If one were to bring up the subject of Victorian literature, you would almost undoubtedly hear someone bring up the name of Charles Dickens. First exposed to the rough elements and harsh treatment of the poor when he was young, Dickens rose up to become a popular literary figure in his time and an enduring literary force to this day. His stories, which offer fascinating and memorable characters along with sharp critiques of the social conditions in his day, have endured thanks to his skillful writing and powerful plots. In fact, many of his works are still adapted to different media these days, most frequently with A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist. However, one story that is not as adapted is his last work, a mystery called The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Written in his final years, Dickens had died before he could complete the story. However, there is one adaptation that deals with the problem in a unique way and that is in the form of a stage musical.
Based upon the Dickens story, this adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood keeps most of the original tale of Edwin Drood and his arrival to Cloisterham intact. There with his fiancee Rosa Bud, they become wrapped in trouble and turmoil. For one, Rosa is the subject of an obsession for John Jasper, Drood’s uncle and her musical teacher. For another, an emigrant named Neville Landless falls for Rosa and wants her free from Drood. After a bitter fight that sparks at a Christmas party, Drood departs and ends up disappearing. From there, it becomes a search to find the murderer, something added to with the mysterious appearance of a detective named Dick Datchery. Now, that is only part of the story, for there is an additional layer to it. Namely, the show is done as if it were a Victorian music hall show, with Victorian actors playing the parts in their telling of Dickens’ story. As a result, you also have a side story of the actors as they perform this show, along with all of the issues that come in the world of theatre.
The result is a rather inspired approach to tackling an unfinished work. Rather than try to figure out how Dickens might have ended his story, the show takes on a different tactic by instead using audience participation to determine some of the key mysteries in the plot, namely who murdered Edwin Drood and what is the true identity of Dick Datchery. It offers a more engaging method, allowing the audience to determine some of the story while allowing the show’s writers to sidestep the issue of determining for themselves what Dickens would have written. It’s a method that works for the stage and goes along with its music hall style. As for the overall music hall approach, it is used to full effect. It allows the show to inject some humor and fun into a story that is one of Dickens’ bleaker works, and makes use of techniques of the time to reinforce the time period. For example, the part of Edwin Drood is that of a principal boy, which was a type of role from Victorian pantomime which would have an actress play a lead young male role. It is the sort of role that is all but gone in today’s theatre world, but was a major presence in the Victorian Era.
Even the music goes along with helping to reinforce the time period of this show. The songs take two different approaches throughout. Some are songs that fit within the show within the show, pushing the plot of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and its characters forward. The other style is that of bawdy music hall numbers, designed as crowd-pleasers with a touch of naughty humor straight from the Victorian stage. This double-sided style works well, offering a fun soundtrack that helps to push the story along with the occasional break for a bawdy music hall tune. Over all, the show is an inspired idea for not only adapting a story to the stage, but for adapting an unfinished one at that. It not only takes a classic work of literature and transfers it to the stage, but it uses theatrical elements and styles of the time to both reinforce its time period and to add upon the experience. More than that, it uses the medium of theatre to sidestep challenges in adapting an unfinished work by allowing the audience to vote on the answer to the story’s mystery. The result is a fun musical that is worth seeing if it plays around your area. In the meantime, there are soundtracks available of the 1985 original Broadway cast and the 2012 Broadway revival cast.