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
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
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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