The musical Drood is derived from two major inspirations: Charles Dickens's final (and unfinished) novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and the British pantomime and music hall traditions that reached the height of their popularity in the years following Dickens's death.
Dickens's Mystery began publication in 1870. The book, which had been written and published in episodic installments (as had most of Dickens's other novels) was left unfinished upon Dickens's sudden death from a stroke that year. The lack of resolution to the mystery (and the absence of notes that would indicate Dickens's intentions) have made The Mystery of Edwin Drood a literary curiosity. Almost immediately after the publication of Dickens's last episode, various authors and playwrights (including Dickens's own son) attempted to resolve the story with their own endings: by the time of the Drood musical's production, there had been several "collaborations" between the late Dickens and other novelists, numerous theatrical extrapolations of the material, and three film adaptations of the story.
Contemporaneous with Dickens's writing, British pantomime styles — distinguished by the importance of audience participation and conventions like the principal boy — reached their height of popularity, just as music hall performance with its attributes of raucous, risque comedy and a distinctive style of music began to achieve prominence.
Rupert Holmes, who would go on to be the major creative contributor to the musical Drood, spent his early childhood in England. At age three, he would experience theater for the first time when he was taken to a modern "panto", complete with cross-dressing lead boy and audience sing-alongs. Some years later, as an 11-year-old boy fascinated by mystery books, Holmes first discovered the unfinished Dickens novel. Both of those seminal experiences would go on to have a major impact on Holmes when he was first approached to write a new musical by impresario Joseph Papp.
Holmes, a well-known popular songwriter whose songs had been performed by the likes of Barbra Streisand, and who had himself recorded the #1 hit "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" in 1979, first became interested in writing a musical in 1983. Following a nightclub appearance during which Holmes performed some of his "story-songs" while sharing humorous anecdotes, Holmes received a note from Gail Merrifield, director of play development at the New York Shakespeare Festival (and wife of Joseph Papp, the creator and head of the Festival), who had seen Holmes's performance and suggested that he write a full-length musical.
Drawing on his recollections of pantomime and Dickens's novel, as well as later experiences with Victorian-style music hall performance, Holmes conceived the central premises of the show. From the Dickens work, Holmes took the central plot and most of the featured characters. From music hall traditions, he created the lead character of "The Chairman", a sort of Master of Ceremonies and instigator of the action on stage. And from pantomime he retained the concept of the "Lead Boy" (always portrayed by a young female in male drag) and the most ground-breaking aspect of Drood, audience participation.
Drood is unusual in part because of Holmes's feat of writing the book, music, lyrics, and full orchestrations for the show. Though Holmes believed no Broadway creator had done this before, and despite frequent mentions of this feat in articles and reviews of the show, the practice was not entirely uncommon in the early days of musical theater. Songwriters including Adolf Philipp, were previously credited with the books to their musicals. However, none of these composer/librettists had written their own orchestrations as well.
In writing the book, Holmes did not let Dickens overshadow his own intentions. Rather than imitate Dickens's writing style, which he felt would be too bleak for the kind of show he wished to write, Holmes employed the device of a "show-within-a-show." The cast members of Drood do not specifically play Dickens's characters, but rather music hall performers who are performing as Dickens's characters. This device allowed for a great deal of light comedy that was not originally found in Dickens's novel to be incorporated into the show, as well as several musical numbers that were unrelated to the original story. In explaining this decision, Holmes was quoted as saying, "This is not Nicholas Nickleby set to music--it's not a Dickensian work. It's light and fun and entertaining. But I hope--I think--that Dickens would have enjoyed it." Holmes has also pointed out that "It has the same relationship to Dickens that Kiss Me Kate does to The Taming of the Shrew." The pantomime concept also allowed Holmes to employ a female in the lead male role, which further allowed him to write a love song designed to be sung by two sopranos.
Most inventively, Holmes employed a novel method of determining the outcome of the play: having the audience vote for an ending. At a break in the show, the audience votes on who killed Drood (if, indeed, he was killed at all), the identity of the mysterious Dick Datchery, and on which two characters will become romantically involved in the end, creating a happy ending. Since every audience differs in temperament, the outcome is theoretically unpredictable even to the actors, who must quickly tally the votes and commence with the chosen ending (although some smaller companies will "fix" the results to limit the number of possible endings). This device required extra work from Holmes, who had to write numerous short endings which covered every possible voting outcome.
After Rupert Holmes wrote an initial draft that lasted three-and-a-half hours, and performed it, solo, for Joseph Papp, Gail Merrifield, and Wilford Leach, (the New York Shakespeare Festival's artistic director), Papp offered to produce the show as part of the Festival (also known as "Shakespeare in the Park"), and told Holmes that it would be immediately transferred to Broadway if it was deemed a success. The original production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood premiered in New York City's Central Park at the Delacorte Theatre on August 21, 1985 after only three weeks of rehearsals. Notably, Holmes conceived most of the orchestrations himself, a rarity for a Broadway composer.
After the final Festival performance on September 1, preparations for the Broadway transfer (retaining the original cast) immediately got underway. Following a great deal of editing (the Delacorte version contained 32 original songs and was nearly three hours long) The Mystery of Edwin Drood opened on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre on December 2, 1985. Roughly halfway through the run, the title of the musical was officially shortened to Drood (the name it continues to be licensed under). The show ran for 608 performances (not including 24 previews), and closed on May 16, 1987. The Broadway production was produced by Papp and directed by Leach, with choreography by Graciela Daniele.
The opening night cast of the Broadway production starred George Rose, Cleo Laine, John Herrera, Howard McGillin, Patti Cohenour, and Jana Schneider, who were all nominated for 1986 Tony Awards for their performances, as well as Betty Buckley in the title role. Donna Murphy, Judy Kuhn, and Rob Marshall were also members of the ensemble. (Marshall, who would later become best known as a choreographer and theater/film director, also received an early choreography credit as assistant to Daniele.) Before the show ended its run, Murphy, who was understudy to Cleo Laine and Jana Schneider, took over the title role. Other notable replacements during the show's run included Alison Fraser (taking over for Jana Schneider), Paige O'Hara (taking over for Donna Murphy as Drood), as well as Loretta Swit and later Karen Morrow, who stepped into Laine's roles.
In 1988, several months after closing on Broadway, a slightly-revised version of Drood began its first North America tour at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, DC, with Rose, Schneider and O'Hara reprising their leads, and Jean Stapleton playing Laine's role. During a break in the tour George Rose returned to his home in the Dominican Republic, and sadly was murdered during his stay.Rose was succeeded by Clive Revill. The show, now licensed by Tams-Witmark, has since has enjoyed a second U.S. national tour, a 1987 West End run at the Savoy Theatre in London, a production at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada; and numerous regional and professional and amateur theatrical productions worldwide. In 2007–08, a London revival, presented as a chamber piece and directed by Ted Craig, ran at the Warehouse Theatre.
In the summer of 2009, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival put on a production of Drood, starring resident actors Aled Davies as The Chairman, Lynn Allison as Princess Puffer, and Sara M. Bruner in the title role.
In 2012 Aria Entertainment produced a London revival of the musical at the Landor Theatre in April/May, which is shortly to transfer to the Arts Theatre, West End for a limited season from 18 May. The cast is headed by former Coronation Street star Wendi Peters as Princess Puffer, with Natalie Day as Edwin Drood, Daniel Robinson as John Jasper and Victoria Farley as Rosa Budd. The production is directed by Matthew Gould.
The Roundabout Theatre Company presented a Broadway revival at Studio 54, which opened in November 2012. The production is directed by Scott Ellis, and stars Chita Rivera as Puffer, Stephanie J. Block as Drood, Will Chase as Jasper, Jim Norton as the Chairman and Gregg Edelmann as Crisparkle.