"Panto" Principal Boy - Bessie Featherstone as Aladdin (Hulton Getty).

The History of The Mystery
by Rupert Holmes

The Mystery of Edwin Drood has received many honours in its fifteen years of existence: Tony and New York Drama Desk awards for best musical, best book and best score, two national tours, a stay at The Kennedy Center Opera House, and a West End run at London's Savoy Theatre where Gilbert and Sullivan debuted the Victorian musicals that so inspired it. There have been performances throughout the world, including its Japanese-language premiere in Tokyo this Fall. However, as Drood's author and composer, I can emphatically state that its performance here at the Shaw Festival - whose seasons, standards and stylizations I have so respected and enjoyed over the years - is a true high point in its history. The Shaw has asked me to share with you some of the events and influences that led me to create this work.

Although I'm very much an American, I was born in the county of Cheshire, England. My father was a G.I. stationed there during and after World War II; my mother was the beautiful English girl with whom he fell instantly in love and soon married. I spent my first few years of life in the pleasantly grey factory town of Northwich. Thus my very earliest memories are of the low purr of an English bus; the blinding colors and frightening noises of the fireworks and bonfire on Guy Fawkes Day; the smell of burning coal permeating the outside air and bread toasting each morning over the low fire in the sitting room; and most importantly, my first taste of British theatre.

My introduction to the theatre couldn't have been more candy-coated, for I was taken to see the local traditional Christmas "panto" (short for "pantomime" though it was spoken and sung) - invariably a classic fairy tale whose story is gutted to accommodate some currently popular star as its hero or villain. Topical jokes abound and its musical score is pasted together primarily from current popular songs. One mandatory feature is the role of "Principal Boy" - an attractive woman dressed in tights playing Dick Whittington or Aladdin in a boisterous manner. (Picture Mary Martin in Peter Pan and you have the right idea.) I can remember at age three being encouraged, along with 800 other children, to bellow the last chorus of the new hit song "I Tawt I Taw a Puddy-Tat" - and a striking woman in her mid-thirties dressed as Prince Charming addressing us directly from the stage and asking us to cry out a warning if the villain were to approach. Magic.

The next step toward Drood occurred when I was eleven and suddenly cursed with nearsightedness in the era before designer glasses. I was moping about my myopia until I discovered the mystery adventures of Ellery Queen. A hero who wore glasses! Soon I was interested in reading any mystery I could get my hands on. We had an incomplete set of The Complete Charles Dickens in our home and I noticed that one of the volumes had the word "mystery" in its title. My father advised me that this wasn't a true "whodunit" and that Charles Dickens had never lived to finish it. Fascinated as all boys of that age are by morbid things, I flipped to the last page, which in this volume happened to be that of a posthumously discovered fragment from Drood that broke off in mid-sentence. I stared at that sinister dash and pictured Dickens clutching at his chest, melodramatically dropping his pen and falling to the floor.

In my early twenties, I could not bring myself to decide whether I wanted to be a composer or a writer. I majored in music theory at the Manhattan School of Music, but I also loved theatre. What I couldn't see in New York, I read. And read. My young bride and I went to England, and it was a joy to see Shakespeare, Shaw, Stoppard or Simon Gray every night, simply by walking up to the box office in the afternoon and buying seats for that evening, as one could do in those days.

One afternoon, we were lunching at a London pub called "The Gilbert and Sullivan," which was filled with memorabilia of the duo's comic operettas that I'd long studied and admired. I suddenly remembered that not too far away, literally under the arches of Charing Cross Station, there was a small theatre club called The Players that perpetuated the English tradition of Music Hall. Since we loved all things Victorian, we went round to the theatre, producing our passports to obtain temporary membership in the club, and soon we were experiencing another uniquely British theatrical institution, a highly-refined ancestor of American Vaudeville.

The evening was presided over by Your Chairman, who acted as emcee and in some ways ringmaster. I loved the florid flourishes of his introductions and particularly his intimate rapport with the audience, whom he had no hesitation in good-naturedly rebuking if he deemed their applause or laughter to be insufficient. Aided by a half-pint of bitter, my wife and I also warmed to the cozy, chummy relationship between audience and artistes; it was clear that a majority of the crowd were regulars who knew the performers, their repertoire, and many of their one-liners by heart. They would even chime in on the last chorus without prompting. There were no sets, no props, just an amiable programme of songs comic or sentimental. Most of the female vocalists had apparently been seduced, spurned and abandoned. The men were either ragged dustmen or gleaming rakes. And again - shades of the Christmas panto - there was one handsome woman who came out attired in top hat and tails singing "From Marble Arch to Leicester Square".

By the mid-1970s, I'd combined my goals of writing and composing by creating "story songs" in a pop idiom. Barbra Streisand had started recording my compositions and I therefore found myself commuting between Hollywood and New York, where I lived. During this rewarding but exhausting period, I tried to unwind by travelling home by train: the Super Chief from LA to Chicago, then the Broadway Limited to New York. I loved watching the country unspool itself outside my sleeping compartment window, and the three days of enforced leisure gave me time to catch up on my reading, as there was really nothing else to do.

I took aboard with me a paperback of the incomplete novel I'd considered reading as a boy. As the wheels of the train took me across the Great Plains, I started to realize that Mr Dickens' book might make for an interesting musical. John Jasper was a choirmaster, madly in love with his music pupil Rosa Bud, and in his opium-inspired hallucinations he heard the music of the spheres. But what to do about the ending? How could I dare step into Dickens' shoes and attempt to pick up his fallen pen? Upon my arrival in New York, I made a few attempts at musicalizing the work but found the results to be too unremittingly dark.

So I set aside The Mystery of Edwin Drood for a decade. By then, I'd had a few hits as a recording artist, but after seven albums I was running out of things that could be said in three minutes. The legendary producer Joseph Papp and particularly his wonderful wife Gail Merrifield had been following my work for several years. Now they encouraged me to turn from telling my musical stories in cabarets and clubs to creating a musical story for the theatrical stage.

I thought again of Drood. Could I convey the basic plot of Dickens' bleak literary curiosity and still supply an audience with enough fun to make them momentarily forget they had a dentist's appointment tomorrow? And what to do about the scarcity of principal female characters in the story? How could I resolve Dickens' tale without implying that I alone knew the ending the great man had envisioned? And how could I do all this in a manner totally unique to theatre?

Well certainly, as a performer, I knew that a live audience delights in anything that happens on stage spontaneously and only in the specific performance they're witnessing: an ad lib, an unscheduled song, a guest artist who drops in without warning, a genuinely unexpected unrehearsed encore. A fuse is blown and the singer does a number a cappella. A piece of scenery falls on stage and the actor makes a joke about it without dropping character, earning a round of applause for his improvisation - pleased, you turn to your companion and murmur, "That doesn't happen every night."

Like many others, I believe that what passes for a moment of inspiration is usually preceded by a night, a year or a lifetime of subconscious searching, sifting and sorting through the database of one's acquired knowledge and experience. The day before I was to meet with Joe Papp and Gail Merrifield to present my notion for a musical, it hit me all at once. I sat and typed the words, "Victorian Vaudeville." What if I didn't attempt a strait-laced musical adaptation of Dickens' Drood? What if, instead, I introduced the audience to a motley British Music-Hall company who are bravely overreaching their traditional evening's fare to create what they hope will be their finest achievement: the premiere performance of their own Edwin Drood, to be concluded in the fashion most comfortable to them - "Give the public what it wants."

Of course! I wouldn't create my own mock-Dickensian ending for Drood. I'd let the audience decide who was the murderer, who was the Detective in Disguise, which pair of lovers had a happy ending, by writing an extra act's worth of material from which one of hundreds of combinations of endings could be created on the spot. I realized that, within this framework, the traditional Music-Hall Chairman could usher us through the forever-tangled threads left dangling by the great author's demise - and when we reach that point where Dickens died, the Chairman could be scripted to offer up candidates for Culprit, Sleuth and Lovers, and to host a series of genuine elections in order to create the audience's own customized conclusion to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Almost in the same instant, I thought: "And Edwin Drood could be a Principal Boy!" Why not? The character had the same earnest bravado and bluff manner of the young heroes of the Christmas panto. And in Act Two, we could meet the actress-diva playing Drood. She could storm out of the theatre - yes, and Puffer could sing the songs she always sings at the Music Hall, her trademark tear-jerking ballads of a woman used and discarded. And the incredibly minor character of Bazzard could be an equally minor actor who yearns for his place in the limelight. The ideas came cascading down upon me...

Two years later, I stood in the office of Joe Papp, who took his phone off the hook and allowed me to perform the entire musical for him, Gail Merrifield, and their artistic director Wilford Leach. Alone. When I finished Joe said that, if I wanted, The Mystery of Edwin Drood would debut at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park in place of the usual Shakespearean fare he presented free each summer, and that if that went well, it could move straight to Broadway.

In a daze, I left the building at Astor Place and wandered up Fourth Avenue. An Indian restaurant had its door open and from it wafted the scent of its tandoor oven roasting bread. It had the smell of coal and toast. For a moment I was back in England, age three, about to view British theatre for the very first time.

Rupert Holmes won Tony awards for writing the music, book and lyrics for The Mystery of Edwin Drood. His current projects include stage musicals of the classic film Marty and of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.


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