The audience decides the outcome of 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'
Rupert Holmes' Tony Award-winning musical calls on the audience to determine the ending to Dickens' unfinished murder mystery
An ensemble of 37 actors will enlist the audience's help to finish the story of Charles Dickens' final novel, when the musical "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" opens at Muhlenberg College, Oct. 25.
Composer Rupert Holmes' Tony Award-winning musical presents Dickens' murder mystery as a play within a play. The world of Victorian music hall and melodrama is the backdrop for the exploits of the Theatre Royale, whose actors attempt to complete the unfinished story.
The musical plays Oct. 25 through Nov. 3 in Muhlenberg's Empie Theatre, in the Baker Center for the Arts.
"'Drood' appeals to me because of the show's wild spirit," says Muhlenberg theater professor Charles Richter, who directs the production. "Hopefully our production will capture that whimsical essence."
The play's most whimsical and most challenging element is its ending: there isn't one. When the actors of the Theatre Royale reach the point in the story when Dickens laid down his pen for good, they turn to the audience to determine how the story will end. Who turns out to be the murderer? It's up to the audience.
In fact, patrons have four decisions to make about the outcome of the play. They must select a murderer, a detective in disguise, and a pair of lovers. There are hundreds of possible permutations - and the cast must be ready for any of them.
"The main hook of the show is that the audience determines what will happen," Richter says. "As far as I know, that makes 'Drood' unique among musicals."
All those extra endings make for extra work for the cast, who will prepare an entire hour of material for potential endings, much of which may never be performed. Senior Stefanie Goldberg, who plays Drood, says she expects some fierce but good-natured competition among the cast to turn the voting in their favor. After all, the "winners" get to perform an extra song at the end of the show.
"I think it's a different process for everyone, because there are so many different layers with which to work," Goldberg says. "It's a challenge for any actor. It's just as exciting for us as it is for the audience."
Dickens began writing "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" in 1870 but died the same year. The novel was to be published in 12 installments, but he completed only six, leaving his readers on the edge of their seats. Subsequent authors and playwrights, including Dickens' son, tried to complete the story, without success.
Fast-forward 100 years or so; pop composer Rupert Holmes rediscovered the mysterious unfinished novel. Having spent his childhood in London, Holmes was familiar with the style of British Musical Hall performances. He used his own childhood experiences at the theater and his growing interest for the novel to build the musical version of "Drood."
Best known for his 1970s hit "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)," Holmes says he undertook the project because he was looking for a challenge.
"I'd been a relatively successful pop songwriter, I'd done a couple albums with Barbra Streisand," he says. "And I was looking at that time in my life to try to write something that wasn't three-and-a-half minutes with a fade ending - something more expansive. I was reading the novel, and I said, 'You know, there's a musical in this.'"
"Drood" premiered in 1986 at the New York Shakespeare Festival, where it ran for two years. It was revived on Broadway in 2012 at the Roundabout Theatre Company. Winner of five Tony awards in 1986 and nominated for five for the recent revival, the show features zany show-stopping musical numbers, and over-the-top comedy.
The production features musical direction by Ed Bara and choreography by Jeffrey Peterson. Conductor Vince Di Mura leads an 18-piece orchestra that will round out the show's Music Hall sensibility.
The show features a 19th century British Music Hall-inspired set by Tim Averill with elaborate scenic painting designed by Emily Baldasarra. Nicole Wee designs costumes. Susan Hamburger serves as lighting designer.
All productions are performed at Muhlenberg College, one of the top-rated college performance programs in the country according to the Princeton Review rankings. Muhlenberg is a liberal arts college of more than 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa., offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in theatre and dance.
"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" runs Oct. 25 through Nov. 3 in the Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.
Opening-weekend performances, Oct. 25-27, are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Second-week performances, Oct. 31 - Nov. 3, are Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $22 for adults and $8 for students and children. Special rates are available for groups, subscribers, and LVAIC students and employees.
Tickets and information are available at muhlenberg.edu/theatre or 484-664-3333.