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298 Kinderkamack Road, Oradell, NJ 07649


Bergen County Players, inc.


«  »June 2024


Partners in crime: 'Mystery' playwright Rupert Holmes and Bergen County Players

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Rupert Holmes, a Tony Award winner and man behind the hit song "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)," has a long and storied relationship with the Bergen County Players, a community theater in Oradell.

You'd think that a Tony-winning entertainment dynamo — one who has been cranking out songs, albums, plays, shows, and books at a Formula One pace since the 1970s — wouldn't have much time for a small community theater in North Jersey.

But there appears to be a special relationship between Rupert Holmes and the Bergen County Players. And unlike the famous, fraying one between the U.S. and Britain, this union is still in excellent shape.

"It's really wonderful, and it means a lot to me," says Holmes, the Tony award winning playwright ("Accomplice," "Curtains"), novelist ("Where the Truth Lies"), TV writer ("Remember WENN") and chart-topping singer-songwriter ("Escape [The Piña Colada Song]," "Him").

His best-known play, the 1985 musical "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," is coming to Bergen County Players Sept. 8 to Oct. 6. It's the fourth Holmes play to be staged by BCP in 25 years. "It's amazing, isn't it?" Holmes says.

What's really amazing is the extent to which the playwright, a Putnam County, New York resident, has become personally involved in so many of these productions.

"This is gonna be a great, great cast," he says. "As always."

Bergen County Players, as it happens, has a special place in the playwright's history, and his heart. That's why — not for the first time — he's been a hands-on presence at BCP, communicating with the director and cast, making special material available to them, even visiting the little 210-seat theater, in early August, to see how the "Drood" cast was getting on.

"It was very exciting to have him in the building," says Larry Landsman, former president of BCP. "You could feel the electricity when he walked in. It was just thrilling."

For this production, which has a cast of 20 and eight musicians, Holmes has made available new material from the last New York revival, in 2012 — gags and even songs that are not part of the standard Tams-Witmark package that gets leased to most community theaters.

"I said, let me give you access to my script form the Roundabout [Theatre] revival, so you can pick or choose any of the alternate lines you want to use," Holmes says. "So they're performing a sort of Bergen County customized version."

In 2001, Holmes even wrote a play specifically for BCP: "Thumbs," a comedy-thriller that Landsman directed in its world premiere at the Oradell theater and has since been performed around the world. Another Holmes musical, "Curtains," was staged at BCP in 2009.

"The talent in Bergen County and environs is amazing," Holmes says. "These are all people who could have gone on to become professional actors."

Some of them, in fact, have: Beth Fowler ("Orange is the New Black," "Sweeney Todd") and Rob McClure ("Chaplin") are among the BCP alumni who went to Broadway and beyond.  But that's not the reason Holmes has kept an eye on the 86-year-old theater since Landsman first approached him, in 1992, about staging his play "Accomplice."

It started with a bus stop

So why this particular theater?

That's a story that goes back to when Holmes was a 19-year-old from Nanuet N.Y., in the late 1960s, trying to crack the entertainment business. It was, for him, a long slog. "It took me 10 years to be an overnight success," he quips.

Back then, he would commute every weekday, by bus, to the Manhattan School of Music in New York. As the bus made its stops in North Jersey towns, it would come to Oradell — and to Bergen County Players, housed since 1949 in the cute red Little Firehouse Theatre on Kinderkamack Road.

"I'd stare out the window and I'd see this theater," Holmes says. "And it looked like what every summer stock theater should look like. Attractive and tidy and a bit quaint…And I thought, 'Maybe they'd let me in. Maybe if I brought some songs to the stage door and said, "I could play these," maybe they'd let me be part of something.' I had no idea, then, how I was going to get into the music business."

In the end Holmes, who at various times lived in Tenafly and Fort Lee, broke into show business by a rather different route. He recorded an album, "Widescreen," in 1974 that put him on the radar of Barbra Streisand.

"She called me out of the blue, a cold call from her that changed my life forever," he recalls. "She said, 'I love this album, I love these songs, I want to record them'…I said, 'This is the worst Barbra Streisand impression I ever heard, who is this?' "

It was indeed La Streisand — who brought Holmes in to contribute songs and arrangements to her 1975 album "Lazy Afternoon," and then several songs for her 1976 movie "A Star is Born."

In 1979, he scored his own big success as performer and songwriter: a clever little ditty about a guy who attempts to cheat on his girlfriend through the personals, and winds up surprised when she responds to his his ad about piña coladas and getting caught in the rain. "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" became a monster hit that later turned up on the soundtracks of "Shrek" and "Guardians of the Galaxy," and will probably never die until the last karaoke bar hosts its last talent night.

"It's hard to believe, in one more year it will be 40 years since I sat down and wrote that one night, in Fort Lee, in my apartment," he says. Horizon apartments, North Tower, on the 21st floor, in case you're wondering.

" 'Piña Colada Song' was the last No. 1 record of the 1970s, and on some charts the first No. 1 record of the 1980s," he says.

On to theater

Having conquered the pop charts, Holmes moved on to theater. For legendary producer-director Joseph Papp, he wrote in 1985, on spec, a musical based on Charles Dickens' unfinished final novel, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Holmes — like his detective namesake, a lover of puzzles and brain-teasers — didn't merely solve Dickens' unsolved mystery. He went Dickens one better by letting the audience solve it each night — writing variant endings depending on who, by majority vote, dunit.

There are eight possible murderers, five possible detectives in disguise, and 18 possible pairs of lovers in the show, which won five Tonysin 1986, including best musical. Holmes himself took home two awards, for book and score — the first such double-header in Tony history, anticipating Lin-Manuel Miranda for "Hamilton."

In the midst of this hot streak, in 1992, Holmes got a phone call from an unexpected quarter. It was — of all things — the little red theater he used to pass by on his bus route through Oradell, 25 years earlier.

"I did reach out to him," Landsman recalls. "Through his agent, or through the licenser."

Had Holmes ever heard of Bergen County Players? Or course he had.

"I never forgot that my first idea of how I might [succeed], the first door into show business that I might take, was located in Oradell," Holmes says.

Holmes was immediately receptive about BCP doing his play "Accomplice," even tailoring the ending to the company, Landsman says.

"We invited him to come, he was able to see the show, and was very impressed with what we were able to do," Landsman says.

So beginning with "Accomplice" in 1992, Holmes and his favorite Jersey theater began an unofficial partnership.

"It's really wonderful just to work with a living author who can offer advice, and if you have a question, you can ask," says "Drood" director Steve Bell, who also directed the Holmes musical "Curtains" for BCP nine years ago.

"I've asked him lots of questions about accents and social status," Bell says. "Would he like it this way, or that way? I really want to fulfill Rupert's vision of what this show can be, through my imagination and the capabilities of BCP."

Don't get the idea that Holmes, over the years, has been sitting by the telephone waiting for BCP to ring.

As always, he has plenty of irons on the fire.  "Warhol — The Musical," "Name That Tune — The Musical," and "The Boys of Summer" are among his newest theater projects; "The McMasters Guide to Homicide: Murder Your Employer," is among his more recent books.

Just the same, he always looks forward to hearing from the little theater on Kinderkamack Road. He plans to be there, in person, at the Sept. 23 matinee, for a Q&A session.

He even looks forward, one day, to learning what "Kinderkamack" means.

"Great word, Kinderkamack," he says. "We know its got something to do with children.  'Kinder.' Now all we have to do is crack 'kamack'."

WHAT: "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, Sept. 8 to Oct. 6.

WHERE: Little Firehouse Theater, 298 Kinderkamack Road, Oradell. 201-261-4200 or bcplayers.org


Email: beckerman@northjersey.com

Twitter: @jimbeckerman1

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