One of the interesting bits of The Mystery of Edwin Drood in its musical form is the fact the titular characters is always played by a woman. I’m lead to believe part of this is from older theatrical traditions Holmes was pulling from, but I kind of suspect it might also have to do with the same pruning that gives Crisparkle triple duty in the show.
As with male characters, many female characters who feature in the original novel shuffle off the stage before the curtain rises. There’s Crisparkle’s mother,1 who is a very particular woman, her general order thrown into disarray on multiple occasions after the Landless twins arrive in Cloisterham. There’s Miss Twinkleton,2 the headmistress of The Nun’s House, wherein Rosa Bud resides, and likewise a particular sort.
Late in the novel (or, rather, late in that portion of it which was completed), there’s also Bazzard’s distant cousin, Mrs. Billickin. Or, later, “the Billickin.” You see, the Billickin runs a boarding house, and feels that should it be known that Billickin is a woman, then there might be no end of trouble for her, and thus refuses to sign any document with a first name or feminized title.
They’re all fun characters, but do very little for the plot that other characters don’t do better. Indeed, they seem to be there largely to provide flavor and moments of levity against the Dickensian tendency toward the dour. And they do that quite well, but when you turn the mystery into a comedy outright, and need to streamline things considerably, it’s hard to justify the characters.
Unfortunately, that leaves precious few women in a cast that still has a heaping helping of men in it. I imagine that had to play at least some part in the decision to pull some gender swapping in the casting. Voila, you have your female star without having to flop characters about.
I think it serves a few other clever purposes, as well. Firstly, Drood helps remind us that we’re watching a play within a play. She / he encourages us to step back, to think of this mystery as a construct, and a construct with which we can actively play. I think this may encourage the kind of head space that helps the voting fit in later.
And speaking of the voting, several of the choices later in the show involve the remaining female characters taking on more traditionally male roles. Having set that up early, and settled it into the audience’s head, I think, again, you’re helping to encourage your audience to think outside of its box, to engage with and make all the choices viable, which is a big part of the fun.
1. Yes, the good reverend lives at home with his mommy.[back]
2. And once again we must give great and honored thanks to Dickens for his naming conventions.[back]