SARAH ROTKER: Sometime last fall, the music director (Jonathan Tesssero) and I were having dinner at my apartment, and having our usual debate over what to select as the soundtrack for our meal (suffice it to say I have a fairly unorthodox iTunes library for a musical theatre nerd). While I was busy tending to the Stroganoff, Jon walked over to the computer with a mischievous gleam in his eye and put on Titanic. It took about three seconds of music for the gears to start turning, and me to fast-forward through the show in my head. I think I sent a message to Julie Blutstein (the New York Society for Ethical Culture’s Director of Development and Communications) that night with three words: “We’re doing Titanic.”
Julie and I have been friends for many years, and after she started working at the Society, I kept hearing more about it. They do fantastic work, with educational programming, social opportunities, and a women’s shelter. I wanted to help in whatever way I could, and after talking with Julie, we decided that these evenings of theatre would be the right way for me to contribute.
Last year, we presented Jekyll & Hyde (starring Robert Petkoff, who joins us again for Titanic as the ship’s architect, Thomas Andrews) as our first benefit for NYSEC. The story deals with some really interesting and complex issues - everything from the duality of human nature, to experimental drug treatment. It was a great opportunity for us to really focus on those issues with our production, and the concert environment really allows that to happen.
Titanic is a really wonderful piece for so many reasons, but one of my favorite elements of the piece is its balance. These stories are so powerful, the people so interesting. Yeston’s score is absolutely stunning and so engaging. Yet through every time listening to this piece, not once has it felt uneven. It's a wonderfully complementary work, and that, to me, is what gives it its true power - the use of balance in the artistic work to highlight the lack thereof in life. That was a huge part of my decision to do this piece. As that dinner with Jon went on and we heard Maury Yeston’s glorious score tell us about so many different kinds of people – their past triumphs or tragedies, their hopes and dreams for the future – it became clear that Titanic was a perfect choice for this venue and cause.
JOSH WELLMAN: When I learned through a mutual friend that Sarah was producing Titanic in concert, I knew that I just had to find some way to be involved. I really want to learn producing, and this offered an excellent opportunity to start exploring what I hope will be the next phase of my career. But more than that, this ship, these people, and these stories have been a part of me for nearly a quarter of a century (and, at my age, I can't say that about much of anything!).
When I was six years old, a dear family friend and one of my favorite grown-ups took me on an excursion to Toys“R”Us in Akron, OH (where I'm from originally). I was obsessed with all things nautical, and as we walked through the early winter chill on our way back to the car, she became the first person in the world to say the name “Titanic” to me. The ship had been discovered by the team of Dr. Robert Ballard a little over a year before, and not long after she told me the tale, I became the most annoying child in my neighborhood. I spent the next several years spouting facts and figures, timelines and anecdotes. I would force friends – and their parents – to sit and look at pictures and diagrams of the ship. I visited a Titanic museum that stood in the middle of a cornfield in rural Sidney, OH - twice - and it seemed like the most special day of my life both times. (Sadly, the logistics of running a Titanic museum in that particular location meant that the dreamer in charge eventually had to sell his collection to other, better-located museums.) My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Horvath, was also a Titanic buff, and she shared with me her books and articles from The Titanic Commutator (a quarterly journal printed by the Titanic Historical Society). My favorite librarian would import books from Cleveland’s fabled public library specifically for me, and some new, obscure Titanic surprise would await me every few weeks.
I’m not sure what fascinated me so much... early on, I was too young to appreciate the social implications of the disaster. The fact that the rich got the lifeboats and most of the poor were left to die didn’t even register as something political. Maybe it was just the image of something so grand, so powerful and so glamorous meeting such an end... I mean, I also have to admit that one of the first things that interested me was how the ladies were able to climb back out of the lifeboats in heels and evening dress (you might be gay if at six years old this is how your brain works). But ultimately, I think I sensed even then, as new Titanic buffs all over the world realize every day, that this is a story for the ages. It is an epic tale with thousands of individual stories contained within it, and with ramifications for our society even today.
By the time I was in high school, my new obsession was musical theatre. I sang and (sort-of) danced my way through high school, and I started trying my hand at writing musicals. First came Rebecca, for which I never could have gotten the rights in a million years... then came an original that was so bad I won't even describe it in public... and then, I tried my hand at Titanic. I never got much done, because some dudes I’d barely heard of named Maury Yeston and Peter Stone announced shortly thereafter that they were going to do it on Broadway, and I realized that my teenage version probably wouldn't be able to compare (though I did have a – significantly less melodic – song called “Ship of Dreams”).
So, life happened, grad school happened (the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU), and then - reality happened. Ouch. That's when I learned that landlords are actually rather insistent upon being paid at a specific time each month, as are student loan companies... and, were we traveling on Titanic, that my ticket would have been third class. So, musical theatre retreated for me under an onslaught of temp jobs and failed attempts to fit my life into a corporate culture. Then, mercifully, along came Broadway writer/director Richard Maltby and Broadway historian Ken Bloom, and between them I was able to build a life as an assistant for people in the industry. I’ve learned a lot from them, and after several years of not writing much, I’m working on a couple of new musicals now (and collaborating on my second book with Ken).
Aside from writing, I’ve developed a desire to produce – not necessarily my own work, as I think it’s probably hard to gain enough distance to do that responsibly when other people’s money is involved. But there are maybe half-a-dozen shows that I’ve seen at music stands in the past few years that I would have rather seen on Broadway than another jukebox musical. There are so many talented writers out there now, writing beautiful music and lyrics that America should be singing along with - and no one knows because our industry keeps producing musicals that use old music and old lyrics and trying to fit them into a theatre. And sometimes that works... but I’d rather hear something new, and I know that eventually I'd like to try my hand at producing new works and worthy revivals – music written for the theatre by artists who love and have invested their lives in this form; Maury Yeston is one such artist, of course!
So, aside from being an opportunity to spend some time with a beloved childhood story that had receded into memory, this was an opportunity to begin to learn what it takes to put together a show from the production end of things. It wasn’t even a question of whether I wanted to do it or not, but rather of whether or not Sarah would let me. And I’m so glad she did... I still have a lot of learning to do and experience to gain before I'm ready to be a lead producer, but I feel like I’ve learned some excellent lessons from this experience and I’m hopeful it will lead to new opportunities to implement these lessons and gain more experience.
And, I’m not gonna lie – it’s been nice to live with this score for a few months... it’s some pretty awesome music (and thank goodness the Dodgers had the confidence and perseverance to make it happen on Broadway in the first place!).
Oh – and I guess I should mention, the show is next Monday, June 21 at 7:30 PM. We have an awesome, Broadway-caliber cast, it’s for a great cause, and tickets are still available by clicking here or by phone at (212) 352-3101 – and they’re only $15 & 20!