Titanic the Musical
Book by Peter Stone, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston
Danielle Tarento, Harmonia and Mayflower Theatre, Southampton
The Lowry, Salford
Musicals are often regarded as easy-going entertainment intended to give audiences a flash of showbiz glamour. Occasional ‘feelbad’ musicals pop up but Titanic the Musical is at a disadvantage compared to, say, Les Misérables or Miss Saigon as everyone knows the end of the story before entering the theatre.
Author Peter Stone takes a socio-political approach to the musical, setting out the ambitions and attitudes of the haves and the have-nots taking part in the maiden voyage of the Titanic. The sharp social divisions on board are offset by the possibility of change—an optimistic belief technology, as represented by the Titanic, might enable new developments in the future or that the social structure in America, where many are emigrating, will be classless. Stone highlights the villain of the piece as the chairman the White Star Line which owned the Titanic, willing to ignore safety advice to prove the value of the ship by arriving ahead of schedule or to reduce the number of lifeboats to allow greater facilities for first class passengers.
There is a strong emphasis on authenticity and communicating facts. As a result, the lyrics of the songs tend to be informative as much as poetical. One set of lyrics is little more than an inventory of the food taken on board the ship. The staging is ambitious, the opening songs merge so for the first twenty minutes or so there is no spoken dialogue—everything is sung in the style of an opera. The style of music is varied with ragtime and Celtic touches, but there is a lack of an anthem to rouse the the audience.
Regular attendees at touring musicals will be aware, to attract audiences the casts usually feature a TV star who may rely on the professionals in the ensemble to cover up their vocal shortcomings. Titanic the Musical simply employs hardcore professionals, and the result is a vocally faultless show without a single duff note or dodgy performance.
The musical falls neatly into two acts: before and after the collision with the iceberg. The first act introduces the passengers and crew and articulates their hopes and ambitions. Director Thom Southerland sets a bustling, chaotic environment, with the large cast spilling off the stage into the stalls and entering and exiting via the aisles. There is, however, an ominous atmosphere, the designer of the ship works on his plans with crew and passengers standing in the background, silently passing judgement. There are foreboding signs: the captain acknowledging he postponed retirement for the prestige of captaining the ship and any number of warnings of icebergs in the vicinity. Act two initially reflects the arrogance of the elite passengers, a sense the Titanic is too big to fail and the declaration of an emergency is going over the top.
The legend of the Titanic emphasises the courage and dignity with which those lost at sea met their fate. Titanic the Musical, accordingly, takes a restrained, rather than spectacular, approach to events. David Woodhead’s set—massive steel bulkheads held together with rivets—is imposing but static except for the floor tilting at the climax to suggest the horror of the ship starting to sink. The evacuation of the ship in act two is extremely brief. A series of mimed actions, lifting and passing cast members, culminates in them assembling in the aisles, at which point it dawns that the passengers who are going to escape have done so in a single scene.
Despite such a tragic story, there is only limited drama. The choices which led to the accident are spelt out in confrontations between the ship’s designer, captain and company chairman and are surprisingly lacking in tension. The impossibility of conveying the horror of the sinking ship in song results in a subdued conclusion. A closing song concentrates on the loving farewell of a long-married couple rather than any regrets or fear. This is very much a production in which characters maintain a stiff upper lip, chaos and panic is kept to a minimum with the occasional desperate passenger running past in the background.
The informative lyrics and detailed arguments in the script do not engage the emotions in the way a strong anthem might, so Titanic the Musical is immaculately sung but coolly impressive rather than emotionally hot.
Reviewer: David Cunningham