Rupert Holmes' Dickens mystery-musical replants its roots

CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. — Hubbard Hall is presenting the world premiere of a 32-year-old play —"The Mystery of Edwin Drood." The creator of the now-classic musical, Rupert Holmes, was in residence at the Cambridge performing arts space to develop what he calls "a chamber musical" from his original material.

At first glance it seems a rather odd decision to tinker with such an established work. "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" was first produced in New York's Central Park in 1985. It moved to Broadway the next year and won a Tony Award for Best Musical as well as for Best Book and Best Score.

However, the idea of reinventing a 32-year-old work is as logical as is the story of how the musical came to be. The central figures in the creation tale are a youth fascinated by mysteries, Charles Dickens, Joseph Papp, Barbra Streisand and somebody who answered a personal ad only to discover his wife loves Pina Coladas and walks in the rain.

ln the 1970s, Holmes was a successful songwriter. His songs were recorded by Judy Collins, Gene Pitney, the Platters, the Drifters, Wayne Newton, Dolly Parton, Barry Manilow and the television group known as The Partridge Family. (Take that, Carole King.)

He started to record his own songs — which were described as "highly romantic, lushly orchestrated story songs that told a witty narrative, punctuated by clever themes and a hint of comedy." These traits endeared him to a fan of his first album — a Miss Barbra Streisand, who went on to include his songs on six of her albums. "Yes, Barbra Streisand was sort of my guru. She spread the word about me and recorded several of my songs. I'm forever in her debt."

On his fifth album, the entire world discovered his ability to tell a clever, witty, romantic story through music. On that album the song "Escape: The Pina Colada Song" made him a superstar. "It's a wonderful feeling to meet a stranger who asks what you do. After you tell him you are a songwriter, the next question is `Did you write anything I might know?' When I say I wrote the 'Pina Colada Song' - everyone, and I mean everyone, responds in a positive way and tells me a story about a memory associated with the song. It's rewarding validation for all those hours spent alone writing."

The song made him financially comfortable and permitted him the luxury to take three years off to write "Drood."

He explains: "Joe Papp and his wife came to my cabaret act. After the show he asked me if I ever thought about writing a Broadway musical. I had been fascinated by the Dickens novel as a kid, and in my 20s started to adapt it as a musical. I told him I could show it to him the next day."

Of course, it was not nearly ready for production. "When Joe Papp committed to producing it, thanks to the success of 'Pina Colada,' I could afford to stop performing to devote every waking minute to it." He points out that because he is the composer, lyricist and did all the orchestrations he needed to totally absorb himself with the task.

It's not a surprise that Holmes is trying to make the show better. He is a classic overachiever who has never stopped creating. He's worked constantly in the theater and won another Tony for Best Book for "Curtains." He created and wrote the theme for the beloved television series "Remember WENN," and has published several books.

But what changes has he made at Hubbard Hall, where performances begin Friday and continue weekends through Dec. 3? "For one thing," he said in an interview during rehearsals, "the number of people in the cast (is) greatly reduced." He said he has rewritten it so "every role is a star turn. It's an all-star `Drood,' if you will." Another important consideration is the show's normal 2 -hour length now is closer to 90 minutes, without an intermission.

However, Holmes insists that the happy music hall atmosphere within the play is the same. So is the crowd-pleasing ending in which the audience votes and chooses the murderer of Edwin Drood.

"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is based on the last novel Charles Dickens wrote. He died while writing it and it was never completed. Holmes' brilliant conceit was, rather than rewrite Dickens, to let the characters speak for themselves and let the audience choose the ending.

"That's what I pitched to Joe Papp," Holmes said. "I don't think there is anything more satisfying for an audience than to feel they are part of the creative process. In this show they are experiencing something that is happening especially for them. This musical is totally involving for everyone in the audience. The show they see is special for them."

He adds that Hubbard Hall is now a character. "The play is set in 1895 and Hubbard Hall was built in 1879. I figured if `Drood' was being performed by a vagabond troupe touring America, they might have played Hubbard Hall. So this production is set at Hubbard Hall and I'm adding some local references. This should make it extra special."

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