It took more than a decade for it to happen but the 1997 musical Titanic, which ran two years on Broadway without making a profit and won the Tony Award for Best Musical but mainly due to a total lack of competition (does anyone remember Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass, also nominated that year?), is finally getting some recognition, respect and even revivals.
Titanic, while not a revue, is a musical without a protagonist. Well, assuming you don’t count the ship as a character. Since everyone in the audience already knows what is going to happen to the ship (spoiler alert: it sinks), songwriter Maury Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel) and the late book-writer Peter Stone (author of 1776, perhaps the strongest book ever written for a musical) used Titanic as an opportunity to explore a cross-section of characters from different social classes and ethnicities and their backgrounds and desires.
Act One, which leads up to the iceberg crash, is considerably stronger than Act Two, in which everyone scrambles as the ship is going down. The overture introduces the majestic presence of the orchestra and the memorable motifs of Yeston’s sweeping score. It is followed by the elaborate opening number, during which the passengers stare in awe and anticipation at this mammoth, unparalleled creation. Act One also contains one of the most inventive counterpoint sequences in all of musical theater, “The Proposal/The Night Was Alive,” in which a young stoker proposes to his girlfriend at home via telegraph, while the lonely wireless operator gets lost in the wonder of his job. As he puts it, “The night was alive with a thousand voices.”
Since it shuttered on Broadway, Titanic has received just a few regional revivals. After all, how many theater companies can match the size and scope of the original Broadway staging or even come close? So that brings up the issue of whether Titanic can be scaled down without losing the power of the score. Likewise, will the storytelling be as compelling with only minimal scenery? Can you convey the boat with just a handful of life vests and a steering wheel?
Plus, to those unfamiliar with the piece, the prospect of a serious musical about a shipwreck sounds ridiculous. As it happens, Disaster!, a parody of 1970s disaster films in which a cruise ship is plagued by everything from an earthquake to killer bees, is currently an Off-Broadway hit. Titanic, not unlike Spider-Man, received bad press for technical problems during previews. Upon finally opening, it got mixed-to-negative reviews. It can also be assumed that many people think the musical is an adaptation of the juggernaut James Cameron film, which premiered while Titanic was still on Broadway and probably helped the musical run as long as it did.
Next season, producers Barry and Fran Weissler, who have made boatloads of money on the long-running Chicago revival, will bring to Broadway the intimate Southwalk Playhouse version directed by Thom Southerland. One imagines it will play Circle in the Square. In the meantime, Manhattan Concert Productions, which did a fantastic one-night concert staging of Ragtime at the New York Philharmonic last year, gave the same treatment to Titanic on Monday night, Feb. 17.
Original Broadway cast member Don Stephenson, who was simultaneously directing the scaled-down Titanic at Westchester Broadway Theatre, staged the concert, which featured many other original cast members, including Michael Cerveris, David Garrison and Brian d’Arcy James. Victoria Clark, who was to take part in the concert, was replaced at the last minute by Michele Ragusa. They were backed by a 250-member choir made up of students and a 29-piece orchestra. The lack of costumes erased the distinctions between the different social classes represented by the various characters, but that was hardly an issue for purposes of the concert. The choreography was mostly limited to standing in front of the orchestra. Digital images were projected against a white backdrop that originally represented a ticket to board the ship.
The concert, as you’d expect given the size and quality of the cast and orchestra, was a resounding success. Those who were not in attendance can watch a 15-minute video clip of the entire opening number at Theatermania.com. But come next season, when we hear just a handful of musicians playing the score, Titanic might not pack that much of a punch – at least not musically. But perhaps the revival will succeed on the strength of Stone’s expansive book. At curtain call, when Yeston took the stage for a bow, a photo of Stone was projected. It was a beautiful touch and a proper finish.
It seems like Manhattan Concert Productions is doing well with musicals of the 1990s. Perhaps next year it can present Yeston’s Grand Hotel, which has yet to be revived on Broadway, or The Secret Garden.