Book, Music and Lyrics by Rupert Holmes
Directed by Scott Ellis
A Production of the Roundabout Theatre Company
at Studio 54

Reviewed by David Spencer

It made total sense for Gail Merrifield Papp at the Public Theatre to solicit a new musical from Rupert Holmes in the mid-80s. Alone among the then-current crop of pop-songwriters, he was the one whose songs had a kind of theatrical character, with a lyrical literacy and rhyming precision that seemed amenable to theatre. Holmes, perhaps unconsciously honoring his namesake, chose to adapt an unfinished mystery and create multiple endings so that the audience could vote on the identity of the perpetrator—thus The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

            But the real villain of the piece would be its director, Wilford Leach, benign and non-destructve villain though he was. Wilford, you see, wasn’t much of a director, but by his own conscious design more of a traffic manager. He believed everybody should be in charge of their own departments and that his job was to coordinate, to sort of edit on his feet, if you will. (I know this first hand; for it was at the Public that he directed my first produced show. And lest this sound like I’m venting, I was quite pleased with the outcome, and my memories of Wilford are primarily fond ones. He was a complex and interesting cat.) This near laisez-faire approach was therefore only ever as good as the people with whom he surrounded himself and the material on the page…But when the material had significant potential, his knack for getting good people around him rose to it.

            So he was very right for the Holmes project in a certain sense: he’d get the sensibility and wouldn’t do it any harm; but he was very wrong in the sense that he wouldn’t be able to help it. He wasn’t analytical or deconstructionist in his thinking. Nor was he a genuine musical theatre baby, though he had fairly conventional, middle-brow taste. (He’d cultivated a rep for being a renegade during his early days at La Mama, but that was mostly via being associated with a certain iconoclastic group. In truth, and I say this affectionately, he was an old square in downtown drag.) He rarely if ever guided you toward a breakthrough via the instruments of insight or specific suggestion (which he assiduously avoided), though if he sensed something was needed, he would nudge you toward finding it, in the manner of ,“This is a problem; solve it.”

            And the problem with The Mystery of Edwin Drood  was too big for him to deal with, perhaps too big for him to see; but he was also very smart so it’s just possible he realized he could get away with not fixing it (that, too, was his conscious strategy at times); and the problem was this: For all its brilliance, it was also a mess. Holmes had a knack for delineating characters in broad, quick strokes, and he’s an incredibly witty man, so “entertaining and funny” were on the page; but the piece was a structural hodgepodge, and the mystery-retold-by-a-music-hall troupe never truly had plot momentum or programmatic build. Also, for all that Holmes had the tools to  be a potentially serious player in the musicals game, he didn’t have the training or the experience to use those tools comprehensively and to maximum effect. For all his stunning sophistication, there were still artifacts of an theatrically untrained pop writer. Subsequently, the songs expounded upon premises that had been well-established before they began…and didn’t expound in any way that deepened your understanding of the proceedings; they were all, not just stylistically, but functionally, music hall numbers that stopped the play dead. And the lyrics were impossibly dense; very fat (needlessly multi-syllabic, if we discount the honored convention of the dexterity patter number) and (ironically for a pop-writer) so cripplingly overrhymed as to be  impenetrable. What saved the songs—uniquely and curiously; probably no other writer but Holmes could have embodied this contradiction—is that the music was so attractive, so aggressively catchy, and itself so well characterized people and mood, that it carried the musical moments. And since you didn’t actually have to listen to the lyrics you couldn’t understand anyway, in order to understand the show that surrounded them, the songs were entertaining enough.

            Had Holmes taken the journey with a director who truly knew how to navigate a musical’s terrain—remember the story of Jerome Robbins forcing the creative team of Fiddler on the Roof to define, thematically, what the show was about, which led to the notion of changing tradition?—he might have spent many, many deconstructive sessions with that director, shaping, focusing, honing. But Wilford had never developed the specialty; and his philosophy was always, and I quote, “Bring it to me and I’ll respond to it.” So he responded to what he saw and heard. Enough that it would be fun. And indeed it proved fun at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park; and fun again, revised and remounted on Broadway. And in a season bereft of any other serious contenders, The Mystery of Edwin Drood got its Tony, and several other awards, by default. Everybody knew. But Rupert Holmes had approached musical theatre with respect enough, so nobody seemed to mind.

            But his show carries the legacy of Wilford’s casual technique with it to this day, and in the current Roundabout revival at Studio 54, director Scott Ellis, his creative team and cast, are the inheritors. At this point, the show is what it is, and why take on a bold re-conception of a show that was a hit for several seasons? So there’s been precious little done to compensate for its gaping flaws, because, curiously comes built-in Wilford’s close-enough-for-jazz, heigh-ho outlook that you don’t have to. Thus all hands have concentrated on what they can control: making it as much fun as possible.

            There seems to be something of a more cohesive “vision” now, more of an overview tying together elements and having them blend, this time around, more by design than by the luck of synergy alone; and there’s something else that probably could only exist in a revival: a sense, from the participants, of long-abiding affection. This isn’t Drood presented with the frisson of something new in the world; it’s Drood presented with the exuberance of people who perhaps only saw it at an early age or only grew up with the cast album, who joyously accepted an invtation to a great old party game that merely needed a little dusting off.

            And if approached similarly by its audience—rather than as a neglected classic, which can only lead to disappointment—The Mystery of Edwin Drood does offer the same carefree pleasures it offered on its debut.

            Per usual, Mr. Ellis has indulged a few mild experiments with casting—nothing off-the-mark of the material, but a little off-the-mark of the established template—but Drood is a bit like the far superior A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in that the very conceit of it encourages an invitation to expert genre players (vaudevillians for Forum, oldschool revue-specialists for Drood and don’tchewknow, those pools overlap a lot) so it withstands the variations happily. Virtually the entire cast are wonderful, but one might just call out Stephanie J. Block, Will Chase, Jim Norton, Chita Rivera, Andy Karl, Betsy Wolfe, Gregg Edelman, Robert Creighton and Jessie Mueller, simply because they assay the lead and featured roles. Jack-of-all-trades Rupert Holmes has revised his orchestrations for a smaller ensemble, the musical direction by the estimable Paul Gemignani takes most of the tempos faster than they were taken originally (so that we don’t spend too much time dwelling on the mostly-filler content, perhaps?) and the design team has managed to imbue musical hall shoddiness with old London elegance, no easy balance to achieve.

            Now to be honest, my own personal feelings of the show are far more critical, because I feel it falls far short of what it might have been. But the land of Might Haves can sometimes be a useless place to dwell, and in the face of clear success, it’s a foolish one too. Here’s to the happiness the show produces—and even the tacit, laid-back legacy of Wilford Leach it preserves. Just because he didn’t sweat it (or tried not to) doesn’t mean he didn’t care if you had a good time…

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