Back in the 80s, I took a college course called Victorian Detective Literature. One of the assignments was to write an ending to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the novel that Charles Dickens was working on when he died, leaving the book unfinished. I’m sure college students all over the country have received the same assignment. It was a fun exercise, but not nearly as fun as reading Rupert Holmes’ account of how a flash of inspiration resulted brought his award-winning Drood musical to life. Here’s an excerpt:
I thought again of Drood. Could I convey the basic plot of Dickens’ bleak literary curiosity and still supply an audience with enough fun to make them momentarily forget they had a dentist’s appointment tomorrow? And what to do about the scarcity of principal female characters in the story? How could I resolve Dickens’ tale without implying that I alone knew the ending the great man had envisioned? And how could I do all this in a manner totally unique to theatre?
Well certainly, as a performer, I knew that a live audience delights in anything that happens on stage spontaneously and only in the specific performance they’re witnessing: an ad lib, an unscheduled song, a guest artist who drops in without warning, a genuinely unexpected unrehearsed encore. A fuse is blown and the singer does a number a cappella. A piece of scenery falls on stage and the actor makes a joke about it without dropping character, earning a round of applause for his improvisation – pleased, you turn to your companion and murmur, “That doesn’t happen every night.”