BUOYED. “Titanic: A New Musical” is set to drift back to Broadway next fall by way of Toronto this summer. That glorious score by Maury Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel, Phantom — no, the other Phantom), which helped the show score big during its 11-month 1997-98 original Broadway run: It won five Tonys, including Best Musical, score, orchestrations, book by the brilliant reanimator of history Peter Stone (1776).
It even won for scenic design, in spite of such highfalutin, hitting-below-the-life-belt criticism lobbed at the ship (or non-existent ship — thanks, Forbidden Broadway). The show won for every category in which it was nominated.
Sinking feelings aside about why anyone would create such a musical disaster. … People, you have no idea how riveting this work is.
As Yeston attests, it was no small challenge to create a show in which everyone knows how things end. In 2012, ahead of the 100-year milestone since the Titanic tragedy, Yeston told Playbill: “The question was, ‘How do we get ahead of the audience?’ and Peter [Stone] had a great answer, which was, ‘The people on stage don’t know.’ So this show really begins with a secret that the audience knows that the stage doesn’t. And, that kind of tension is one of the best kind of things you can do in theatre.”
Yeston also knew that the story of Titanic is one of the greatest cautionary tales of the 20th century.
“It is a profound warning story,” he told Playbill, “and shortly after Ballard found the Titanic, the [Challenger] blew up, because of an O-Ring, and that is when it really cemented in my mind, that this is a lesson we keep on learning. The Titanic was built to save lives — the idea was that the ship would be its own lifeboat.”
As 9/11 was a wake-up call for Americans’ tenuous invulnerability, the Titanic disaster drew a dividing line smack-dab through history. They were all fooling themselves thinking they could do the unsinkable. Yet that thirst for taking on seemingly impossible challenges, striving for bigger and better, wanting to turn lowly lives into superlatives — that is what drives humankind.
It’s also what inspires Broadway producers.
The Titanic marked the end of the Edwardian age and splashed water on the faces of the snooty moneyed folk. The ship was a metaphor for a stratified society, with immigrants stowed like cargo and the upper crust dining on delicacies with the finest linen and china and taking in a free-flowing air of privilege.
Yet the blooming ideals among those immigrants, those hungry for a better life … it was their dreams that this “ship of dreams” floated on. Those Irish “Kates” went on to populate much of middle America; the Irish are the secret majority in this country. The Titanic’s underclass and upper-mobility middle class were on the journey of their lives, answering the call that makes any of us move forward. Compare that drive to the vanity of those elitist passengers who merely wanted to make a splash in the papers.
Make headlines they did. That’s what makes the story so irresistible. Such human miscalculation; the planets misaligned; the misfortune of even the most fortunate. The show captures it all, like a hymn to mankind, and brilliantly has ensemble members morphing from first class to second class to third class and back again, showing we’re all in the same boat, interlocked, interdependent, with little to separate these stations in life but an accident of birth, all told against the backdrop of a titanic accident of death.
One reason I am so absorbed by the characters of that era is the men, those patriarchal but custodial men seen from a distance as gallant and noble (mostly) … and the optimism that rings through the show, against an undercurrent of hopelessness.
When people first hear there is a musical about Titanic, they chortle: Depressing. While it’s certainly a tear-jerker, it focuses on unflinching hope — the fabric of every American musical. How we choose to define our lives in the face of death is something we all must face, but few quite so dramatically.
“Class” doesn’t matter when you’re talking basic survival, and no matter how cock-sure we are of things or of ourselves, one can never predict life’s twists and turns, not when it involves split-second decisions that lead to inexorable consequences — as most decisions do. The zinger, of course, that you never know when you won’t have the chance to say goodbye, so best get those things out there and said and live with no regrets, as if there’s no tomorrow, because sometimes there isn’t.
That’s all packed into this show as well as, yes, comedy and dancing! And music to die for.
My kids and I have been die-hard fans of Titanic ever since I first saw it on Broadway in March 1998 (just before it closed) and shared the soundtrack with them. Eventually we caught it on a national tour, then decided we would travel to see it wherever it played. Pipe dreams, given our lower-class funds, but we did catch a production at Media (Pa.) Theatre in 2006 — twice — and another at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Md., and most recently at Sandler Center in Virginia Beach on March 29, 2008. We even put on a little “show” of it ourselves at the last minute as a goof — a serious goof — for a benefit at the local high school. Whenever we take a road trip anywhere, Titanic must be played, LOUDLY. It has become a family tradition, comfort, indulgence.
There was even that time we ran into Michael Cerveris in the audience at Arena Stage while he was in the midst of his Sweeney Todd triumph, yet all we asked him about was Titanic. (He played the architect, Andrews.) I’ll never forget his curled eyebrow over that. I did the same thing when I stage-doored with Vicki Clark and Ted Sperling at Clark’s cabaret at The Kennedy Center … well I might have thrown in a bit of The Light in the Piazza, too. They thought I was crazy. Crazy for ‘Titanic.’
Curious why all this revival steam didn’t happen two years ago, for the 100th anniversary of the event. Kinda missed the boat, did we?
Regardless, we unsinkable fans of Titanic the musical, not the movie, will be there, at the Avery Fisher Hall on Feb. 17 for the reunion of Cerveris and the original Broadway cast doing a concert version of Titanic, and then it’s on to Toronto this summer, we hope (check the passport, kids), and then back to Broadway next fall for its storied revival / resurrection.
We must get on that ship.