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Posted 7/2/2003 5:01 PM
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Rupert Holmes dons yet another hat
SCARSDALE, N.Y. — In his 20s, Rupert Holmes became a singer/songwriter "because it was the only way to guarantee that someone would sing the songs I was writing." That wasn't such a problem after Barbra Streisand asked if he'd like to work with her, which he did on six albums and several movies. A decade later, Joseph Papp, the legendary theater producer, told Holmes, "Each of your songs is like a little musical. Did you ever think of writing a musical?" That led to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, inspired by Charles Dickens' unfinished serial, for which Holmes won three Tony Awards. A decade after that, Random House editor Jonathan Karp, an inspiring lyricist himself, asked whether Holmes wanted to write a novel.

"Of course I did," he says. "I want to write in every medium before I'm done."

At 56, Holmes, a composer, playwright, producer, screenwriter and singer, is a debut novelist. Where the Truth Lies, (Random House, $24.95), released this week, is a send-up of the '70s and of the entertainment industry wrapped in a murder mystery. (Related item: Read an excerpt from Where the Truth Lies.)

Holmes' work is better known than he is. Karp suggests that's because he rarely does the same thing twice.

He's most widely known as "The Piña Colada Guy" for his No. 1 hit from 1979, Escape/The Piña Colada Song, a last-minute addition to an album he wrote and performed that was heavy with ballads and needed "something up-tempo."

It has become the song that won't go away. It pops up in movies like Shrek and The Sweetest Thing, in which Holmes and Cameron Diaz sing a duet. But he's on the radio, "the story of my life."

His mother, who was British, named him after Rupert Brooke, the poet killed in World War I. His father, an American jazz and classical musician, taught him Mozart's 40th by the time he was 4. At 6, Holmes wrote a song, Nobody Loves Me, a "Vegas-kind of tune," he says, and sings a verse.

He dropped out of college, Manhattan School of Music, to work in music, although "I was saying I was in the music business about three years before the music business knew about it."

His novel is inspired by his experiences as a wide-eyed, struggling singer/songwriter who "wandered into another world" in Hollywood after Streisand discovered his debut album, Widescreen.

The novel deals with the costs of fame and the delicate relationship between two people who perform together. Its major characters are a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis-like comedy team who get involved with a young, scheming, female journalist.

Holmes say he's intrigued by "the trust that must exist between any show business team who put their lives in each other's hands, whether they're an aerial act or magicians or comedians, and what happens when they no longer trust each other."

He also deals with the role of the straight man in a comedy team, a theme of his play, Say Goodnight, Gracie, last season's Broadway sleeper hit, about George Burns and Gracie Allen.

In his novel, Holmes writes that a "straight man usually has better comedy timing than his partner."

Over lunch, Holmes offers an example: the under appreciated talents of Bud Abbott of Abbott and Costello. He compares comedy to music: the partner who gets the laughs is the orchestra; the straight man is the conductor.

Holmes set his novel in the '70s because "it was a terrible, luscious, sordid, exhilarating, unforgivable era ... often as lacking in substance as a can of Tab cola, but opulently rich as a backdrop for comedy and intrigue."

With Melissa Manchester, he wrote a title song for it, saying, "If movies can have title songs, why not novels?" Manchester's performance can be heard on his Web site,

He lives in Scarsdale, a suburb he values for its tranquility and the 35-minute train ride to Broadway. He's married to a lawyer and has two teenage sons and the memory of a daughter, Wendy, who died in 1987 at age 10, from an undiagnosed brain tumor.

"I can't begin to tell you what that is like," he says. "And you shouldn't have to know. But you survive and you go on ... " His voice trails off.

In his acknowledgements, he writes of Wendy: "the enduring memory of her goodness and grace has become what passes for my conscience. She was a beautiful, brilliant, gentle girl who was entitled to a lifetime."

He also writes that his younger son, Tim, "carries the weight of autism with literally unspeakable courage. I live and long for the day when he can talk to me and tell me what he has been feeling all these years." His older son, Nick, who was born after Wendy died, "did nothing less than save his parents' lives. He gave us hope."

Holmes rarely performs anymore, but he warns bookstores he's willing to sing during his book tour. "A big band to back me up would be nice."