Matt Wolf talks to director Thom Southerland, producer Danielle Tarento and lyricist Maury Yeston ahead of the visit of Titanic, the Musical to Salford's Lowry, the Sheffield Lyceum and the Liverpool Empire.
Early in 2005, Thom Southerland was on 42nd Street in Manhattan as a recent drama school graduate, and noticed a shop selling old theatre merchandise, including souvenir brochures.
Rummaging through, he found a programme for Titanic the Musical, which had completed an 804-performance Broadway run only six years earlier in 1999 and won Tony Awards in every category for which it was nominated, including best musical. “I remember thinking, ‘this is unreal,' he said, and scurried to Tower Records to buy the cast album.
Eight and a half years later, Southerland had teamed up with producer Danielle Tarento to bring Titanic The Musical to London’s Southwark Playhouse, in a new production that became a major success, seen in revivals around the world for much of the last decade.
Its tenth anniversary this year is being marked by a UK and Ireland tour, which ends in August, with performances at The Lowry (July 4-8), Sheffield Lyceum (July 18-22) and penultimate stop Liverpool Empire (July 24-29).
The three members of the creative team have an undimmed appetite for the audacious work - audacious because it carries quite a lot of negative baggage in trying to win an audience.
For one, let us not forget that it's about the death of 1,500 people in the icy waters of the north Atlantic - quite a downer for many theatre fans. Second, it survives on the strength of its ensemble cast, rather than on famous names over the title. And for some the clincher is the third reason: it is decidedly not the story of Rose and Jack and the fictional tale built by James Cameron for Titanic the Movie, which premiered the same year and was a billion-dollar hit – effectively swamping publicity for the stage show.
This version is the result of careful research about the actual people involved by writer Peter Stone, who died in 2003 after a long career creating stories for stage and screen.
“We tried to get across the notion that people would have a wonderful time, if they could get over the idea that they were seeing a musical about a sinking ship," said Southerland. "Audiences who went to see it really took it to heart.”
He recognises that a percentage of the audience for Titanic might arrive wanting the film, “but after the first 20 minutes or so, they’re won round by the quality of the material.”
“Truth is a better story than fiction,” says Tarento, distinguishing between Stone’s Tony-winning book and the movie. “This is the true story of the people on the Titanic, from J Bruce Ismay – the English chairman of the White Star Line, who survived the sinking, to Thomas Andrews, the naval architect of the ocean liner, who went down with the ship."
For what it’s worth, the musical runs for the same length of time – 2 hours 40 minutes – that it took the ship to sink.
As for the lack of stars, a 25-strong ensemble doubles up, or more, as required. Tarento knows the risk inherent in a narrative where “everyone is waiting for the boat to sink”, but the show sails into the audience's hearts as a "study in humanity, about being there but for the grace of God. Titanic is the star; we don’t need names.”
Southerland points to Yeston’s genius in mixing up the moods. His lyric We’ll Meet Tomorrow finds an optimism against the odds, even as the lifeboats are being readied. “I would never want to be on a ship like that,” says Southerland, “but I think we’d all like to hope that if it ever came to it, we would find the beautiful emotion shown between couples in the show.”
Tarento and Southerland are unwavering in their respect for Yeston: “I adored Maury before I met him, and I adore him even more now,” says Tarento.
Fully aware of the limitations of an Off-West End playhouse seating 230 against a capacious Broadway venue, Yeston was ready for reinvention when he reworked his Broadway hit for Southerland's initial revival.
“I knew Thom and Danielle would come up with something brilliant and allow the score to do the work – to allow the imagination of the audience to be part of the collaborative process: to create the fantasy onstage," said Yeston..
“The art of writing is rewriting,” he said of musical theatre, “and if you’re not open to that, you can’t fine-tune.”
The original economy of scale at Southwark, itself tweaked and enlarged as needed for six subsequent revivals around the world, has sustained his unbridled excitement in the show.
“I find myself very fortunate that the show I love is the show people still want to see,” says Southerland, a sentiment succinctly echoed by Yeston: “Titanic was magic then, and it still is.”
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