Actors ask “Who Dunnit…?” The Answer: practically everybody


Pierson High School’s spring musical is this weekend and on Monday, rehearsals looked downright chaotic. Girls in corsets and boys in top hats or turbans came and went in a whirlwind while the scenes proceeded in fits and starts. Despite their best efforts, no one knows for sure exactly what will happen on opening night this Friday. 

But don’t blame the actors, director or orchestra. This is “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and its outcome has nothing to do with the will of the people on stage — rather it rests solely on the whims of the audience. 

The musical is loosely based on a book of the same name by Charles Dickens. It follows the story of Edwin Drood, his fiancée Rosa, his mentally unbalanced Uncle Jasper and a whole cast of questionable characters. When Drood disappears and is presumed dead, a detective appears and questions arise about who the murderer could be — if there even is a murderer. 

The fact is, no one knows for sure. That’s because Dickens wrote his mystery in installments for a London periodical beginning in 1870. He died before the series was finished. 

“Dickens got halfway through the book,” explains director Paula Brannon. “There were 12 chapters planned and he revealed one chapter each time. Before he died he had an audience with the queen because she wanted to know what happened. But he didn’t tell her.”

Scholars ever since have expended a considerable amount of time and effort to puzzle out Dickens’ intended ending. Brannon notes the earliest attempt at finishing the story was probably also the most unusual. It came from a Vermont printer, Thomas James, who in 1873 published a version which he claimed he had literally “ghost-written” by channeling Dickens’ spirit. Critics, including Arthur Conan Doyle, a spiritualist himself, praised his version, and for years the “James version” of Edwin Drood was common in America.

 This stage version of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” came much later and premiered on Broadway in 1985. If a musical murder mystery based on the unfinished writings of Charles Dickens seems an unlikely premise, so too is its creator — none other than Rupert Holmes, of “Escape: The Piña Colada Song” fame, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for the show.

Presented as a play within a play, the musical is set in the Victorian-era Music Hall Royale in London where Holmes enlists the actors to assume new identities as the story begins. Before long, Drood goes missing and someone is suspected of murder.

But who?

Good question. With Drood, Holmes pioneered the novelty of polling to determine plot twists, a technique which has been used to great effect in later plays like “Clue: The Musical.” 

In “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” the audience votes on how the story resolves. There are no fewer than 36 possible endings which, as you might imagine, leads to rehearsals that are chaotic — or at least appear that way to the uninitiated. Because it’s set in a music hall in the late 1800s, the play also reflects the rowdy and bawdy sensibilities of the venue that gave rise to vaudeville in this country. 

“Rupert Holmes’ father was American and his mother was English,” explains Brannon. “He based a lot of this play on growing up in both areas. It’s historically correct.”

Holmes certainly knew his stuff.  Within the script are veiled references to a British law which, in the 19th century, forbade serious dramatics in music halls. The law, notes Brannon, was presumably an attempt to shield aspiring young actors from a less than wholesome atmosphere. To circumvent the law, in this show the players euphemistically offer “dramatic interludes” instead.

Though they wouldn’t have been allowed inside a real London music hall, the young actors of Pierson are truly enjoying themselves in this one. They get to use accents, tell off-color jokes and banter with the audience as they solicit votes for the outcome.

“This is quite the raunchiest musical I’ve ever done,” says senior Zach Fischman, who plays the Chairman — a master of ceremonies of sorts. “There’s not much subtext. But what better time to escape than now?” 

Fischman’s character is on stage nearly the entire evening and he admits this show has been a lot of work — not only does he have song and dance numbers to perfect, but some of his monologues run three pages long. Luckily, Fischman doesn’t have to keep track of the multiple endings.

“They don’t affect me because the writer saw I had enough to deal with,” says Fischman. “My lines don’t change, but theirs [the other actors] do.” 

“This is an actor’s musical, which lends itself well to my taste,” he adds. “It’s also been a lesson in how to deliver jokes. I’m trying to tweak them so people get them more.”

One character paying close attention to the action is sophomore Holly Goldstein, who plays Puffer.

“I’m the opium dealer in London,” she says. “I also have an opium den.” 

It’s crucial that Goldstein stay on top of voting results. Not only does the outcome determine the lyrics of one of her songs, but also the number of songs she performs. 

“The real draw for me was the audience chose the ending,” says Goldstein. “At first I thought it was complicated. I have three songs in the play. But I get one more if I ‘did it.’”

“You have to pay attention,” she adds. “Half the time I think ‘Am I the only person who read the script?’”

Brannon stumbled onto Drood when she and music teacher Austin Remson were searching the Internet for a musical that would highlight the strong singing ability of this year’s students. Holmes’ play fit the bill, but they were suspicious. Why had they never seen this show done elsewhere? 

“Our first thought was, ‘must be a problem with the music.’ But the parts were perfect and gave everyone equal time on stage,” says Brannon. “This time the chorus has a vital role, which never happens. They’re an ensemble and get to act throughout the whole play.”

The students’ universal enthusiasm for this musical has led to another mystery for Brannon — why didn’t Rupert Holmes write another one?

“It won five Tony’s, including best musical,” says Brannon who also questions why the play is not produced more often — though she suspects it has something to do with a lack of “hummable” tunes. Of course, there are benefits to doing an obscure play.

“None of us had seen it. It all belongs to us,” says Brannon. “It’s also never been a movie so we won’t have people saying, ‘The movie did it like this.’”

“Maybe we aren’t doing it the way he [Holmes] intended, and if we see a version of it later it might be like, ‘Oh…so that’s what he meant.’”

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” opens at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 27, 2009 in the Pierson auditorium in Sag Harbor. Shows are also Saturday, March 28 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Sunday, March 29 at 2 p.m. 

Top: Kyla Kudlak, as actress Ms. Angela Prysock playing the character Helena Landless.

Photo by Michael Heller