a pair of rural great-uncles who adopt an aged circus lioness, and spin stories for their nephew about their exotic past -- some of which may even be true.

Parts of the original screenplay for "Secondhand Lions" by writer-director Tim McCanlies "work wonderfully in the show," Holmes said. "But there was so much we could do with the uncles' stories that the movie didn't do.

" I got to invent this whole swashbuckling fantasy world on the stage. It's tricky. We're really doing two musicals in one and have to find the balance. We'll learn a lot from the preview audiences."

Those patrons will see what is "by nature a family show," advised this father of two grown sons, "and family is one of the central themes of the piece. It can appeal to many age groups -- the main characters range in age from 11 to 70."

While working here, Holmes is also keeping an eye on the Broadway debut of "A Time to Kill," his play based on a John Grisham mystery, which stars Seattle actor Tom Skerritt and opens in October.

And he's still basking in the joy of a hit 2012 revival of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" -- a Tony-winning musical Holmes adapted from a Charles Dickens novel, as well as composed and orchestrated.

Multitasking and genre-hopping are second nature to Holmes (given name: David Goldstein), who was born in England to a British mother and American father, but grew up in the U.S.

In addition to recording several solo albums of his own songs, Holmes has worked extensively as a composer-arranger on Barbra Streisand albums, penned several mystery novels, written the cable-TV series "Remember WENN" and written several other musicals, including the recent Broadway show "Curtains."

Among his many pursuits, working in the theater is a favorite. "I always wanted to write for theater, but I didn't know anyone in that world," he mused. "Then 25 years ago, (theatrical producer) Joseph Papp heard my work and said, 'You're writing little musicals in these songs.' I pitched 'Edwin Drood' to him, and one thing led to another" -- including three 1986 Tonys, and a reputation well beyond "the man who wrote that pina colada song."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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