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CurtainUp 's Sneak Peek at the Musical Titanic

In case anyone reading this hasn't heard, one of the biggest musical spectacles headed for Broadway chronicles the saga of the great luxury vessel the R.M.S.Titanic. This Titanic set sail from Southampton, England on April 10, 1912 with 2227 passengers and crew aboard and never completed its maiden voyage. At 11:40 p.m. on the night of April 14, the great ship struck an iceberg on her starboard bow and sank. The super luxury liner had twenty lifeboats geared to hold less than half the ship's human cargo. There were only 705 survivors. The 1522 people who perished included passengers and crew. The wreck of the Titanic has never been raised, but the story of this great disaster has been told and re-told in newspapers, magazines, and a best-selling book. . .and now, .there's the musical. The opening date is 84 years and 10 days after the crash.

On March 5th, just a day after attending a press rehearsal for Steel Pier, I trekked down to another rehearsal space, this one on Broadway and nineteenth Street, to get a handle on this epic disaster turned musical saga. Because the Titanic presentation wasn't as much of a sampler, as the one for Steel Pier,and because the show is very complex in its blending of historically and psychologically solid characters and music, it is also elusive in terms of predicting its fate in the always hit-and-miss ball game that is musical theater It certainly has a lot of the elements of mega-hits like Phantom and Les Miz. Still, based on the little I saw, I'll take the Fifth on pre-curtain predictions and instead file this sneak peek pre-report on what I saw and heard.

Will Fact or Fiction Prevail?

To put to rest the concern of some people at the internet newsgroup devoted to musical theater, the architects of this musical are not going to rewrite history--shades of the book sequel to Gone With the Wind or the musical Anna Karenina. The fellow who fretted about the possibility "that some unknown sailor saves everyone by sealing the hole with bubble gum, candlewax, and instant mashed potatoes" can breathe easy. The Titanic will sink which is not to say that with so many lives to be unfolded before us, there isn't always the possibility of some of the key players landing in one of the life boats.

The author of the Titanic story and book, Peter Stone, confirmed Newsgroup optimists who felt that people would be no more put off by gloomy themes than they had in shows like Les Miz.--or by the fact that the ending is a given. Using his triple award winning musical 1776 as an example, he declared that "people knew the Declaration was going to be signed. He also pointed to the timeliness of a show about people's lives always being subject to coincidence and nature. "Look at all the floods and other disasters all around us today." In a world where people are faced with often frightening technological advances, "I take some comfort that Nature is still in charge."

Some Cast Tidbits

I saw most of the 42 cast members who will be representing the 2200 passengers of the Titanic. Tommy fans will find Michael Cerveris on board as a first class passenger named Thomas Andrews. He'll have to go to 2nd class to sing any duets with Judith Blazer, named Caroline Neville in the show. Other Tommy favorites joining him as first class passengers will be William Youmans as John Jacob Astor and Jody Gelb as Eleanor Widener. Another 2nd class passenger, Bill Buell, plays a tourist named Edgar Beane. His wife Alice, typifies the tourists who signed on for this voyage to ogle all the first class big-money, big-name "swells." Cabaret enthusiasts will remember Victoria Clark who plays Alice for her fine star turn in A Grand Night for Singing (with Karen Ziemba, now the lead in Steel Pier. The sample scene at the rehearsal included a number in which Ms. Clark sings about how "the best people will be there" with a strong touch of Miss Adelaide--(a part she once understudied)-- to show off the less operatic shades of Maury Yeston's music and lyrics. Another Tommy grad, Clarke Thorell, is a third class passenger. The opening number I saw featured a trio of his fellow passengers, young Irish immigrants -- (Jennifer Piech, Theresa McCarthy and Erin Hill)-- for whom the Titanic meant a passage towards a better, more hopeful life.

The Star of the Show is Still Very Much the Bride Hidden Away Until the Wedding

The real star of the show is, of course, the ship that overarches everything in this Broadway opera--or, if you will, Popera, since we are talking about the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre and not The Met. And no, I didn't see it.

The boarding scene that was shown focused on the variety of people who furnish the show's human interest aspects of the show. A few renderings, the rope stretched across the rehearsal hall to suggest the ship's gang plank, the awe on the passenger's faces, the lyrics about "this ship of dreams". . .everything points to the pyrotechnical splendor to be unveiled, but just how it's all going to work remains a mystery. I do believe that the technicians will manage to sink the ship and probably with considerable technical panache.

The Yeston Sound
From the little bit of the music I heard, the overall feel is clearly more colored by operatic sweep than a sassy, jazzy showtune flavor. A crewman sings: "Forty-six thousand tons of steel, eleven stories high/ she's a great palace, floating quiet as a lullaby." The choral numbers echo the "ship of dreams" theme."

When I asked Maurie Yeston, the classically trained composer/lyricist, if he would describe his sound as operatic he said "Yes, of course. You have human beings caught up in an epic drama. Their emotions are what causes them to sing. But," he added "it's an up-to-the-minute 1997 musical sound which had to be colored by the diversity of the people and reflect their origins. That meant we had to have a rag because this was the time of 'Alexander's Ragtime Band.' That's also why we have a song by a stoker that reflects the D. H. Lawrence's midland country." When I asked if there were any show-stopping romantic numbers, Yeston mentioned a song that Isidor Straus, (Larry Keith), of the Macy's department store fortune and Ida Straus (Alma Carve) sing to each other. He was quite elderly and she refused to leave him so they went down together. "It's a very touching love song."

To my mind, it would be nice if people could hear a recording of any show's music before they go to see it. In this case, even more so since Yeston's music is the type that grabs your sensibilities gradually rather than with an instant bang.

Get In the Mood by Reading the Book

In conclusion, it wouldn't be a bad idea to re-read the seminal book about the Titanic, A Night to Remember. It's the book Peter Stone mentioned as one of his major sources and if the show's a hit may well recapture the book buying public's interest. Several paperback editions of it are available on line, and at discount: Bantam paperback, 1997. . . Buccaneer Books hard cover edition, 1991 HREF=""> Audio Cassette, 1997 ©right March 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.

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