The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with book, music, and lyrics by Rupert Holmes, with direction by Scott Ellis and choreography by Warren Carlyle begins this week.
The Drood you’ll be seeing took several paths to make it to the stage, originally through the pen of Charles Dickens, whose bicentennial is being celebrated in 2012. Dickens wrote the novel of the same name in 1870, publishing it in serial form as he had done with many of the works that had made him the most popular author in Victorian England, such as Great Expectations, Hard Times, Oliver Twist, and A Christmas Carol, all of which are still widely read today. Dickens had a habit of writing his novels in the same installments in which they were published; this allowed him to get the reaction of his readers before continuing on, using their feedback to guide him. The unfortunate outcome of this plan is that Dickens had only completed half of the story when he died of a stroke in the midst of the publication of his Drood, leaving no clues to the mystery’s ending. Drood became an immediate literary curiosity, with many writers attempting their own versions of the ending over the years, but none knowing what the great Dickens truly would have done.
The young Rupert Holmes developed an unlikely fascination with this unfinished novel, pulling it from his parents’ bookshelf collection of the works of Dickens and wondering what would have become of characters like John Jasper, Bazzard and Helena Landless had Dickens lived to seal their fates. But other interests took hold, and Rupert first found success in popular music, writing songs, working with artists like Barbra Streisand, and scoring a surprise hit with his own recording of the now-ubiquitous “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” While performing his cabaret show in New York, Rupert was approached by producer Joe Papp, who thought that Rupert’s story-song style of writing would be well-suited to musical theatre. He asked Rupert if there was anything he’d want to write to be done at Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park. Of all things, Drood came back to him. He had recently re-read the book and realized that it was perfectly ripe to be musical. After all, the character of Jasper was a choirmaster, he was infatuated with his music pupil, and he heard the “music of the spheres” when in a haze of opium. So adding music was perfectly logical. Of course, there was the little problem that the story didn’t have an ending.
What Rupert came up with to handle this odd problem is what has made Drood the incredibly fun and unique musical it is today. Rather than simply present the story as Dickens told it (which was really quite bleak), Rupert pulled from another part of his childhood, the British Music Hall. He decided that a group of madcap Music Hall performers in the 1890s, not long after Dickens died, would be trying to put on The Mystery of Edwin Drood themselves and that, frankly, it was perhaps beyond their talent level to pull it off. This allowed for upbeat songs from the group, plus the use of some helpful conventions of the Music Hall and pantomime traditions. There would be a Chairman guiding the audience through the performance, and the leading male ingénue role would be played by a woman (which gave Rupert the added bonus of being able to write a duet for two sopranos).
And best of all, at the point where Dickens left the novel, the show would literally stop, and the performers would ask the audience to decide how it should all turn out. In this way, it wasn’t up to Rupert to decide what Charles Dickens might have written. Instead, the audience got to vote on three different questions, and each performance could have a different outcome. With several characters or pairs of characters as options for each vote, Rupert wrote songs for each and every possibility, meaning that the show has hundreds of possible combinations of endings (some of which Rupert himself has yet to see!). It was a brilliant solution that is central to what makes Drood such a special show.
After a wildly successful run in Central Park, Drood transferred to Broadway in 1985 and picked up five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Book and Music for Rupert. It enjoyed a great two-year run, and 25 years after that production closed, I think it’s finally time to bring Drood back to New York. I’ve been looking forward to showing you this production for quite some time. It was about six years ago, when Rupert and Scott Ellis were both at work on the musical Curtains, that they approached me with the idea of doing the first Broadway revival of Drood. It took a long time for all of the pieces to fall into place, even though I knew immediately that I wanted to produce this show. We all felt that it had to be done at Studio 54, an ideal space for Drood and its interactive elements. And we needed the right cast to put a new stamp on the piece, especially considering the fantastic people who did so originally (George Rose, Betty Buckley, and Cleo Laine to name only a few). Now, with amazing performers like Chita Rivera, Stephanie J. Block, Will Chase, Jim Norton, Gregg Edelman and so many more, we have everything that Charles Dickens (and Rupert Holmes) could have wanted.