As 'Edwin Drood' returns, solving a mystery

Betsy Wolfe and Will Chase in "The Mystery

Betsy Wolfe and Will Chase in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54 in New York. (Credit: AP)

A clap of thunder. A swirl of cloak. Two men, sworn enemies, walk out together into the cold, stormy night. Only one shall return.

And it's not a dude named Drood.

His gruesome end is just one of countless puzzlers surrounding Charles Dickens' "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," a dark tale of music, madness, orphans, opium dens, gravediggers, Christmas dinner and more. The novel has just about everything -- except an ending.

Alas, there's no scene where a detective steps forward to say the inevitable, "And the murderer is ... "

Nope. Dickens died. End of story. Literally.

Countless scholars and fans have since theorized whom Dickens intended the villain to be -- including Rupert Holmes, the award-winning composer and pop singer, who was so intrigued by the tale he wrote the book, music and lyrics to a musical version, which hit Broadway in 1985 and is now being revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company.

So whodunit? On a recent evening backstage at Studio 54, the answer is revealed to Tony Award-winner Chita Rivera.

"It's you," her assistant tells her.

To which Rivera responds "something really nasty," she admits.

Rivera, who plays opium den proprietor Princess Puffer, isn't crazy about being a murderer. But, hey, that's the gig. For this performance, anyway.

Now before you get your knickers in a twist about our having just given away the ending, note the clue. "For this performance." On another day the murderer may be ... someone else. It all depends how the audience votes.

For that's the brilliant twist to this musical. In the 1980s, it was merely a clever gimmick. But it seems a necessity today, an era when we expect to customize everything from hamburgers to ringtones, and are used to voting for Idols, Voices and Dancers With the Stars. The sad truth is that the once-popular stage mystery is all but extinct on Broadway, and this may be the best shot at saving the species.

"It's fun to see the audience involved," says Rivera. "They almost don't know what to do, at first ... but then they get into it."

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE BROADWAY MYSTERY

The tale of "Drood," the musical, isn't just the tale of "Drood," the novel. Holmes realized his audience would need more.

So he offers a musical within a musical. The story follows a motley London music hall troupe in 1895 performing Dickens' last novel (which was published in 1870). Stephanie J. Block plays a haughty British actress playing Drood (a so-called "trouser role," when a female plays a male); Betsy Wolfe plays an actress cast as Drood's fiancee, Rosa Bud; "Smash's" Will Chase is an actor playing John Jasper, Drood's opium-addicted uncle. Then there's Rivera as a legend playing the opium dealer.

The original "Drood," starring Betty Buckley, Howard McGillin and Cleo Laine, earned five Tony Awards, including two for Holmes.

Not surprising -- thrillers, chillers and whodunits used to be popular fare on Broadway. Think "Dial M for Murder," "Wait Until Dark," "Sleuth," "Deathtrap." And Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap," which opened on London's West End 60 years ago -- and is still running, It's the longest-running play in history.

Yet on Broadway, after the 1980s, such fare faded.

So who killed the modern-day stage mystery?

A KILLER ON THE LOOSE

Suspect No. 1 -- The producer. Today's economy breeds producers only interested in "plays with three or four characters," says Holmes. "It's hard to do a whodunit without four or five good suspects -- then you need a detective, a Watson, some red herrings."

Suspect No. 2 -- Television. Blame "Law & Order," "CSI" and all that chatter about DNA and blood spatter. "Audiences witness so much on television -- it's very graphic, very real," says Block. So they're now often two steps ahead of the average stage mystery, she fears.

Suspect No. 3 -- The Internet. For every mystery there are now umpteen folks online eagerly revealing the plot. "They think typing 'spoiler alert' makes it all right, but it takes the magic out of it," Holmes says. "It's hard not to read on. And often, in the case of Wikipedia, they don't even say 'spoiler alert.' It's terrible ... terrible ..."

Luckily for Holmes, he somehow anticipated the Internet, and concocted a spoil-proof ending.

"It's inevitably different at each performance," he explains.

One night the opium dealer may kill poor Drood. The next, his crazy uncle. The night after that, who knows?

FRAMED FOR MURDER

Holmes has loved mysteries since he was a kid.

"They were the only stories where the hero wore glasses," says Holmes, who started wearing glasses at age 8. "When I was a boy, if you wore glasses, that was it. You were never gonna be a movie star, never gonna be a football hero."

Then he saw George Nader on TV playing Ellery Queen. He was cool, handsome ... and wearing frames.

Holmes forged a successful career as a writer and composer. Most anyone who lived through the '70s knows his hit single "Escape" (that's right -- the "PiƱa Colada Song"), among others. But his jonesing for mysteries continued, and he started toying with a script for "Drood." Finding a credible ending was the real challenge. Then it hit him: Audiences love it when something unique happens onstage.

"If a prop falls, and an actor makes some funny ad-lib to cover that moment, it makes that performance special," he says.

Now go that idea one better.

"Include the audience as a character," Block explains. Making it essential to the outcome of the play "is what makes it work, and makes for a great night of fun."

SETTLING UP THE SCORE

This required a lot of extra writing for Holmes. Eight separate endings, plus orchestrations (the melodies for each confession vary, depending on the character; as do some keys, depending on who's singing). It also demands more from his actors and pit musicians.

"It makes you a little crazy, yeah, just a bit," says Rivera, chuckling. "But sometimes we get wonderful surprises ourselves."

"We don't say, 'This is what Dickens would've written,' we say 'This is what you have chosen for us at this performance,' " says Holmes. "This is yours."

And um ... who does he think murdered Drood?

"Well, I have theories of what Dickens was up to," he says. "But it's entirely up to you."

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