Rupert Holmes may never fully escape being the singer and author of “The Pina Colada Song,” but to musical theater lovers, he holds a firm place in their hearts as the creator of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a musical take-off of Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel, which first played at Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre in the summer of 1985, before transferring to Broadway later that year and earning Holmes a pair of Tony Awards.
Now, three decades later, the Roundabout Theatre Company is presenting the show’s first Broadway revival at Studio 54, with a cast led by Chita Rivera, Stephanie J. Block, Jim Norton, and a host of theatrical favorites. TheaterMania recently chatted with Holmes about the changes he made for this production, why you won’t see smartphones turned on during the show, and why he expects the audience to embrace their inner cougars.
What was it like to reexamine The Mystery of Edwin Drood after so many years?
It’s been a fascinating and very rewarding process. By creating it once again from the ground up, I’ve been able to remember why I made certain decisions, why certain chords were picked, and discover inner rhymes that I wrote that I had forgotten were there. It was like rediscovering a first love and finding all the same excitement and exuberance. I feel like I’m in my youth again.
What specific changes have you made for this production?
I haven’t really changed the book in any major way, but we are trying to restore two songs that were cut from the show when it made its transfer from Central Park to Broadway. We have a new opening number for Act Two that has not been heard since Central Park, and a couple of the confessions have never been heard on Broadway. The finale and the conclusion will also have some new twists.
When you were initially writing the show, how did you first decide to use the audience to determine the identities of the Killer, the Lovers, and Dick Datchery?
I knew that as a performer myself, I’d go out and do the same songs every night, and how the waves of support or wall of resistance from the audience changed the way I’d play the show. One of the things that excites an audience is knowing that something happened that doesn’t happen every night. My mother once told me there was a performance of My Fair Lady she attended where the whole set of Henry Higgins’ home fell down and they couldn’t continue. So Rex Harrison stepped towards the audience and said “We’ve had a mishap on stage. May I introduce Ms. Julie Andrews, and we’d like to complete the show for you.” I said “What a shame for that audience,” and my mother said “Oh, no. How great it was to have Rex Harrison acknowledge you and take you on a version that no one had ever seen before.” So I thought, “Maybe there’s a way to give the audience this sense of ‘this doesn’t happen every night.'”
Did you consider having audiences pull out their smart phones to vote this time around, rather than use applause or a show of hands?
Actually, that idea was brought up early in production meetings, and we really thought about it. We know the technology is there now to provide instant results. But there are two reasons why we ultimately decided against it. We didn’t want to break the sweet illusion that you’ve somehow traveled to 1895. That was reason enough not to do it. Also, it’s fun to do things the old-fashioned way. We will be posting the final tally of votes, in chalk. Not only does it keep it honest, but it points out who came closest to winning.
Do you think the world’s obsession with “cougardom” will lead the audience to bring Chita Rivera together as lovers with either Andy Karl or Will Chase, both of whom are much younger than her?
The audiences love to create mischief – they like to find an ending where they ask ‘how would we make that make sense?’ So we rarely get the most legitimate endings possible. So, yes, I do think the Roundabout audiences will go for ultra-cougardom; there are even younger candidates in the cast than Andy or Will available to pair with Chita. I would be the least surprised when they do that. [Note: At the first public performance, the audience had Rivera’s Princess Puffer fall for 14-year-old Nicholas Barasch’s Deputy.]