The butler didn’t do it.
“I’ve given that hint away, but I’m not giving any other clues,” says Karen Azenberg, who directs “Something’s Afoot” at Pioneer Theatre Company. “Each moment is a whole lot of fun, but the ending is quite a bit of fun and a bit of a surprise that I’m certain audiences will enjoy.”
“Something’s Afoot” is at once a spoof on Agatha Christie stories, a comedy and a musical tribute to the great author, with the basic structure borrowed from her popular thriller novel “Ten Little Indians.”
“Part of the beauty of ‘Something’s Afoot’ is that if you know Agatha Christie stories, you will recognize certain things and appreciate them; but it’s not like it’s an inside secret,” she explains. “Do you like mystery novels? Do you like those thriller mystery movies? Even the television shows, like ‘Columbo,’ ‘Dragnet,’ ‘Murder, She Wrote.’ Also, if you like the board game Clue, you will enjoy this.”
The plot concerns the unseen Lord Dudley Rancour, who has invited ill-assorted characters for a “marvelous weekend in the country air,” as the first song’s lyric goes. One guest quickly turns up dead, and the pleasant outing unravels. In the dark. During a storm. When the English lake manor house becomes cut off from the mainland by a flood. It’s up to the 10 characters to solve the crime — if they can stay alive.
“The show takes all of those classic moments in whodunits and puts it out there with a wink-wink to the audience,” Azenberg says.
When authors Robert Gerlach and James McDonald begin writing “Something’s Afoot,” they were told “You can’t have a musical that’s a murder mystery. The two don’t mesh.”
“That proved to be exactly what we loved about writing the show: to mash-up a classic parlor mystery with music-hall numbers sung by a cast of stock characters — the butler, the maid, the colonel, the grand dame, the amateur detective, etc.,” the team wrote after the musical’s premiere. After successful tryouts with record audiences at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut and the American Theatre in Washington, D.C., “Something’s Afoot” opened on Broadway in 1976.
And then closed after 60 performances. The New York Times famously declared, “The audience adored the show. They were misguided,” and this dismissive review stunted an extended New York run.
"There was a period when the New York Times and certain aspects of New York theater (community) when frivolity was frowned upon. The show had to be meaningful or groundbreaking,” Azenberg says. “There was a snobbery about what could be successful. That was unfortunate, and especially for this show. It went to London, where people said, ‘It is what it is, and we can just enjoy it.’ ”
The London production ran for a healthy 232 performances a year later — critics across the Pond deemed it a hit and the show was nominated for an Olivier Award as Best Musical.
“I’ve always loved this show,” Azenberg says. “I saw it more years ago than I want to admit out loud. The show hits so many of those checklist items that the audiences in Salt Lake have said they wanted. I’ve always thought it would be fun to work on at a theater with the technical expertise to support it.”
Unlike many shows, “Something’s Afoot” requires a set with many technical elements built in, along with special effects to replicate the many elaborate booby traps and death scenes.
“George Maxwell has designed a terrific set, and it has one surprise after another," the director explains. “People may think ‘Oh, it’s a small, one-set musical,’ but the set does need to be that 11th character. And what the design and construction crews have done is phenomenal.”
Along with fusing musical theater conventions to murder mystery tropes, “Something’s Afoot” blends song styles, including 1930s English music-hall songs and other musical genres.
“The music is very catchy,” she says. “It’s not Sondheim, it’s not innovative. But each song is very evocative of a certain musical theater style of an era gone by. It completely works. Like the music, ‘Something’s Afoot’ is entertainment for entertainment’s sake.”
If you go ...
What: “Something’s Afoot”
Where: Pioneer Theatre Company
When: Sept. 20 through Oct. 5
How much: $42-$65 in advance and $5 more when purchased the day of performance
Tickets: 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org