As a story, the sinking of the Titanic has it all –hopes, dreams,
courage, cowardice, greed, selfless, love – all bound up in a great
shared quest with a boffo wrap-it-all- up ending.
What it doesn’t have, of course, some 87 years after the great
ship’s demise, is the slightest shred of suspense about how the
story is going to end.
Then again, who cares? Knowing the outcomes of great epic stories only
seems to help perpetuate their legends. Such tales are warm coats we
like to try on again and again.
“ Titanic: A New Musical, “ which set sail Thursday night
for a four-week run at the 5th Avenue Theater, was altogether too impressed
with the bigness of its subject. It jumps up and down, gets in your face,
even whacks you upside the head at every turn about what a mighty endeavor
Titanic was and the disaster about to befall her.
If these epic orchestral excesses were all “Titanic” had
going for her, it would be just another reductive mega-musical pandering
after the next great emotional moment.
Instead, rather wonderfully, “Titanic’s” deck chairs
are leaded with a terrific score and an uncommon share of subtlety and
nuance. Of course, the show’s crew list is populated with cardboard
cutouts, and what Broadway musical isn’t But “Titanic” has
dozens of such cutouts, and author Peter Stone and composer Maury Yeston
have them interacting at so many levels that the story and its music
are intricately layered and complex. So “Titanic” is more
a collection of swirling ideas than just a big boat going down for the
The swells – the Astors, Stauses, Guggenheims et al – come
to Titanic with a sense of we-rule-the world- order that the ship confirms
for them. Second-classers have their dreams waiting for them on the other
end of their voyage, while those below decks are off to America with
the hope of finding their dreams.
The crew, captain, designer and owner are the devil and conscience of
the onboard world – the greedy owner pushing to go faster than
the competition, the designer fretting about the details of his creation,
the weak captain struggling to do the right thing but succumbing to the
owner’s hectoring, and the trusting crew valiantly and blindly
striving to do their jobs.
Stone and Yeston have enriched the story with plenty of historical detail:
the stokers below decks wonder “what the boys from the Midlands
are doing here”: the designer realizes the design flaw in his ship
and quickly finds a paper solution (what? For the next time?); the resident
onboard gossip makes sure we know her well-bred shipmates are.
The show’s multilevel stage design on Broadway was sleek but complex,
requiring an expensive hydraulics system and much room. This touring
version simplifies considerably, for the most part holding on to the
clean look but losing a bit of the show’s elegantly modular feel.
Yeston’s music is a terrific throwback to traditional Broadway.
Its stirring tunes are eminently hummable and they skillfully set the
mood and underlying tone, shaping the interactions of both characters
Yeston often writes asymmetrically, leaving an obvious line unfinished
or delayed. He’s also good at that Sondheim trick of making phrases
turn around on themselves, starting as one thing and ending up as something
altogether different. It’s very sophisticated writing. For good
measure there’s also an expansively Gilbert and Sullivan-like patter
song, as well as a somewhat less successful ragtime (the style that was
the rage at the time).
“Titanic” is an ensemble show; no real stars, and the cast
is, for the most part, filled with serviceable voices amply miked. Paul
Gallo’s clever lighting does much to make an asset of Stewart Laing’s
flat sets and stylish costumes. Director Richard Jones applies some interesting
touches, but there are a number of annoying details he leaves dangling.
Still, “Titanic: A New Musical” is a stirring, enjoyable
show, one that succeeds in telling this compelling story more thoughtfully
than any movie so far.