Settling Up the Score: Dickens on Broadway, Pickwick – Drood

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Adapting Dickens: Pickwick to Drood on Broadway

If you’ve been following ‘Settling Up the Score’, you’ll know that – perhaps, unsurprisingly – the first of our ‘Adapting Dickens’ blogs looked at Oliver! (1968) which is probably the most famous of musical Dickens adaptations.

But, it’s not just Oliver Twist that has received the musical theatre treatment; several of Dickens’s other novels from his first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837-8), to his last and our current production, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). These adaptations vary greatly in how they treat Dickens’s work with some choosing to stay quite close to the tone of their adapted novel and others choosing to almost entirely reinvent the original.

The following is by no means an exhaustive list of Dickensian musicals, but the highlights. We found 5 adaptations of A Christmas Carol (1843) and we will not bore you with the small differences – in case you’re wondering, one has Muppets.

Pickwick

Pickwick (1963) is an adaptation of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club; the book was written by Wolf Mankowitz, music by Cyril Ornadel, and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse (who has written the lyrics for several Neo-victorian musical adaptations, including Jekyll and Hyde, Sherlock Holmes, and Scrooge). The show opened in London on 4th July 1963 and ran for 694 performances before transferring to Broadway in October 1965 where it was a complete flop, running for only 56 performances. Not so surprisingly, it has never been revived.

Videos of Pickwick are few and far between, but when you watch the scene that precedes ‘If I Ruled the World’, the depiction of Pickwick as the slightly naive, bumbling fool with a golden heart advised by his streetwise, Cockney manservant Sam Weller is strikingly similar to the characterisation and mode of humour found in the novel.

Perhaps, strict adherence to Dickensian character tropes does not translate across the Atlantic.

Dickensian Broadway Flops

Unfortunately for Dickens fans, Dickens has never fared particularly well on Broadway. In fact, the vast majority of musical adaptations of Dickens’s novels have closed early. Copperfield (1981) with book, music, and lyrics by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn lasted 39 performances, including 26 previews. Reviewers of Copperfield were utterly unimpressed with Frank Rich of The New York Times questioning ‘whether its creators have ever actually read their ostensible source material, Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. You may even question whether they’ve read the Classics Comics version’.[1]  The musical, according to Rich, denigrated the canonical novel to unsubtle and poorly performed melodrama:

The show’s book manages to miss the human comedy, the tears and even the point of Dickens’s novel. This ”Copperfield” is no longer the story of a boy’s hard-won growth to emotional manhood, but a clunky, often incoherently told melodrama in which all the villains literally wear black. Many of the memorable characters from the original – from Steerforth to Little Emily to the Creakles – are gone. Those that do remain might just as well have been discarded. Peggotty (Mary Stout) now exists only to announce a death in each act. Aunt Betsey Trotwood (Carmen Mathews) has been reduced to a running gag. Even the title character seems an almost peripheral figure in the proceedings. He’s played by two decent singers – one boy, one man – who are nothing if not chips off the same block. The block is made of wood. [2]

Copperfield’s lyrics are clumsy and unintentionally funny, such as the hammy ‘you will find that Latin/is the tongue to chat in’ that David Copperfield remarks with regard to his growing love for reading.

The 2008 adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities did slightly better than the infamous Copperfield, lasting 60 performances before closing.

For Jill Santoriello, who wrote the book, lyrics, and score, A Tale of Two Cities had to emerge from the shadow of Les Miserables, as Ben Brantley put it : ‘I’m tempted to pretend I didn’t hear the one about “Tale” being called “the son of ‘Les Miz’ ” (a reference to another, better musical about another, lesser French revolution)’. [3] The main criticism that Tale received was that in order to capture all the intricacies of the plot of Dickens’s novel the show fails to spend much time on capturing the human element of the characters.

The objective of this show’s creators appears to have been to cram in as much basic plot as possible from the novel, perhaps the most purely plot-propelled work that Dickens wrote. Consequently, there are songs that are tediously devoted to subjects like how X is related to Y who did such-and-such to so-and-so Z number of years ago. Listening to so much twisting exposition set to music is kind of like hearing a far-fetched, coincidence-driven Italian opera like “Il Trovatore” in English. [4]

Despite the power behind Madame Defarge’s belting ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’, performed here by Natalie Toro, audiences were left unenthused.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Unlike earlier attempts at adapting Dickens for Broadway, Rupert Holmes’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood was not only well received that it won the so-called Tony Award Triple Crown for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Score in 1986. When it was revived in 2012/3, it also won the Tony Award for Best Revival.

What is it about The Mystery of Edwin Drood that makes this Dickens adaptation work so well on Broadway where others have failed?

Perhaps it’s the ‘show within show’ structure, or maybe the audience vote, but this musical managed to avoid the fate of many previous Dickens adaptations. We will try to answer this question in this blog as we draw closer to show week.

Come decide for yourself why Drood managed to escape the curse of earlier versions of Dickens on Broadway from 18th- 21st November, Websters Theatre, Glasgow.

Get your tickets here!   

Our Mutual Friend

Last month a new musical of adaptation of Dickens’s last complete novel had a staged reading in New York, we wait with baited breath to see whether this adaptation will succeed where others have failed. [5]

[1] Frank Rich, ‘Dickens Sings Again in Copperfield’, NewYork Times, 17.04.1981, http://www.nytimes.com/mem/theater/treview.html?res=9F01E0D81E39F934A25757C0A967948260&_r=0     

[2] Ibid

[3] Ben Brantley, ‘Revolution (and Love) On Their Minds’, New York Times, 19.09.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/19/theater/reviews/19tale.html

[4] Ibid

[5] Joe Gambino, ‘New Musical Based on Charles Dickens Novel Will Be Presented as Staged Reading’, 24.05.2015, http://www.playbill.com/news/article/new-musical-based-on-charles-dickens-novel-will-be-presented-as-staged-reading-364123

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