A Conversation With Rupert Holmes: The Man Behind the Music and Mystery of Edwin Drood

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07 Feb 2013

Chita Rivera in the current revival.
Photo by Joan Marcus

It was a treat for me to see Drood at long last. Only having known it from the cast album, I had no idea that the show incorporated such a rich, period world where a company of actors endeavors to tell us Dickens' tale.

RH: The idea of a company of actors came to me when I first wrote my presentation for Joe Papp. The day before I met with him, I wrote at the top of the page "Victorian Vaudeville." And instantly all the fun and giddiness, and quirkiness of the framing device, poured out of me onto the page. I realized that I could take advantage of the fact that a music hall has a Chairman — to have him emcee, and to basically have him guide and corral the audience through the process. Then I remembered the convention of "Principal Boy" from English Christmas pantos, and thought, Edwin Drood surely, with his earnest nature and youthful energy, could be a perfect Principal Boy. And I realized how delightful it would be to have the first song sung by Jasper and Drood about being to Kinsmen, sung by a soprano and a baritone. Then have a love duet — "Oh my gosh!" I thought — for two sopranos, unheard of at that time. Princess Puffer could be played by the grand dame of the Music Hall Royale... All of this just poured out onto the page. I realized that when we stopped Dickens' story and acknowledged that he had written no more, the audience would still have endearing and engaging, lovable and funny performers to hold onto. That they wouldn't feel abandoned, but would feel like, "Now, let's get down to business together!" And they would already know these wonderful people.

Audiences are truly swept up in this production. I initially thought I would want to return just to see the various endings, but I want to get caught up in the entire experience again and again. It operates on so many levels.

RH: It's wonderful to have a revival that feels like we've just done it for the first time. I think the glorious thing about it is that it's a musical about putting on a musical. As much as the mystery element is all a lot of fun, when you do go Edwin Drood, you're going to a theatre to see a show about going to a theatre and what that relationship between actors and audiences has been for years.

One of that last numbers I wrote for the show was the opening number you hear now. I wrote that for Broadway, it was not in the Delacorte production. What happened was that Wilford Leach said to me, "The rap that we get whenever the Shakespeare Festival moves a show from the Delacorte to Broadway, is that people say, 'It was so much more fun in the park. It was so loose that it felt like a picnic. And now it's in this formal theatre, trapped by four walls and it's lost some of that vivaciousness.'" And I said, "Well, maybe I can write an opening number where the cast is in the audience and some of the people are up in the balcony — making the audience feel attended to." In showbiz history, opening numbers are "here we are," or "watch what we'll do," or "hey, look me over," or "let me entertain you," this opening number is all about, "Oh, my god! We have an audience!" It's an opening number paying homage to the fact that they are so grateful to the audience for being there. I think that [choreographer] Warren Carlyle, Scott Ellis and the cast launch that first number so earnestly and so energetically, that they make you feel like you are just the most important person in the world for them.

That is always a little bit inherent in any show, but in this show, it's the major feature of it because you actually know you're going to have some say in what happens on stage. And that sort of sets the tone that's different from any other show I've ever done. I'm really happy to see it happening in such a robust way at Studio 54.

Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller as the Landless twins
photo by Joan Marcus

I understand that Drood, as with many shows, underwent some changes and revisions from the Delacorte to Broadway, then to London and the national tour. Some of that is reflected in the new Broadway production at the Roundabout.

RH: After the very first preview at the Delacorte, it went wonderfully well and the audience was not only ecstatic, but felt that they had discovered something that was a big secret in New York. Joe Papp turned to me after the show was over and he said to me quietly, "Well, it works." And I looked at him in horror and said, "You mean you went this far with it and weren't sure if it would work?" First of all, I had incredible people to work with on that original production. I had [director] Wilford Leach and [choreographer] Graciela Daniele, and they were just as caught up in the intricacy of the machine and the giddiness of the game we were playing. They went with it and understood how we might make it work.

When we did the show in London, just having watched the show on Broadway, and because this show is the quintessance of theatre, in that it just wears its malleability on its sleeve, we had no hesitation of trying changes for London that we thought might be good... We made about eight major changes in the show. I wrote some new confessions, we removed a song called "Ceylon" from the score. In Central Park, we had two songs, we had "Ceylon" and "A British Subject." We lost "A British Subject" and used "Ceylon" for Broadway. I was never totally happy with that decision. When we went to London, we lost "Ceylon" and restored "A British Subject," which I think was a good thing, but I still missed part of that song.

So, for the new Broadway version I fused the two songs, so that you get the Landless twins talking about Ceylon, then you get my favorite moment of "Ceylon," which is Drood talking about his dream, and then we go into "A British Subject."

We also relocated "Off to the Races" — it used to be the second song in Act Two. I felt that the tone of the show deserved an upbeat rousing Music Hall ending for the first act. So, I created that little "Summing Up" moment where we have characters state their name and we sum up where the story now lies. I felt that was helpful for the audience. I also wrote a couple of new confessions. That version, became the version that Tams-Witmark licenses. So the American tour and all the versions that have been done since then have all been the London version.

Now, for this new Broadway version, I've made some changes again, and I took the old opening number at the Delacorte, which was "An English Music Hall," and I thought it might make a nice little Entr'acte for Act Two. I rewrote a lot of the lovers' exchanges for the new production, simply because I can do a lot more with comedy now, I have more license.

This will be the version that people will perform in the future. I think that director Scott Ellis has really helped me tweak and adjust it in a good way.


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