"Audiences are howling from the start, and they never stop," says book writer, Tony Award-winning Rupert Holmes of Curtains, his and Kander and Ebb's musical comedy murder mystery which opens tomorrow. "There's more fun in this show than anything I've ever written."
With the death of Ebb in 2004, Curtains, years in development, marks one of the last collaborations by the longest-running songwriting team in Broadway history a beloved duo that gave us Cabaret, Zorba, Chicago, The Rink, Steel Pier, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Flora, the Red Menace, The Happy Time, 70 Girls 70, The Act and Woman of the Year.
Curtains' curtain raiser is the death of the leading lady of Robbin' Hood!, a Wild West musical retelling of the Sherwood Forest legend, in pre-Broadway tryouts in Boston. She comes to her untimely end during a thunderous ovation while taking her bows.
David Hyde Pierce of "Frasier" fame, stars as Frank Cioffi, a bungling Boston homicide detective and fan of musical comedies, who conducts a murder investigation where everyone on and backstage is a suspect.
But the show must go on, and as it does, Cioffi finds himself caught in a web of bedlam, deceit, massive theatrical egos, a budding love affair and more murder.
Pierce feels this last K&E collaboration "is a historical moment for the stage. The premise of a musical set against a murder mystery is a bit tricky, which makes it all the more fun. John and Fred are at the top of their game, and the result is classic Kander and Ebb. And, with Peter gone, Scott's idea to bring in Rupert, an acknowledged master of the mystery/thriller genre, was genius."
Tony and Drama Desk winner Debra Monk plays producer Carmen Berstein. Having originated the role of Shelby Stevens in Steel Pier and having been a Mama Morton in Chicago, she is no stranger to K&E scores. She's also been aboard Curtains since the 2001 workshop.
"What attracted me," she explains, "was that it has one of John and Fred's greatest scores. It was also the opportunity at that time to work with Peter Stone. And now Rupert, who's written one heck of a part for me."
She's delighting in hearing the vamps K & E are famous for. "Their scores are so funny and rich. The songs are full of irony. They can do something big and brassy, then turn around and write the most heartfelt ballad. And follow that with a great eleven o'clock number. If anyone loves Kander and Ebb, they won't be disappointed."
Monk, who has been a producer in her career (as well as a writer), says, "I was never a producer like this one. Carmen's one of a kind, larger than life. She loves theater deeply. She's a shrewd businesswoman, but she also has heart." And no, she states emphatically, contrary to scuttlebutt, Carmen isn't based on Fran Weissler! "She's based on a woman Peter knew."
Tony and Drama Desk winner Karen Ziemba is Georgia Kendricks, the lyricist of the try-out musical. "Not unlike Betty Comden," she reports.
Because of "Frasier" (which won Hyde-Pierce four Emmy Awards) and his Drama Desk-nominated performance in Spamalot, Ziemba states the obvious, "Everyone knows David can be funny, but in Curtains he's amazing. This is Kander and Ebb, so you expect the songs to be incredible, but this score just keeps coming at you."
Curtains is a musical, and Ziemba's in it, so she must dance, right? "Well," she reports, "not really. I mostly sing and act. But, hey, they figure Ziemba's in the show so they gotta give me some dancing. So, I do. A little."
She couldn't be happier with her songs. "John knows Debra and me so well that he came up with perfect songs that are just right for our characters. One of John and Fred's great assets is they can write beautiful songs that come out of the story. What's really special are their big finishes, the kind that really lift your heart. This score raises the bar even for them!" She adds that Holmes' book "packs punch because the comedy comes from the theatrical egos of the characters."
Monk and Ziemba co-star along with Jason Danieley, Jill Paice, Edward Hibbert (seen frequently on "Frasier"), Noah Racey, Darcie Roberts and an 18-member cast. Multiple Tony and Drama Desk nominee Scott Ellis is the director, with choreography by Rob Ashford (1992 Tony, Thoroughly Modern Millie).
This is Monk's sixth show with Ellis. She and Hyde Pierce met in his early Broadway days in a reading of a Christopher Durang play, and she later appeared with him on "Frasier." Ziemba won raves starring Off Bway in the K&E revue And the World Goes 'Round. She and Monk met in the cast of Steel Pier, which Ellis conceived and directed. Ziemba met Ashford when they joined the cast of Crazy for You, and she performed with Racey in Never Gonna Dance.
Curtains was redeveloped by Holmes from an original concept by the late Tony-winning book writer Peter Stone, who won three Tonys for his librettos for Titanic, Woman of the Year and 1776. His six nominations included one for the book of The Will Rogers Follies. With the death of his long-time partner Fred Ebb, composer Kander has done additional lyrics with Holmes.
"Because it's a murder mystery, Curtains has an edge," Ellis explains, "but it's also a wonderful homage to musical theater. We've known some Kander and Ebb shows to be dark. Even though we have a murder, this one isn't. And because it's a show-within-a-show setting, we really embrace that 'Let's put on a show' feeling that Mickey and Judy had."
Bright and brassy is how Holmes describes the score. "It's a bit different," he notes, "but there's no mistaking it's a Kander and Ebb score. It has their mark, which is the absolute height of theatricality with a wonderful show-business sensibility. There're also a couple of stirring tunes that would cause any thespian's heartbeat to race."
The British-born writer/composer (nee David Goldstein) came with his English mother and Yank Air Force father to New York when he was three and, living on Long Island, soon lost his accent. After music school, he went on to become a session pianist and arranger for Gene Pitney, the Platters, the Drifters, even the Partridge Family.
Holmes has written novels and recorded over 15 albums. Two of his best-known and biggest-selling tunes are the megahit "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" and "Him." He wrote, arranged and conducted extensively for Streisand, with tunes on six albums. Other songs have been recorded by a variety of top-selling artists. For his 1986 Tony and Drama Desk-winning Best Musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Holmes was the first artist to receive Tonys for Book, Music and Lyrics. Jonathan Larson was the second.
After the short-lived Broadway thrillers Accomplice and Solitary Confinement, Holmes had "the great joy" of working on his beloved TV series, "Remember WENN," set in the late 30s into the life-changing early 40s. Radio was king at that Pittsburgh station where the employees are as wacky as the characters they portray on the air.
It was a dream situation, Holmes states, "one I'll never encounter again. There was no laugh track, no commercials. I was able to write a continuing story line, fifty-six half-hour episodes. I thought of it as writing the world's longest play."
Now, he's adapted "Remember WENN" for the Public Theatre, a company dear to his heart from his experience working with Joe Papp to develop Drood. Also in the works are Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' adaptation of Paddy Chayevsky's original teleplay and Academy Award-winning film Marty, which starred John C. Reilly in a Boston tryout. In addition to Say Goodnight, Gracie, starring the late Frank Gorshin on Broadway and on tour, there are upcoming adaptations of the films "Second Hand Lions" and "First Wives Club."
Holmes calls Curtains "a valentine to the shows I was weaned on. I set the story in 1959 to convey the simple, joyful wonder I felt going to theater." He still has vivid memories of such shows as My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Bells Are Ringing, The Music Man, Damn Yankees, The King and I, The Pajama Game and The Most Happy Fella. "The new time setting gave me the opportunity to remind an audience who can remember those shows and inform one that doesn't."
It also allowed Holmes to create larger-than-life theatrical characters and temperamental directors. "If I wrote about Broadway today," he admits, "I'd have to bring in Lloyd Webber, Mackintosh's mega musicals and Disney. But setting it as I have, I was able to fall back on the legends."
Holmes realizes there's going to be a problem keeping the show's ending secret. "The killer's the same at every performance, so we're hoping audiences don't spill the beans. It's something you can't control. However, I've come up with a couple of little games."