To write a murder mystery musical is a huge challenge. Blending a strong, well-plotted story with appealing music and a script which offers consistently high entertainment value is so difficult to achieve, it's no surprise that it's hardly ever been done. So I wondered what to expect when, last week, I went to the Liverpool Empire to watch Curtains. The Empire's a classy old theatre on Lime Street, but I've only ever been there once before, to watch Dionne Warwick in concert, many moons ago. It was a great venue for this production.
Curtains is a show with a complex and troubled history. The original idea was conceived by Peter Stone, an accomplished writer for tv, film, and stage. His scripts include Charade and the original film version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Apparently he also wrote a pretty obscure mystery musical, Death Takes a Holiday, before the end of his life. Curtains seems to have been started earlier, but was unfinished at the time of his death in 2003.
The plan was for the music to be written by John Kander and the lyrics by his regular partner, Fred Ebb. This pair were responsible for such classic musicals as Cabaret and Chicago, as well as many others that weren't quite as successful. However, Ebb died in 2004, with the work still incomplete. (Incidentally, I gather that one of the duo's last projects was a musical based on Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit, a book I studied for A Level, and I'd love to see that one..)
The next step was to bring in the singer-songwriter Rupert Holmes, who has established a second career as a crime novelist and playwrigth and also wrote the Dickens-inspired musical Drood. I've mentioned before on this blog my admiration for Rupert, who was kind enough to help me some years ago when I was working on a Lake District book, The Serpent Pool. He is multi-talented and was the perfect choice to write the book and help out with the songwriting. And it was fun to watch this musical of his performed only about thirty miles from his birthplace, in Northwich.
Curtains finally made it to Broadway in 2007. It received many award nominations and had a good run, although critical reaction was mixed, perhaps because of the production, perhaps because of critical snobbery. (And Rupert makes sure that critics get a real kicking in the script...) I'd hazard a guess that perhaps in 2007 some people were a bit less receptive to whodunits of this kind than they are today. The show faded from view but is now enjoying its first tour in the UK, after all this time, with Jason Manford in the lead, playing Lieutenant Choffi, supported by Carley Stenson, Rebecca Lock, Samuel Holmes, and Ore Oduba.
The show is a musical about a musical. A dire show called Robbin' Hood is having a pre-Broadway try-out when the dreadful female star is murdered. Enter Cioffi. He has plenty of suspects to choose from. Matters are complicated by the fact that he's a wannabe performer in a musical and also falls for a member of the cast. Before the end of the first act, another murder has been committed on stage...
I enjoyed the show enormously and I'm pleased to see that reviews of the UK tour have been extremely favourable. Rightly so. Jason Manford is excellent and the cast as a whole injects the show with the necessary energy (I can imagine that a lack of pace in the performances would present all sorts of problems, but there was an abundance of zest). The songs are pretty good, and sometimes witty. There's nothing in the same league as Kander and Ebb's Maybe This Time, but the songs do a good job of moving the story along, one of the major requirements in a show of this type. The result is hugely entertaining, and if you get a chance to see it, I can warmly recommend it.
Rupert Holmes also wrote the astonishing Accomplice, an ingenious murder mystery play which outdoes Sleuth.
The original American performance in 1991 included Jason Alexander, the actor who was then becoming famous for his role as George Costanza in Seinfeld.
Accomplice is an absolutely brilliant play, but not many have heard of it. I don't think it was ever brought over to the UK.
Try to find a second hand copy of the script published by Samuel French.
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