Murder on Broadway! Broadway’s Murder and Mystery Musicals
I don’t know why, but I have murder and mystery on the mind lately and it got me thinking about Broadway musicals that have these two intriguing elements central to their makeup. Though the murder mystery musical hasn’t exactly been a regular item among Broadway musicals, there certainly have been occasional attempts over the years. Some of these have been enormous successes, others have been resounding flops, but each has been a unique stab at trying to kill within this compelling genre. Today, we look at some of these musicals.
A Tony-winning Best Musical that is rarely done today, but that certainly qualifies as a murder mystery musical is the 1959 Gwen Verdon vehicle Redhead. The musical takes place in London of the 1880s, predominantly inside a wax museum. Essie Whimple sculpts wax figures for her two aunts that run the establishment. One of the exhibits tells the story of an unsolved murder of a local actress. In order to impress a visiting performer, Essie suggests that she knows who the killer is and goes through a series of stunts to make her claim appear legitimate. In the process, she attracts the attention of Scotland Yard who insist upon her revealing what she knows. Several twists and turns later, including an escapade that drags Essie into the British Music Hall itself, and the murderer is revealed. Redhead features a book by Herbert Fields, Dorothy Fields, Sydney Sheldon, and David Shaw, music by Albert Hague, and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, Redhead ran for 452 performances on Broadway.
Sooner or later, a musical was bound to be made that was based on the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the beloved sleuth of his imagination, one Sherlock Holmes. In 1965, that musical came in the form of Baker Street, directed by the great Harold Prince. The score was written by Marian Grudeff and Raymond Jessel, with the composing team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick stepping in to contribute additional material. The book was by Jerome Coopersmith. Loosely based on Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Baker Streetis set in London, 1897 and concerns a plot by the dastardly Professor Moriarty to steal the Crown Jewels. Though not exactly a murder mystery in the typical sense (though people are killed along the way), Holmes, his assistant Watson, and an actress named Irene work toward thwarting Moriarty’s heist. Baker Street ran for 313 performances on Broadway.
Here is a Broadway musical murder mystery that had a short tenure on Broadway (61 performances) but found a great deal of success in summer stock and community theatres. Something’s Afoot (1976) was a spoof of your typical whodunnit stories along the lines of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None). Set at the English countryside manse of Lord Dudley Rancour, the servants prepare for a weekend of guests. Once the visitors have arrived, a storm isolates the guests and staff, with the road out inaccessible. Everyone soon learns that their host has been killed. One of the guests, Miss Tweed (think Miss Marple) is both an artist and detective who sets about trying to solve the crime. As the story progresses, characters are picked-off one-by-one, adding to the suspense. Something’s Afoot’s music was created by the four-person musical team of James McDonald, David Vos, Robert Gerlach, and Ed Linderman. The same team, sans Linderman, wrote the musical’s book and lyrics. Though it has fallen somewhat out of fashion in recent years, Something’s Afoot will finally receive a cast album in the fall of 2019, courtesy of Jay Records. This will surely resurrect its popularity.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
A clever take on the Broadway musical murder mystery, The Mystery of Edwin Drood(1985) is typically the first title of this genre to come to mind thanks in large part to the unconventional use of the audience in deciding the story’s outcome. Charles Dickens’ novel The Mystery of Edwin Droodwas only partially written when the prolific author died in 1870. Within the story, the disappearance and presumed murder of the title character went unresolved. That is, until Rupert Holmes came along and decided to craft a musical that invited the audience to vote on who they though the culprit was. Also adding to the flavor of the piece, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (the musical) is a show-within-a-show, set within the confines of the British Musical Hall, with a troupe of actors presenting the story while utilizing the conventions of music hall tradition, including a master of ceremonies known as “The Chairman”, the concept of “Lead Boy” (a young adult male role played by a female), and the occasional random song that had nothing to do with the plot. It is important to note, too, that, though The Mystery of Edwin Drood draws from the characters in Dickens’ serious novel, the musical is quite funny. By setting it within the world of the music hall, Holmes opened up the door for a more lighthearted approach to the piece. The Mystery of Edwin Drood (or Droodas it would ultimately be abbreviated to) won the Tony Award for Best Musical.
City of Angels
Arguably, the greatest of Broadway’s murder mystery musicals was 1989’s City of Angels. With a clever, double-sided book by Larry Gelbart, City of Angelssought to tell two stories in one. Set in 1940s Hollywood, Stine, an author of pulp detective novels, is adapting one of his stories about his signature gumshoe named Stone into a screenplay. The powers that be at the studios force Stine to compromise and sell-out, making arbitrary alterations to his work. Stine’s struggle with the Hollywood system plays out as side one. Side two is the movie itself, a murder mystery wherein Detective Stone is solving the case of the missing heiress and ultimately finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation. The film storyline often paralleled Stine’s life and vice-versa. Sometimes Stein would step into the action of the film and converse with Stone and the detective would in turn offer commentary on Stine’s lack of integrity. Taking a cue from writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, City of Angels captured the tone of the detective novel and the genre of film noir. Adding to the sparkling wit and clever twists and turns of Gelbart’s book was the glorious jazz-blues inspired music by Cy Coleman (delivering at a career high) and some of the wittiest lyrics ever written for a Broadway stage by David Zippel. City of Angels won the Tony Award for Best Musical, but (to date) has yet to receive a much deserved Broadway revival.
Nick & Nora
For some, turning the popular TheThin Man movies, themselves adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s character creations in his novels, into a Broadway musical may have seemed like a great idea to some. The mismatched couple of Nick and Nora Charles, he a rough around the edges detective, and she his high society wife, had played on the screen with witty banter and divine chemistry. While mixing martinis, the two would solve crimes in a back and forth play between New York City’s elegant locales and its seedier ones. Transitioning The Thin Man to the musical stage with the 1991 murder mystery musical Nick & Noraproved to be a difficult task. The couple were inexplicably transplanted from the Big Apple to Hollywood where a movie producer’s secretary was murdered and they were brought on board to solve the crime. When playwright A.R. Gurney departed the production as its book writer, director Arthur Laurents stepped in and performed double duty, resulting in a questionable objectivity that didn’t help the production. Charles Strouse (music) and Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics) composed the pleasant, though not necessarily distinguished, score (there is a lot to like in it, but only in fits and starts). Plagued with troubles, including issues with the City Consumer Affairs office, poor word-of-mouth during its extensive preview period, and scathing reviews by the major critics, Nick & Nora shuttered after only nine performances, in this case before the corpse was even cold.
Broadway’s most recent murder mystery musical was the 2007 show Curtains. The musical originally was to have a book by librettist Peter Stone who came up with the concept for this backstage musical where the star of an out-of-town tryout is killed during her curtain call. Stone, however, died before the show would reach Broadway, as would lyricist Fred Ebb who traditionally partnered with composer John Kander. Stepping in to assume the roles held by Stone and Ebb was Rupert Holmes, who had been the brainchild behind The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Curtainswas a mildly amusing whodunit, with a certain charm, and definitely a valentine to theatre folk. The show particularly came to life when Lieutenant Frank Cioffi arrived to investigate the murder, becoming totally enamored with the inner-workings of creating musical theatre. Curtains played on Broadway for 511 performances and won a Tony Award for David Hyde Pierce who played Cioffi.