What is it about the story of Titanic? After the media saturation of the James Cameron movie, that song that lingered near and far like a Celtic headache for months, all of the books and other movies and TV documentaries, did we really need a stage musical version? Hasn't the story been just about played-out? Judging from a stack of Tonys, including Best Musical, a successful run on Broadway and an even more successful national tour (playing in Spokane on September 6-10) Titanic -- A New Musical was a pretty good idea after all.
But like the original, it wasn't an easy voyage. When Billy Youmanns, who plays Mr. Ismay, the owner of the White Star Line, first heard about a Broadway musical about the Titanic, he thought the idea was hilarious.
"It just seemed so ridiculous," he says. "I thought it was going to be the biggest disaster in Broadway history, so I wanted to be a part of it."
He wasn't the only skeptic. During the show's early days it was troubled, to say the least. Many doubted it would get beyond previews. Even after a successful opening, its staying power was far from certain.
"It really wasn't until we won all the Tonys," says Youmanns, who was in the original company, "And when Rosie O'Donnell started promoting us on her show, I knew it was going to be a hit."
Clearly, they had found a way to make the story interesting again, and a reason for it to be a musical. "When I actually saw it, I stopped laughing," says Youmanns. "They found a way of putting the story into a musical theater format, and it's intelligently done. The music is convincing and powerful and strong. And the writing of the scenes. You don't get a better writer than Peter Stone for dramatic literature these days."
On Broadway, the $13 million production featured hydraulics to facilitate the "sinking" of the ship, a multi-level set to accentuate the class distinctions between passengers, and enough technical complexity to make it the talk of New York back in 1997. But even with all that scale, they knew they couldn't compete with the $200 million dollar movie that would soon be released. At least in terms of a literal, visual interpretation. In place of the visually dazzling reality of film, Titanic relies on the special power of the theater to convey the humanity behind the spectacle.
Titanic invokes the power of immediate human interaction, between audience and performers, to engage real sympathy with the stories being told. In place of it being a story about a mighty ship that sinks in arctic waters, the musical is about a unique time and place when ordinary people, each boarding the ship with their own dreams, share extraordinary circumstances, and display qualities of their character and their times that can speak to us today. In short, instead of being about a ship, this show was going to be about people.
"It really has all the aspects of Greek tragedy," says William Parry, who plays the key role of Captain Smith. "When I saw it in previews, I found myself so moved by it. I guess what moved me was to see those people, put into that situation, with such individual expectations of what this voyage would mean. That kind of story will always work."
Parry is a 30-year New York theater veteran. Most of that time has been in the city, working with some of the biggest names in theater, and he's toured very little. But this was a show he wanted to be a part of.
"I really am so glad I decided to do this tour," he says. As much as the show itself, the character of Captain Smith appealed to him.
"I think he's sort of a tragic figure," Parry says, "He captained for the White Star Line for 43 years -- 17 ships, new ships, in a row. He was a revered figure in the North Atlantic. At the Congressional hearings, held after the sinking, not one of his crew had anything negative to say about him. Some believe he gave in to the bullying of Ismay, owner of the White Star Line, in demands to go faster than might have been prudent. In part, that may have emerged in story and myth after the incident."
Youmanns, who plays Ismay, says, "Nothing I've ever read about Ismay makes him quite as villainous as our show, or the movie for that matter."
Still, there was an arrogance about the ship, and about its safety that does seem very much like hubris, the Greek tragic flaw of pride. And there was clearly a conflict between a businessman trying to create an advertising myth, and a captain on his last, triumphant voyage. The end result was the loss of 1,500 people. But if that story is compelling, even more compelling is the fact that so many stories were being played out at the same time. This single event embodies the lives of the very, very rich and the nearly penniless in search of a new world. It is about reliance on technology in the face of nature's power, the small errors that have huge consequences, the ways in which crisis brings out the truth of character, the extraordinary heroism of the most unlikely persons, the end of one historic period and the beginning of another and, finally, our sheer powerlessness in the face of mortality.
What makes Titanic such a great story is that, no matter how well you think you know its details, each new investigation reveals another aspect, another level, another richness in both the history and the metaphor. That's not only the stuff of great storytelling, but it's the best possible material for theater.
"It really asks the audience to go on this trip with us every night," says Parry. "I think the way it's been staged, and with the evocative music, it really takes you into that world. And by the end, I think the audience has gone through it."
Titanic - A New Musical plays at the Spokane Opera House Sept. 6-10, at 7:30 pm on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, and at 8 pm on Friday and Saturday. There will also be 2 pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets: $15-$55. Call: 325-SEAT.
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