PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER: Stephanie J. Block, Wearing the Pants of Edwin Drood
By Adam Hetrick
November 17, 2012
The Mystery of Edwin Drood star Stephanie J. Block talks about her dual role as a leading lady and a leading man.
In recent Broadway seasons Stephanie J. Block has gone green as Elphaba in Wicked, tapped her way through Anything Goes as Reno Sweeney, commandeered her own ship in The Pirate Queen and even frug'ed as Liza Minnelli in The Boy from Oz.
Block has now traded in her girl drag to play the pants off the title role in Rupert Holmes' Tony Award-winning musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which opened Nov. 13 in a celebrated revival at Studio 54.
The musical — which allows audiences to vote on the ending of Charles Dickens' final, unfinished tale — first debuted in 1985. The Roundabout Theatre Company produces the current revival that also boasts Chita Rivera, Will Chase, Jessie Mueller and Jim Norton.
There's a first for everything. You've had some fantastic costumes in your other Broadway outings, but it has to be fun being fitted for men's clothes to play Drood.
Stephanie J. Block: It is! The great thing about my costumes, which has never happened to me before, is I get to go to a men's tailoring shop! This is the first time for me to be in Broadway wardrobe [where] everything is tailored to a man.
For audiences unfamiliar with the musical from its 1985 debut, or its source material, they might think the actual mystery is Edwin's identity because the show is written for a woman to play the title role.
SJB: Right. What Rupert Holmes did when he wrote The Mystery of Edwin Drood is that we're music hall performers playing these characters. It takes place in 1895 in a music hall in London. And one of the great things, [in] the pantomimes they put on there, the leading boy character would always be played by a recognized cross-dresser: a wonderful female performer who is very well-known to be a male impersonator. So this isn't something that's out of the ordinary for a London audience of that time in the music hall. It would be someone that the audience would absolutely recognize. I kind of liken it to Mary Martin playing Peter Pan. We know it's a woman playing a boy, but you just go with the whole conceit and believe the story that's being told. That's what Rupert has developed, and there's never a sort of "Voilà! Look at me!" moment. The audience should just understand that there's a female under all that and then they buy into the idea that she's the romantic young male lead.
Block in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
photo by Joan Marcus
There's some big singing for the character of Edwin Drood in this show. You run the gamut from soprano to high belt. Were you excited to tackle it?
SJB: I did not know the score. I wasn't familiar with The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I had one song in my audition book and it was "Moonfall." That was my legitimate ballad. But then I really started to listen to the entire [album] and this glorious complicated score that Rupert has written. Drood's got some really great songs. Where it's pitched in my voice, and where Rupert's written the range, is definitely a female range. So even if I spoke low, every time I would sing it would go into that female range. So, it's beautiful and it lets me soar in soprano and also the belt is written in there, too.
When I spoke with Rupert he said this doesn't feel like a revival — it feels like a completely new show. I understand he created a lot of new material during rehearsals and finessed moments for the talent of specific cast members.
SJB: He did. It is brand-new stuff, things were being written every single day because there are so many opportunities for so many different endings. Rupert has written completely new scenes for the murderers, who Detective Datchery is, and especially for the lovers. The comedy that he is finding and expressing this time around is great and I think the audience is gonna be raucous and laughing with us every step of the way.
Was Dickens' famously unfinished novel helpful to you?
SJB: I was actually told to stay away from the book. Although we are telling the Dickensian story of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," the flavor is so different since we're music hall performers playing these characters. So, I've read a couple of chapters, but I've got to tell you, that it's great to know information-wise, but the tone is so completely different that I put the book away and said, "Let's create something that's ours as opposed to this sort of Charles Dickens' very dark and heavy story that he wrote."