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

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07 Feb 2013

Gregg Edelman
Photo by Joan Marcus

The orchestrations sound superb. There were orchestral moments I was waiting for from the original cast album that I was relieved to hear remain intact in the revival. You must have a lot of musicians doubling. How big was the 1985 Broadway orchestra?

RH: Any show at the Imperial Theatre in those years had to have an orchestra of 26 pieces. The producer couldn't come to you and say, "Could you please make it less?" It was the law. Those days are long gone except in rare occasions.

What's great about the Roundabout revival, the musicians aren't in the pit. They're right out in the room with you and that makes the brass very rich. We have someone who is playing piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, english horn, bass clarinet and two different kinds of saxophones all on one chair.

How did you go about writing this piece? Like you said before, it is so period, and all of it sounds cut from the same cloth. What were some of your first musical impulses?

RH: I wrote a hymn. The title of the hymn is referenced in the first chapter of the [Dickens] novel, called "When the Wicked Man." It's still in the score. You hear it in the underscore when John Jasper is first introduced at the beginning of the play. It's a solemn minor sort of funeral march. As well as the fanfare: anytime we go to Cloisterham, or we say "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" all together, there's that fanfare.

I actually wrote most of the show in the order you hear it. The first complete song I wrote for the show was "A Man Could Go Quite Mad." That sort of minor xylophone machinery introduction became a leitmotif for the show. I was trying to write the show as if it were being written in a Gilbert and Sullivan world, but if Sullivan had the chance to travel to the future and hear some of the things harmonically that were going to be done by Puccini, by Ravel and by Holst. I thought I would allow myself a little more harmonic license and write a little more chromatically, but if I had written those initial pieces you hear like "A Man Could Go Quite Mad" and "Two Kinsmen," in particular, if I had written them in 1895, no one would think I had made a deal with the devil. I wouldn't have been burned at the stake for writing forbidden intervals.

Betsy Wolfe and Will Chase
photo by Joan Marcus

Can we touch on "Moonfall"? It's perhaps the best-known song from Drood. I think every soprano I know had it in their rep book.

RH: As far as "Moonfall" is concerned. I knew from the very start that I had a wonderful opportunity to have John Jasper present Rosa with a song that he had written for her birthday. And while it would be a song that would lie gracefully for a dewy and virginal soprano, lyrically, Jasper would betray his darkest desires for her. It would be his attempt to hear, if only once in his life, this love his life say precisely what he longed to hear her say. And it would also let us hear the kind of music Jasper writes when he thinks of Rosa. It was a great opportunity that allowed me to write a song that let us acknowledge a song is being sung. Usually, in a musical, characters burst into song to reveal their inner emotions. Here, a girl bursts into song because she's reading a song, and instead of revealing her emotions, she's revealing his emotions and reacting to what she is saying. I really wanted it to be both pristine and sensual. I delayed writing it. There was a space set aside for it. I moved past that moment in the show and wrote some other songs.

One day I came back to my office after lunch. And, believe me, I'm not saying anything supernatural is going on, but I sat down and played "Moonfall" almost exactly as you know hear it and almost without interruption. It's actually kind of intricate harmonically, in the bridge, chromatically, it's a toughie. But all of that came in one sitting. It really seemed to write itself. The trick for me, when I orchestrated it, I tried so hard to keep it pristine. If you look at the scores, they were all done in hand — there was no Finale software. If you look, it's the absolute neatest score in the entire piece. I just wanted it to be precise and without ragged edges. I think often when a writer or composer gets inspiration, and when it springs forth as if it had always been there, I think you've been working on it for years and finally, your subconscious allows your conscious to know the result of that work.

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