It's becomes very clear very quickly, when talking to Rupert Holmes, that writing the libretto for The Nutty Professor-which paired him with composer Marvin Hamlisch-has been an astonishing and inspiring experience for the man whose resume is filled with noteworthy achievements in theater, music, publishing and, practically, any endeavor of self-expression that one can name. Yet, as Holmes remembers his friend, his collaborator and his fellow musical theater legend, it is apparent that Hamlisch's sudden death this week has left an indelible imprint upon him.
"These are not Happy Days in my life…this is a tough time," Holmes admits, his voice thick with emotion as he recalls the events of the week that have been the focus of the theater community all over the world, providing fodder for the message board chatterati and musical theater prognosticators bent on predicting the future of a new musical that is bound for Broadway. But for Holmes, the speculation and questions that abound pale in comparison to the realities of the moment: a musical genius is no longer among us.
"People rarely use the words 'genius' and 'mensch' in the same sentence," he muses. "But Marvin was both of those things. He had tremendous insights beyond music and the theater-he was a warm, funny, passionate man and he loved to make you laugh."
While the personal and professional orbits of both men had brought them together time and again during the shared tranjectories of their careers-"We had known each other over the years and we often ended up on the same talk shows together, which I always thought was an example of rather strange booking. We met, we chatted, we became friends. We came from similar backgrounds. He was a classical musician trained at Juilliard and I was a classical musician trained at the Manhattan School of Music, which is sort of the rival to Juilliard."-their collaboration on a new musical based upon Jerry Lewis' 1963 film comedy The Nutty Professor was their first time working together.
Since their pairing some five years ago (both men are admitted longtime fans of Lewis and his remarkable body of work), the two have worked to bring the unique blend of Lewis' comedy and musical theater to life in The Nutty Professor, which is now onstage in its world premiere, pre-Broadway run at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center, taking a new and heretofore untried path to the Great White Way through Music City USA, with Lewis himself helming the production as director.
"We've since written a number of songs together for a number of purposes, including a new song for a Steven Soderbergh film [Behind the Candelabra, the upcoming HBO film that will feature Hamlisch's final film score]," he says. "I was just looking over the lyrics yesterday-Marvin and I last worked on the song together only two weeks ago.
"Among the many things I cherish about The Nutty Professor is that it brought us together, and it gave me the joy and the great privilege of writing with one of our greatest composers."
In fact, Holmes admits that there have been moments during the partnership of the two men when he's thought, "I should call my parents and tell them, 'Jerry Lewis just called me a ham,' or 'Marvin Hamlisch said he likes the note I suggested better than the one he had thought of for a particular piece of music.'"
"If there is someone you've admired all your life, every now and then you have the thought of 'oh yeah, he wrote this or that and I should tell him how much I loved it,'" he admits. "My admiration for Marvin began first with his score for the movie Take the Money and Run: his underscoring of that was so evocative of classic film scores from another era.
"And in another Woody Allen film-Bananas-he wrote this wonderfully daffy caballero type of song that kicks the movie off…an up-tempo, kind of festive mariachi song. Then, over the end titles, he played the same tune very slowly on piano, with the vocalist Jake Holmes singing one of the most touching ballads I'd ever heard. It was the same song-we'd heard it in a comic way earlier in the movie-and he then turned the very same tune into something that could make you cry. He was masterful in that way."