The two-time-Tony-Award-winning playwright and songwriter had slipped unceremoniously through the side door.
In dim light, he could have been anyone, a janitor or a teacher. He wore a blue jacket and a scarf, and seemed somewhat shy at first, humbled by the fact that students had waited for hours to see him.
A resident of New Jersey, he had decided to visit the cast of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” a play he had adapted from the unfinished novel by Charles Dickens.
Born in England, Holmes (his birth name was David Goldstein) moved to New York City when he was seven years old. His family was rich in musical traditions, which he drew on when adapting the Dickens novel.
Sitting on stage, he talked to the cast about how this play had revived his career.
“One day I found myself standing in a supermarket parking lot with a band I had just met performing the “Pina Colada” song, and I thought, can my career get any worse than this?” he told the students.
The song, which he wrote, is called “Escape.” It is better known as the “Pina Colada” song, which hit the top of the charts the last week of 1979 and the first week of 1980.
“I like to think I bridged two decades on top of the charts,” he said.
But he became so famous for this novelty hit that many people never realized how significant a career he’d had prior to that it, working with performers in the early 1970s in bands like The Cuff Links and The Archies. Some of those songs made the charts for 15 weeks. He wrote jingles as well as pop tunes for performers such as Gene Pitney, the Platters, The Drifters, Wayne Newton, Dolly Parton, Barry Manilow, and for the TV band, The Partridge Family.
“You might remember them from reruns of reruns,” he said, trying to bridge the gap of generations between those hits and the kids who sat starry eyed in the audience.
But Holmes was already creating a kind of narrative musical production that was evident in his album Widescreen, from which Barbara Streisand took some songs for her version of the movie, “A Star is Born.”
Music critics later compared him to Bob Dylan. But it was “Escape” for which he would be remembered, a song he was required to sing again and again wherever he went, even though he continued to write other songs and release new albums.
Holmes credits legendary Off Broadway producer Joseph Papp with launching his playwriting career.
Papp had seen Holmes perform in cabaret and said his work was theatrical in nature.
In 1985, drawing on the unfinished Dickens novel as well as his childhood memories of pantomime performances in England, Holmes created the musical “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” later known as “Drood.”
“While I draw on musical traditions from England, this play was written entirely in New Jersey,” Holmes said.
He unveiled the play in Central Park first.
“It was like Shakespeare in the Park,” he laughed. “Only I was Shakespeare.”
It was a hit there and then went to Broadway.
Because the novel was unfinished and no one knew who Dickens intended the murderer to be, Holmes resolved to let the audience decide.
For him, this expanded on the idea of theater in which the audience influences the performers. He told the students that each performance of live theater is different because of the audience and that actors react. Sometimes actors have to work to get reactions, and sometimes audiences are with them from the start.
“You don’t get that in movies,” he said. “If you applaud at the end of a movie, the actors never know.”
Holmes won two Tony Awards, one for the story and one for the score. Half kidding, he said he should have received four Tony Awards because in other cases, a Tony is awarded to both the writer of the music and the writer of the lyrics.
“Since I wrote both, I only received one,” he said out of the side of his mouth, drawing laughter from the kids.
The play also won a Tony, but that went to the director.
Holmes put on his own one-man show, illustrating the moment when he was on stage to receive the Tonys. The students roared with laughter as he went through each detail. In the end, he seemed humble about the honor.
Though he kidded about it, the play and a host of awards gave him recognition that erased his “Pina Colada” reputation. For that he seemed eternally grateful.
He went on to write the Tony-nominated “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” based on George Burns and Gracie Allen, and numerous other critically successful shows.
Holmes took questions from the students about the play and his career and talked to them about the characters they played, how they were developed, and his thought process behind each.
He asked which student played which part, and then explained what he was thinking about when he created that character, a kind of vivid back story that seemed to amaze the young actors. This was stuff they could not get from internet research. Holmes seemed equally grateful to them for keeping alive something he clearly loved.
In adapting the novel, he said he had to combine some characters and make some changes to the story. He also noted that the play was changed for the better when it was recently revived. The Bayonne performance is the first since the Broadway revival to use the new staging.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.