Sadly, you no longer have the option of setting aside an evening to attend Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, even if you could get to New York and plunk down up to $142 for a seat. The limited run closed earlier this month after nearly unanimous enthusiasm from reviewers and contributors to internet discussion groups.
You do have the option, however, of setting aside an evening to explore the two-cd recording of the score performed by that cast in the new DRG Records release which will set you back about $17.95. It may well become a favorite for its high spirits and spectacular sound – but only after you get past some serious frustrations in order to get to know it intimately.
What’s on this disc is a pure delight. What’s in the disc’s booklet is helpful – to a point. What is missing is crucial. It turns an entertaining and diverting experience into one that is frustrating unless you devote yourself to the task of taking it in with dedication.
In order to understand just how frustrating the packaging can be, you need to understand just how complex a show this is. It is based on the final novel written by the Victorian author of “The Pickwick Papers,” “David Copperfield,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” “A Christmas Carol” and “Oliver Twist” — Charles Dickens.
Dickens, of course, wrote his terribly lengthy novels for serialization in monthly or weekly installments. This encouraged him to write chapters with great cliff-hanging plot points left unresolved until the next episode so that the readers couldn’t wait to purchase the next issue.
The problem is that Mr. Dickens died of a stroke before writing the final episode of his final novel. The public was deprived of a his intended resolution to the mystery of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
That was in 1870. A hundred and fifteen years later a musical version of the mystery opened on Broadway with book, music, lyrics and orchestrations by Rupert Holmes. It walked away with five Tony Awards including those for Best Musical, Best Book for a Musical and Best Original Score for a Musical. It ran for a year and a half.
I suppose that Holmes could have simply made up an ending for Dickens’ story – the first chapters were, after all, in public domain and he was free to do whatever he wanted with the story. But he struck on an idea that made the evening a bit more special. He left the ending up to the audience.
That meant, of course, that he had to write many different endings so there would be one available for whatever ending the audience voted for on any given night. And the cast needed to learn multiple endings as well.
Who would the audience chose as the guilty party? The choirmaster, John Jasper? The object of his affection, Miss Rosa Bud? The vivacious dispenser of opium, Princess Puffer? The Most Reverend Mr. Crisparkle? One of the twins from Ceylon, Helena or Neville Landless? Or one of the others?
As complex as the multiple-ending feature might be, Holmes adds a whole other layer by having the musical not be about the story of the fate of “Edwin Drood” but, instead, be about a company in an English music hall performing the story – with each character played by a performer who has his or her own distinct personality.
When the Roundabout Theatre Company decided to mount a revival, they took a cue from Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival which produced the original with an all star cast (Betty Buckley, Cleo Lane, George Rose, Howard McGillin.) They, too, lined up a “to die for” cast: Stephanie J. Block, Will Chase, Gregg Edelman, Jim Norton, none other than Chita Rivera.
Practically every comment I’ve seen about the production involved just how much fun the cast seemed to be having with this over-the-top material and that the feeling of giddy fun was infectious. That feeling is well captured in the recording.
What is more, the recording gives each of the “confessions” that Holmes wrote to accommodate the choice of ending the audience selects on a given night. It also gives us the wonderful instrumental piece “The Opium Den Ballet” which was omitted from the Original Broadway Cast album back in 1985. The two discs for the revival cast recording run a total of almost 72 minutes.
When you do put these discs into your machine (or download the 32 tracks) for the first time, do set aside a good slug of time, for it will take you longer than the listed running time to fully explore the pleasures the score offers. You will want to follow just who is playing which part (remember, the stars play performers who play characters). You will want to follow the lyrics in order to savor such lines as “Sometimes I think sanity is just a passing fad,” “I’ll bathe in Moonfall / And dress myself in dew” or “In time we all taste the lime in the light.”
Therein lies the frustration of this recording. The booklet, includes a very thorough synopsis by Mr. Holmes that is, itself, a fun read, but nowhere is there a cast listing showing who is playing whom and, worse, no lyrics!
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Broadway Revival Recording
DRG Records Catalog DRG 19883
Running time 72 minutes over 32 on 2 discs
Packaged with synopsis, credits and 10 color photos
There are ways to overcome these problems – but they take a good deal of time.
First, you can check the track listing. It details which performers sing which song. Cross referencing that to the synopsis that details which character sings which song, you can piece together a cast listing.
It is somewhat more difficult to overcome the absence of lyrics in the booklet. You can access the lyrics by visiting the website of the record label at www.drgrecords.com. There you will find a pdf file of the complete lyrics. You can view it online or print it, but it runs to some 29 pages some of which seem to be missing a line or two of text at the bottom.
This is the latest example of the developing trend of using websites to deliver what might otherwise be printed in the booklet of a CD. It is a bit less convenient, but the real concern is just how long the record companies will continue to make these things available online. Or, for that matter, just how long the companies will survive. When the company or the website disappear, so too will the document.
After a frustrating first encounter, if you figured out who is singing what and had the pleasure of exploring the entire score, including the alternative “confessions,” you may well have found that it was all worth the effort.
But it needn’t have been quite that much trouble.