PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER: Jessie Mueller Explains the Backstage Twists of The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER: Jessie Mueller Explains the Backstage Twists of The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Tony Award nominee Jessie Mueller, who takes on the mysterious Helena Landless in Charles Dickens' final — and unfinished — story, explains how The Mystery of Edwin Drood is unraveled on Broadway.

Jessie Mueller
Jessie Mueller Photo by Joan Marcus


Jessie Mueller, whose New York theatre career has soared since her Tony-nominated turn as Melinda Wells in the 2011 Broadway revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, is giving another critically acclaimed performance in a featured role. In Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a musical within a musical that is performed in the style of Victorian music hall, she plays the character of Miss Janet Conover, the actress who is featured as Helena Landless in the "Edwin Drood" plotline. In The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a whodunit tale that is solved by audience vote, Landless can be cast as the story's detective, killer or love interest, leaving Mueller with multiple tracks to learn for the Broadway production. While on a break from recording the revival's cast album, we caught up with the actress, who explained the twists, turns and intricacies of the Tony-winning Rupert Holmes musical.

Were you familiar with the 1985 Broadway cast recording of The Mystery of Edwin Drood?
Jessie Mueller: I was somewhat familiar with the original cast recording only during the audition process — when I started to audition for it. I was not familiar with the show at all [before then], so I listened to some of the cast recording, but not all of the [musical's possible] endings are on the original cast recording. There will be many more endings on the recording we're doing today!

Can you tell me about the additional tracks for this cast recording that capture the show's possible outcomes?

Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
photo by Joan Marcus

JM: What they're planning, I believe, is a two-disc set for the new revival recording. There will be all the murderer confessions — the possible seven murderers [played by Mueller, Gregg Edelman, Peter Benson, Chita Rivera, Andy Karl, Betsy Wolfe, Robert Creighton] including Jasper's [played by Will Chase] confession — so that will be eight [tracks] total. And then I think you're getting two or three [detective] Datcherys and like two pairs of lovers. Since the ending of the show is different each night, is it strange to hear a song that you've performed before with someone else's voice attached to it? You're constantly hearing different versions of the same song.
JM: Well, the endings are really interesting because there are similarities between everybody's endings. If you start with Datchery — the choice for who was the detective that discovered who murdered Edwin Drood — all the [song] possibilities have the same form and the same music, but every character has different lyrics. Every character solves the mystery a little differently because of their interactions with [other] characters, [but] there are certain plot points that come up in each [possible] Datchery song. That seems like it can be confusing! Do you find yourself reviewing the material to prep before performances?
JM: Oh, yes! [Laughs.] Oh my gosh… I think pretty much every night! And, I've done Datchery a few times now, but, I swear, every night… It's like a habit now. I go over it right before I go on. I'm standing there in a crazy wig and a beard, and I'm [singing to myself]. You're going over the lyrics and just trying to make sure… Because you're out in the audience, too! I've never experienced that before, so if you're chosen as Datchery, you're going through the front row of the audience, and [thinking], "Okay, I got my lyrics, I got my props… Oh, there's somebody's foot!" And, you're trying to navigate the whole thing. But, it's fun. That's what makes it exciting and new every night.

Mueller in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Photo by Joan Marcus

How do you find out what part you've been chosen to play for that final sequence?
JM: Let's see… The audience votes for who [plays] Datchery, and that happens on stage, and it's announced on stage, so everybody knows — audience, cast members — at the same time. Then, when they do the murderer vote, the audience votes with our vote-takers, who are members of the cast. They collect the little sheets that they [keep track of the] votes on — because they really do count hands, and they write them down — and they go backstage to our assistant stage manager, who's usually Scott [Taylor Rollison], who stands there and tallies them all. Whenever he's done tallying the votes, he makes an announcement over the PA [system, to the cast]. People are either backstage or downstairs or in their dressing room, and you hear who the murderer is usually during Chita Rivera's song — the song that [Princess Puffer] sings with Rosa, [played by Betsy Wolfe] — so if it's Puffer or Rosa, they don't know until they've left that scene! There's also a posting that's put up backstage, so that if you need to check before you go on for your next scene, it's posted there so you can refresh your memory. Betsy Wolfe, who plays Rosa, and Bobby Creighton, who plays Durdles, [are] the ones who have to announce the Datchery and the murderer on stage… Every once in a while, they have that moment of, "Oh, God, who was it tonight?," because we do it so often and it changes. [Laughs.] They have lines that are set up, and then they have to fill in the blank for whoever is chosen that night… They're pros, but it's that moment of, "What's going to happen?!" It's very truthful — what you're seeing up there. [Laughs.]

During that moment of being chosen, I imagine the feeling of your stomach dropping for a second…
JM: Oh, yeah! Then you're like, "Oh, I got this! I can do this!"

Rupert Holmes has made some revisions to the material. Can you tell me about working with him? Has it been a fluid process throughout rehearsals?
JM: Yeah. Rupert Holmes has been amazing. He's been with us since our first day of rehearsal and really throughout the entire process… He is just one of the kindest, most generous and brilliant people I think I've ever met. He's so smart, but he's so approachable. He was there from the get-go to answer any questions. If we had a question about a lyric or if he wanted to change something, he was in the room. There are some new lyrics in this version that were not in the original — revised lyrics [and] revised scenes. He was really game to make some things new and revisit things with us or reinvent stuff depending on what we were bringing to the project. It was a great, reciprocal relationship. He's been amazing, and he's around today, too, as we're recording!

( staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

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