Review: Titanic
Lunt Fontanne Theatre, NYC - 1997
Review by John Kenrick

The only show I can remember that faced this much advance contempt from the theatrical community was the legendary Carrie. A Broadway musical about the most infamous disaster in sea-faring history? Talk about a guaranteed flop! Even the hallowed New York Times took the unprecedented step of publishing an advance Sunday editorial ridiculing the show, saying that it had no chance of succeeding.

As a life-long student of the Titanic's story, I was as skeptical as anyone. What were they going to do, tap dance their way to the bottom? However, I kept warning friends that Titanic's team were experts at making musicals out of impossible ideas. Composer Maury Yeston made Fellini sing in Nine, and librettist Peter Stone made some history of his own with the book to 1776 -- it's never wise to belittle the talents of proven masters.

These master craftsmen, along with a magnificent cast, came through with a musical that overcame lukewarm reviews to set box-office records at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre and win the lion's share of the 1997 Tony Awards. All this happened months before the unrelated blockbuster movie Titanic brought renewed interest in the subject.

What explains it? Of course, the story of the liner RMS Titanic has captivated the public ever since the tragic night in 1912 when the ship struck an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic, taking over 1,500 men, women and children of every class with her. It's a horrifying moment that instantly etched itself into the communal consciousness of Western civilization. Along with an endless parade of books, articles, films and documentaries, several stage musicals have set scenes aboard the Titanic (Cavalcade, Little Me) and The Unsinkable Molly Brown was based loosely on the life of a famous Titanic survivor. Making a musical about the sinking itself was another matter entirely.

Peter Stone's book is the first key. Using the same approach he used in 1776, Stone sticks to the essential historical facts, making only the changes that were necessary to provide effective dramatic continuity. He focuses the action on a handful of passengers and crew , all of whom actually existed. The result gives a human face to this often anonymous event. In the tragedy-strewn context of history, it means little to say 1,500 died in a sinking. However, it matters tremendously that individuals like Isidor and Ida Straus or Kate Murphy died. In other dramatic versions of the Titanic story, including the smash-hit movie, we don't get to know so many real-life characters nearly as well as we do in this musical.

The next key lies in Maury Yeston's score. He invokes the period sounds of 1912, but gives them a fresh sound that is unmistakably from our end of the century. The chorales, especially "Godspeed Titanic", soar with melodic power worthy of Elgar, and echoes of Joplin ("Doing the Latest Rag") and Gilbert and Sullivan ("What a Remarkable Age This Is") pepper the score. The showstopping love song "Still" sounds as if it escaped from Victor Herbert's trunk, but its melodic construction and poetic lyric carry Maury Yeston's stylistic signature. Larry Keith and Alma Cuervo sing the song for all it's worth, creating the kind of moment musical theatre lovers live for. Anyone who wonders if the musical is a dead art form only has to experience the cheers and tears that fill the theatre when "Still" electrifies an audience.

This score is very much the work of the man who gave us Nine's haunting "In a Very Unusual Way" and Grand Hotel's irresistible "Love Can't Happen." The amazing opening sequence, set entirely to music, introduces us to more than thirty characters, gives us a shipload of Titanic statistics, and does all this with some humor and breathtaking moments of heartfelt emotion. I also found "Ladies Maid," the number where third class passengers share dreams of what they want to be in America, a far more moving expression of the immigrant experience than anything in the scores of Rags or the current Ragtime. To my mind, Titanic is Yeston's finest accomplishment to date, and I anxiously await whatever he comes up with next.

If any musical was un-stageable, this should have been it, but director Richard Jones and his design team came up with an ingenious concept that allows the audience to follow the action on several decks at once. They even take us to the crow's nest for the chilling moment when the ship has its fatal encounter with that iceberg.

As complicated as the technology for all this must be, the overall look of Titanic is sleek and simple. Rather than try to re-create a 1912 ocean liner onstage, the designers give vivid impressions: a stretch of wooden deck, the shadow of a chandelier, or a bit of railing. The only realistic, fully furnished set is the first class smoking room, and The sinking sequence late in Act Two is a triumph of hydraulics, but it is also a horrifying, painfully human theatrical moment. As the ship tilts, the people on deck slide to their deaths and ship's architect Thomas Andrews in the smoking room meets his end amid flying glassware and furniture. I still wonder how this amazing scene is re-enacted eight times a week without causing all sorts of injuries, but the effect on audiences is powerful. The physical effects do not upstage the human drama, a refreshing change from the spectacles London has been inundating us with for far too long.

The talent on stage at the Lunt-Fontanne is a reminder why casting directors Julie Hughes and Barry Moss are considered the best in the business. Only people in or near the theatrical profession would know names like Alma Cuervo (Mrs. Straus), Larry Keith (Mr. Straus) or Judith Blazer (Caroline Neville), and no one had ever heard of newcomers like Brian d'Arcy James (stoker Fred Barrett) or Martin Moran (radioman Harold Bride). True, some musical buffs would know Michael Cerveris (Thomas Andrews) from his appearance in Tommy, or David Garrison (J. Bruce Ismay) from shows like A Day In Hollywood, but by and large this is a cast of solid musical theatre pros who make every moment in this show count. The sight of them all lined up in he opening scene (and again, so poignantly in the finale) singing "Fortune's winds sing Godspeed to thee" will live in my memory.

There is no doubt in my mind that Yeston and Stone's Titanic is the finest and most important new American musical in over a decade. Three cheers to the Dodgers and their partners for the courage to produce such a show, and three more cheers for the theater-going public that has so enthusiastically embraced this unlikely hit. Sail on indeed, great ship!

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