Yeston is sitting in his living room on West 57th Street talking about his fascination with the giant ship and its disastrous maiden voyage, a fascination that has led to the $10 million musical Titanic at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. The music and lyrics are by Yeston, the book by Peter Stone, the direction by Richard Jones.
A musical about a steamship, the world's largest, that hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on April 15, 1912, killing 1,522 of its 2,227 passengers and crew?
"It's a ripping good yarn," Yeston says, his Tony as the composer and lyricist of the award-winning 1982 musical Nine glistening over his left shoulder. "It's an extraordinary story of heroism and cowardice. And these days that's the stuff of musical theatre. We live in an age when writers and the public have a predilection for more serious subjects Les Miserables, the fall of Saigon. The story of the Titanic is full of historical figures caught in a situation likely to create unexpected transformations of character in ways that make exciting and moving theatre. And I think that's what you look for when you want to write a show."
Above all, he says, it's a tale of people: "A captain with an extraordinary reputation on his final voyage before retirement. The architect, the man who was inspired to create the ship and who is on board and has to watch his great creation sink. The owner of the ship, also on board, who is pressing the captain to go faster to try to break a speed record, because in his opinion the largest and the strongest must also be the fastest. And the common people a stoker who understands the ship is going too fast because he sees how much coal he has to shovel. The lookout, who allows us to understand why there was no visibility, no froth of water lapping up against the iceberg that would have allowed him to see it."
For Stone the story's appeal lay in its similarity to Greek drama. "It has characters with fatal flaws excessive pride, greed, accommodation and compromise," he says. "It has inevitability. It has man against nature. Social change. The end of an era. All the grand themes."
Yeston agrees. "It's a time-honored cautionary tale of pride," he says. "It's like Icarus flying too close to the sun. The builders of the Titanic wanted to create something that was unsinkable, that was going to dominate nature. And Mother Nature said, `Don't be too sure.'"
"If you challenge nature," Stone says, "you eventually have to lose. There's a line at the end of the show: `Nothing devised by man is unsinkable.' The primacy of nature is still overwhelming."
The sinking, both men say, had historical as well as human significance. "The Edwardian Age, what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age, really did go down with that ship," Yeston says. "What ended was a kind of confidence in 19th century technology, in the burgeoning human ability to dominate nature, and the ability of the upper classes to dominate and lead the lower classes. The sort of natural instinct toward privilege began to fall apart, in part because of the disproportionate loss of women and children in steerage, as opposed to the first-class passengers."
It was a strange mixture, he says, "because even with that disproportionate loss came tales of the great and selfless behavior of the wealthiest and most privileged people in the world, many of whom were on board. John Jacob Astor was on the ship, as were Benjamin Guggenheim and Ida and Isidor Straus, the founder of Macy's. And all those people literally stood aside like good Edwardians and gave their lives for the sake of others. There's the story of Mrs. Straus, which is part of the show how she got out of a lifeboat and said, `I've been with my husband for 47 years, and I'm not going to leave him now.' And the two of them went down with the ship."
Both men hasten to point out that their musical is not all grimness and tragedy. "There are extraordinary stories of survival," Yeston says. "And there are even opportunities for comedy. Act One is full of happiness and celebration. Let's not forget that until the disaster these people were having the time of their lives. They were part of the most thrilling maiden voyage in history."
For Yeston, the story of the Titanic is the story of dreams not come true. "The ship was a dream," he says, "a dream of human technology, the power of the 19th century characterized by coal, steam and steel. It also carried the dreams of the immigrants who wanted to come to America to find a better life. And then there were the dreams of the middle class, which was itself the result of the industrial revolution and was thrilled to rub elbows with the wealthiest people in the world. All those dreams hit an iceberg at the same time." Yeston and Stone have been living their own dreams for many years. Stone grew up in the movies his father, a New York schoolteacher, went to Hollywood in 1919, wrote Tom Mix silent films and became a producer. Stone has written many movies, among them Charade, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Sweet Charity and Father Goose for which he won an Academy Award for best screenplay but says that theatre has always been his first love.
"I like the theatrical process," he says, "and the artistic integrity theatre gives a writer something film doesn't do. I've always been interested in ideas that are in some way political. And historical. And mythic. Like 1776. And Titanic."
Yeston, born in Jersey City in 1945 to a musical family, knew from an early age that music would be his career. "My dad was born and raised in London and sang in British musical halls," he says. "My mother was trained in classical piano, and her father was a cantor in a synagogue. A lot of musical-theatre writers have something in common. Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill each one had a cantor in the family, a father or a grandfather. When you take a young, impressionable child and put him at age three in the middle of a synagogue, and that child sees a man in costume, dramatically raised up on a kind of stage, singing his heart out at the top of his lungs to a rapt congregation, it makes a lasting impression. I think something gets in your blood."
He started teaching himself to play the piano at age 5. "My mother gave me my first lessons when I was 6," he says. "I started writing music right away. I won my first composition award when I was 7. Then, when I was 10, I saw My Fair Lady on Broadway, and I knew right away that's what I wanted to do."