IMAGINE POIROT SINGING: A Look at That Rarest of Things, the Mystery Musical

Here it is, the middle of January, the perfect time to start making your summer plans! Seriously, my Seasonal Affective Disorder is kicking up, and having something to look forward to can really cheer you during these dreary days. This summer, I’m visiting two of my favorite cities. First stop is London, where I will attend the sixth (and my second) annual Bodies from the Library conference at the British Library. It’s the perfect place to celebrate the centenary of Agatha Christie’s first publication (1920’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles) and to mingle with people who are as nuts about classic mysteries as I am.

94dba0df-848e-4ac4-bbf2-7a44d1102ebd                  Will the Three Amigos be back together? Only time will tell . . .

Then it’s off to New York to visit the bookstores, check out what they did to MOMA and, of course, see some theatre. Broadway has become prohibitively expensive, so if any of you have suggestions of must-see productions, please drop them in the comments section below.

My first trip to the Big Apple took place in the spring of 1986. New York was a much grittier city then: 42nd Street was a pornographer’s paradise, and the avenues were littered with homeless people sprawled on the street and huddled in the storefronts. I remember walking around one night and noticing two cops strolling together down the sidewalk and literally stepping over the bodies. By the mid-90’s, the city had begun a renaissance. I took a group of students to New York around 1996. We stayed at the Edison Hotel, right in the heart of the theatre district and saw a lot of shows, including the big hit of the time, Rent.

These were a difficult, fractious group of kids, and they drove me crazy with their argumentative ways. One night, after the theatre, they had all literally stopped speaking to each other, so I sent them off to bed in the hotel and went for a stroll. As I walked down Broadway, up 42nd Street and back around through Hell’s Kitchen, I was amazed at the total absence of Triple-X movie houses and ragged beggars in the streets. Much of this was due to no other than Mayor Rudy Giuliani, although his cure for the homeless problem turned out to be less of a miracle and more about bussing them all to Jersey.

I was marveling at how clean the streets were . . . until I rounded the corner and saw the Edison in view. Three bums were sprawled on the sidewalk across the street from the hotel, sharing a 40oz. bottle of malt liquor. My rueful “tut-tutting” turned into disgusted “sput-sputtering” as I grasped the fact that the bums were three of my own cherubs from San Mateo High School. That was a fun trip . . .

My premiere voyage in 1986 established a pattern of taking in as much New York theatre as I could stuff into a vacation. For several years, I would take my chances at TKTS, the half-price line. (As I began to cherish the concept of having a good seat and a sure chance of seeing big-ticket shows, I would order my seats in advance.) That first time produced some amazing theatrical memories. Perhaps the best day was when I saw a Tommy Tune double-bill: a matinee of Nine, featuring Raul Julia, Karen Akers, and Anita Morris (fabulous!) and an evening production downtown of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 (brilliant).

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This was also the summer I discovered that a mash-up of two of my favorite things – mysteries and musicals – can work! The Mystery of Edwin Drood was the brainchild of pop composer Rupert Holmes, and it piqued my imagination. Drood purports to be a music hall adaptation of Dickens’ unfinished novel, and like so many performers of that ilk, the show lightens the dark tragedy of its source, just as Victorian Shakespeare companies used to tack happy endings on the Bard’s greatest plays. The show-within-a-show also provides wonderful meta-moments, since the cast all play both Dickens’ characters and the actors who portray them. Betty Buckley starred as a high-handed diva who has been given the “pants part” of Edwin Drood . . . and is pretty upset that he disappears so early, causing all sorts of efforts to be made to appease her.

The other famous thing about Drood, the musical, which capitalizes on the most frustrating aspect of the novel – a mystery without a solution –  is that Holmes crafted multiple endings, not only for who killed Edwin but also who will be matched as lovers and who is behind the mask of the mysterious character, Dick Datchery. At certain points in the second act, the cast conducts a vote amongst the audience, and whatever choices are made are acted out that evening.

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Sadly, this robs the “mystery” of any real heft: there can be no meaningful clues that lead to any purposeful deductions. It’s a small price to pay, however, for the fun that is to be had, and each murderer’s confession is a character-driven delight. One of my favorites is the character named Bazzard, a minor player who is so disappointed in the size of his part that he murders Edwin Drood just to get another song!

I thoroughly enjoyed Drood when I saw it and imagine it would be as much, if not more, fun to be in as to watch! It made me wonder about whether other attempts had been made to mash up the musical and the mystery. As it turned out I could only come up with another four, and I have seen three of them. I even got the chance to direct one of those three, and they all bear notice for their attempts to bring the world of the classic mystery to the stage and imbue it with song. Some of these mash-ups are more successful than others.

The oldest is Redhead, which has such a fine pedigree it should have done better. The writing team of Dorothy and Herbert Fields were joined by a young Sidney Sheldon to craft a whodunnit set in 1880’s London and based on the Jack the Ripper case. They had the great fortune to snag Gwen Verdon as their leading lady. After Damn Yankees, she was one of the hottest draws in town. Her leading man, Richard Kiley, was no slouch either: he won a Tony for Redhead, and less than a decade later, would win a second playing Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha.

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Verdon has already won two Tony awards and was nominated for a third here as Essie Whimple, a mousy girl working for her two aunts in their Wax Museum, who ends up face to face with a slasher killer. At Verdon’s insistence, her beloved Bob Fosse made his debut as director of the show. Redhead won the Tony award for 1959’s Best Musical – and then faded into obscurity. I got to see it at 42nd Street Moon, a haven in San Francisco for classic musical enthusiasts as they put on full productions of shows that haven’t seen the light of day for decades. This was over twenty years ago, and I don’t remember much except the identity of the murderer and that the whole thing was rather charming and – as you might expect – maybe a little too heavy on plot and light on musical pizzazz. I don’t remember anything in the way of “fair play” or detection of any kind; it was more of a damsel in jeopardy type of show, and although the creators were clearly trying to surprise  with their choice of killer, those of us who have read a cursory sample of GAD crime fiction would have watched the denouement with a bit of a shrug.

The next try at a murderous musical was Something’s Afoot, which premiered in Atlanta in 1972 and spent the next four years creeping toward Broadway via Connecticut, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles. It lasted on the Great White Way for sixty-one performances. It did much better in London (232 performances) and then faded into the community theatre circuit where I saw a production in the early 80’s.

Descriptions of the show compare it to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but despite the high body count, the show reminds me more of those early 30’s “Old Dark House” movies where the relatives gather for the reading of the will, and cloaked figures with gloved claws skulk about hidden passageways. The whole thing is played for laughs, although at the time I didn’t laugh very much. Still, that might have been more the fault of the creaky production than of the play itself.

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The plot concerns a group of walking clichés (the Ingenue, the Grande Dame, the Boring Colonel, the Black Sheep Nephew, and so on) who gather at the estate of the late Lord Dudley Rancour for a country weekend. A storm strands the company, their host is found dead, and everyone starts to wander around, sing, and die, pretty much in that order. The murders are committed through a series of elaborate traps that require a more than adequate set designer at the helm. The solution could be considered highly ingenious or utterly ridiculous, depending on how much wine you drank at dinner.

I can’t speak much about the score by a team of four people of whom I never heard before or since, but it bored me at the time. The only song I can remember is one that the surly caretaker sings to the flirty maid just before she is sucked into a giant Ming vase and ground to bits: it’s called “Problematical Solution (The Dinghy Song)”, and the chorus begins “I’ve got the cutest little dinghy in the navy!” I’ll bet.

The next example is, to me,  the finest because it manages to meld the two forms together at their best, giving us a jazzy musical score, a libretto that is moving and funny, and a cracking good mystery to boot. City of Angels features the music of Cy Coleman, who also cracked out hits like Sweet Charity and The Will Rogers Follies. City of Angels ran for a little over two years on Broadway; like Will Rogers it won multiple Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

I happened to direct this show for a local theatre company, and it is challenging. It’s really two musicals in one. First, it’s a Hollywood story of how a successful author and neophyte screenwriter is ground to a pulp when he is invited to adapt one of his own books into a film. Along the way, he compromises all his values and jeopardizes his marriage to a saint by sleeping with the studio secretary.

GAD fans will wrap their hearts around the other story, which is the film within the play, a detective story set in the City of Angels that feels like a Raymond Chandler whodunnit. In it, a detective named Stone is hired to find a missing heiress and stumbles upon a complex murder plot, a handful of sexy femmes fatales and more betrayals than you could keep count of. What is so exciting – if it’s done well and, believe me, it’s easy to screw this one up – is that the structure of the piece mirrors the complexity of a classic P.I. novel: It juxtaposes the two stories together by having every actor play a parallel character in each. (The screenwriter and the detective, protagonists in their own tales, are cast separately, although it is clear that the writer’s creation is every bit the man he wishes he were himself.)

113683-3   Cool thing about City of Angels: the Hollywood story is in color, the mystery in B&W!

This casting decision makes for an evening’s worth of delicious meta-moments, some of them theatrical, some filmic, and others representing the mystery genre. And while these elements prevent the mystery from being totally fair play, primarily because the film’s producer keeps forcing the writer to make changes to the script that up-end the integrity of the original story, the mystery itself is loads of fun, with loads of plot set-pieces that will be familiar to fans of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep and a pair of males that you actually come to care about by the end.

Except . . . that end is a bit of a disappointment. Not the “solution” to the mystery – that’s just fine – but the solution to our author/hero’s problems, which are solved like often are in old movies: without an ounce of logic or believability. After all they’ve gone through, I felt the characters deserved more.

The final mystery musical took the most exciting idea and turned it into the most crushing disappointment. Arthur Laurents, responsible for the book for such shows as West Side Story and Gypsy, headed a team that wanted to create an original musical about Nick and Nora Charles, the consummate married detective team from Hammett’s The Thin Man. The music was by Charles Strouse, no slouch he (Bye, Bye Birdie, Applause, Annie) and the lyrics were by Richard Maltby, Jr. (Baby, Miss Saigon, Big).

 

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They assembled a dream cast, and if these names don’t mean much to you, let me just say that I would kill to see them all gathered together on stage, just reading the phone book! Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason played the Charles’. Bostwick went to San Mateo High School, where I happen to have taught for the last twenty-eight years. We met a number of years ago, and can I just say that I’ve never met a finer gentleman. Joanna Gleason may be best known for originating the role of the Baker’s Wife in Sondheim’s Into the Woods, and as Carly Simon would sing, “Nobody does it better.” The cast also included Christine Baranski, Faith Prince, Debra Monk, and Chris Sarandon. So . . . much . . . talent!!

It ran for nine performances.

I never saw this show, although 42nd Street Moon, which had mounted Redhead, received permission to dig Nick and Nora up from its grave. I found a review of that production, and it convinced nobody that the show was better than anyone remembered. Evidently the biggest problem was that the authors didn’t trust the characters, most notably Nick and Nora themselves.

Hammett’s The Thin Man is a charming book, but it is far from his best. It was William Powell and Myrna Loy who breathed life into the lead characters and extended those lives for five sequels. The fact that the sequels decrease in quality as the series continued is mitigated by the charm and chemistry of Loy and Powell together. They existed to flirt, party, and drink, with occasional excursions into crime-solving.

In the musical, Nick and Nora have marital problems throughout the show. Nora nearly cheats on Nick with the requisite gangster character (all the Thin Man movies have one), and the saucy insouciance that made them so delightful in the films is replaced by scenes of emotional  angst and one too many turgid ballads. To my mind, a musical Nick and Nora should have a slightly haggard resemblance to Astaire and Rogers, except he stumbles a bit when they dance, and she’s carrying the dog.

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In his memoir, Original Story, Laurents blamed the crushing failure of Nick and Nora on two things: the popularity of the Charles’ from the movies, which they couldn’t duplicate even if they wanted to, and on a lengthy and troubled gestation period for the musical which culminated in seventy-one previews on Broadway before the ignominious nine performance run. The theatre mavens spewed gossip for weeks about how terribly things were going; the New York Times review began: “It’s not as bad as you’ve heard.” That killed it!

And evidently, it killed future attempts at musicals based on classic mysteries. Maybe that’s how it should be. A crime story requires too much focus on plot; songs and dances just detract from clues and corpses. I will confess that in college I teamed up with a friend named Emily to write a musical mystery. It was called Speakeasy, and what little we wrote was as derivative of other, better shows as the title sounds. But for a few months there, I had a ball trying to craft a complex, 1920’s murder plot, where the characters came to life in song, and the lyrics held important clues for those who were willing to pay attention. At that task, alas, I failed. You’d think that after Speakeasy, a regular mystery novel would be a breeze to write. Yeah, right.

Still, keep your fingers crossed for me . . .

26 thoughts on “IMAGINE POIROT SINGING: A Look at That Rarest of Things, the Mystery Musical

  1. I saw NICK & NORA on Broadway, and it actually mostly worked (if you read the actual reviews of the time, you note that most of them weren’t scathing pans, just critics underwhelmed). Yes, the big problem was the efforts to demystify the Charleses marriage, kind of trying to make it more mature the “without a hurt the heart is hollow” route. Bad idea.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the (more) recent CURTAINS… or the Sherlock Holmes musicals BAKER STREET and SHERLOCK HOLMES.

    The musical MURDER ON THE HIGH C’s— sort of a cross between AND THEN THERE WERE NONE and ANYTHING GOES— never made it to Broadway and never will. But it offers the most clearly Golden Age inspired Queenian clueing, references to John Dickson Carr, a “challenge to the viewer”… and all takes place aboard the S.S. Van Dine. And it has the most modest librettist, of course.

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    1. I think my biggest fear at posting this blog was that Scott K. Ratner would remind me of musical mysteries I had forgotten. (At least I got your take on Nick and Nora! :))

      I am aware of Baker Street, although I know nothing about it and had honestly forgotten it existed. I have never heard of the musical Sherlock Holmes. The one I shouldn’t have forgotten was Curtains because I’ve seen it. Maybe it was a Freudian thing: as much as I love mysteries and musicals and Kander and Ebb, I do not like that show. It tries too hard, especially with the score, and is singularly unfunny. Plus, it sets you up with that most wonderful of things, a theatrical mystery, peoples it with an enormous cast of suspects, and then ends the whole thing with (literally) a joke solution. That spelled curtains for Curtains as far as I was concerned.

      Maybe we should open a dinner theatre halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. (Is that Fresno??) Our premiere season could be Murder on the High C’s and Speakeasy. Mine had a song called “The Whodunit Waltz.” I only remember that I rhymed the title with “schmaltz.”

      It’ll kill them in Fresno . . .

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  2. The things you do at university! I give you credit, Brad, for wanting to put together music and mystery, but it is so, so hard to do. As your excellent post shows, melding the best of both genres is quite a task – not one I would ever attempt. I hope you’ll have a great trip to London and NYC this summar, and that you’ll get to see some fantastic shows.

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      1. I enjoyed the backstage bits and some of the songs, but I was extremely disappointed by the fact I picked the murderer out straight away. I never work out whodunnit normally, but thought it was pretty obvious.

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      2. Bingo! There are two murderers, but both seem obvious to me. And ultimately only the bad people are affected: the two victims and one murderer are scum, and the second murderer gets away with it. Bah!

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  3. I saw NICK & NORA at its first Saturday matinee in previews (i.e., months before official opening). It remains perhaps the most extreme disappointment I’ve experienced in the theater, precisely because expectations were so high with all those A-list participants (I hadn’t heard any gossip in advance, at that early point). Several songs were enjoyable in themselves (some that didn’t make it to the opening, I actually enjoyed more than their replacements as heard on the cast recording), but their impact was hopelessly muffled by the joyless surroundings.

    I wouldn’t trust Arthur Laurents’s word on anything, and certainly not on the reasons for this shows’ problems; I know we all tend to remember the past in ways that flatter ourselves, but he had an extreme and vicious version of this syndrome. The other authors have tended to blame him — particularly his fundamental insistence that a Nick and Nora Charles musical would have to show their marriage in serious trouble, and in general dwell on ugliness among all the characters.

    I saw CURTAINS too, and though I enjoyed it quite well, I have trouble remembering it as any kind of mystery. Which I suppose makes the point about how unimportant that aspect of it is. I do enjoy EDWIN DROOD a lot, and I had a good time at both the original production and the recent revival

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    1. Yes, I couldn’t finish Laurents’ memoir because it was so catty and self-aggrandizing. He has always tried to take more credit for West Side Story than he was due, and while he was involved in many shows I’ve enjoyed – and probably contributed a great deal to it, he has always come across as unpleasant.

      The fact that you can’t remember Curtains as a mystery speaks volumes, since it is stuffed to the gills with mystery elements: the first murder happens onstage during a musical number to the much-disliked (and very tone-deaf) leading lady, and the songs include stuff about “he did it” and “she did it.” Like City of Angels it merges two worlds: one theatrical, one Golden Age-ish detective story. Unlike CoA, it’s not that good.

      I wanted to produce Drood at school, but a bunch of my students went to New York on a dance trip, saw the revival, and hated it. That disappointed me a lot.

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      1. Too bad about your students’ reactions to DROOD. (How do we get italics here? Pointy brackets around the usual i and /i? I haven’t dared experiment after whole comments of mine vanished on another blog.) I find it hard to understand “hating” it, though one important role wasn’t satisfactorily cast. I do think it’s a hard proposition for school productions, as the cast has to memorize a multitude of endings, most of which will never be used.

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      2. Yes, pointy brackets around the i and /i.

        I may be wrong, but I think they saw the show on the evening after a redeye flight from California, so they may have been utterly exhausted. Also, being a large group (well over 100), I’ll bet they had semi-bad balcony seats.

        I bought the CD and had a problem with the otherwise always-brilliant Chita Rivera. She was no Cleo Laine. But that’s just the recording; she might have been amazing. I’m interested in who you felt was wrong for their part. A year or so ago, I met Betsy Wolfe, who played Rosa Bud in the revival and seemed like the perfect performer to do so!

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      3. Brad: “I bought the CD and had a problem with the otherwise always-brilliant Chita Rivera. She was no Cleo Laine. But that’s just the recording; she might have been amazing. I’m interested in who you felt was wrong for their part. A year or so ago, I met Betsy Wolfe, who played Rosa Bud in the revival and seemed like the perfect performer to do so!”

        I enjoyed Chita Rivera greatly; what a “giving” performer! Obviously she’s not a song stylist in the manner of Cleo Laine, but she had a lot to offer. And (snideness alert) she was miles closer to the mark than the Puffer I saw late in the original production (Laine’s replacement), Loretta Swit. (sigh)

        No, the one I found not up to the role was Will Chase as Jasper. He can be just right in modern-day “regular guy” parts (as he was in Bells Are Ringing and Pipe Dream at Encores, and in Kiss of the Spider Woman in DC). But Jasper is a part for a classical sort of high baritone and an actor at home with subtle British melodrama: Howard McGillin had been ideal, and Chase was hopeless. (As he was as Fred in the recent Kiss Me, Kate revival.)

        Betsy Wolfe? She was perfect (she was voted murderer the night I went, and had a roaring fine time with the confession). So was the now-a-star Jessie Mueller (she was revealed as our Datchery, and I hear that she won one of the 3 votes at nearly every performance). As were Jim Norton, Nicholas Baratsch (so engaging a teen performer that Deputy was expanded for him), Andy Karl, and Stephanie J. Block. Beautiful Victorian designs, too.

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      4. To be honest, outside of the haunting Moonfall (which is admittedly quite gorgeous), I don’t really care much for the score. And the “message” songs (Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead and Writing on the Wall ) don’t seem to have much relevance to the rest of the story.

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      5. I love “Moonfall” and “Perfect Strangers,” everything Rosa sings. (Her confession is my favorite.) It’s a catchy score, not a memorable one, and I prefer City of Angels in every way.

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    1. Also in the not-a-musical department: Rupert Holmes’s play, about a decade later than Drood, ACCOMPLICE. In this, each successive scene…. argh, I can’t say any more without spoiling it. Get hold of the actors’ edition, and read it.

      From the 1970s, Ira Levin’s nonmusical DEATHTRAP (later filmed), about a playwright’s attempt to write a sure-fire suspense play, and similar in some respects to Accomplice. Though very clever, this may not be revivable… for a heartening reason, for a change. (Social attitudes have, in some respects, vastly improved.)

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      1. I may have Accomplice somewhere. I don’t remember it at all, but I’m very familiar with Deathtrap. A local community theatre did it a few years ago, and you’re absolutely correct: what proved shocking when it first opened is now prosaic and dated and maybe just a tad offensive. And after the Act I “shocker,” the second act seems like an overlong stay at the home of two very unpleasant people.

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    2. I own the script, and I don’t want to give anything away, but it might be a little too clever for its own good. The first act is a fun spoof of classic country house mysteries, very much like Something’s Afoot without the songs; after intermission, it turns into something else entirely, a twist that I don’t find particularly noteworthy.

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  4. Drood! Back when I was in my preteen years I subscribed to The Musicals Collection, a partwork magazine which every two weeks was based on a different musical. There would be a recording on CD or cassette tape, an explanation of the show’s story (and about 11-13 tracks), a four page essay about the show’s history and a star or composer bio. And then there would be a further listening page which described other shows of note.

    Anyway, Drood was never part of the collection (it only made it to about 75 shows) but it DID reference it constantly and left so many tantalizing questions about how the thing worked which, in a pre-internet age, I had no hope of solving in spite of considerable searching (and in those days there was no recording I could track down either). Thank you for finally answering my questions about what a show with multiple endings meant and how it worked all of 20 years later… 😁

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