Playbill Critics Circle: Your Views of Titanic, Part 3

News   Playbill Critics Circle: Your Views of Titanic, Part 3 Even after 85 years, the story of the sinking of the luxury liner Titanic has the power to fascinate. Maury Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel ) and Peter Stone (1776, The Will Rogers Follies ) have brought the storytelling power of musical theatre to the saga, with the new show, Titanic, currently in previews for an April 23 opening on Broadway.

Even after 85 years, the story of the sinking of the luxury liner Titanic has the power to fascinate. Maury Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel ) and Peter Stone (1776, The Will Rogers Follies ) have brought the storytelling power of musical theatre to the saga, with the new show, Titanic, currently in previews for an April 23 opening on Broadway.

If you have seen the show in previews, please let everyone know what the show looks, sounds and feels like. Be as specific and descriptive as possible. How well does the show express its themes? How well does it capture its milieu -- a cross-section of society confronted by disaster? How are the performances, the dancing, the design elements -- especially the innovative sets? How are the songs, and how do they compare to other Yeston works? Keep in mind that the show is currently in previews and you are the first people anywhere to see and write about this new show.

Write your comments -- long or short -- and e-mail them to Managing Editor Robert Viagas at robert_viagas@playbill.com. Comments will be posted as they come in.

Please make sure to include your town and state, and please note whether you'd like us to include your full e-mail address so you can receive responses. This is optional, of course.

Owing to the great number of responses we have created this third Titanic file. Playbill On-line thanks all those who took the time to write. Here are the latest results: From Andrew Taines (AndrewT@sprintmail.com):
Don't believe the nasty, vicious things people have said about this show. I saw the performance on 4/17 and it was very exciting. Maury Yeston's score is strong and powerful, and emotional. The technical problems which plagued the production in its early weeks have been smoothed out (although a couple of scene changes were a bit noisy) and the design aspects are very impressive without overwhelming the show the way all those dreadful British musicals from the past several years have done. Most of the costumes are quite beautiful capturing the elegance of the period, but I question some of the garish colors chosen by the designer for some of the first class characters.
It was interesting to read the other reviews here on-line and learn about the changes the production has undergone in the past few weeks. From talking to a friend who saw an early preview, I didn't get the sense that much had changed during the preview period, but the tone of the drama has changed. Scenes that he said didn't work were just fine at the performance I saw. I was sorry that Judy Blazer was so underused, but I gather her part has been cut down from what it was. Michael Cerveris gives a dynamic performance. I also enjoyed Victoria Clark; Brian d'Arcy James; and Jennifer Piech and Clarke Thorell as the Irish couple. It will be interesting to see how the Tony Nominating Committee deals with this large cast and the many worthwhile performances.
I spoke briefly to one of the producers afterwards and he confirmed that the show is set and critics will start attending performances this weekend. The audience response was very favorable. I hope the critical response will also be positive so that the show will be a rousing success and counter all the naysayers who have been trying to kill this show even before it had a chance. (4/18/97)

 

From Zander8:
I found Titanic to be a very unfortunate show that, despite some virtues, resolutely fails to come to life. The real problem is in the choice of source material-- no matter how many characters populate the stage or how many small stories are told, ultimately the show has got to be about the ship sinking. Consequently, it's impossible to really care about any of the people or their relationships with each other because we know what their fate is going to be. Thus, Titanic holds its audience at arm's length throughout and no amount of fine music by Maury Yeston or spirited efforts by the large cast can really save it. There are other problems, as well, but it's my belief that there isn't much the creators of the show can do to fix what's wrong - turning Titanic into a musical was quite simply a mistake.
I think that it's important to state what's strong about the show, considering how much negativity seems to be surrounding it. Mr. Yeston has composed a lovely stream of lush music that is, by turns, beautiful, catchy, and near-operatic. Unfortunately, this counts for much less than it should because the lyrics that accompany it are frequently disappointing and the dramatic points of the scenes are often dull and unmotivated. Still, the composer should be very proud of his contribution to this show and it's my hope that his score gets recorded (or, failing that, that his music be salvaged for another, hopefully more effective show). The cast is also not at all at fault for the musical's problems and they make the most of the material they are given (although the only performer who really makes any kind of connection with the audience is the amusing Victoria Clarke).
The rest of the production, unfortunately, is quite lackluster. For instance, the sets and the costumes should ideally be sparkling and grand for this show (considering that we're talking about the Titanic here); instead, the musical looks minimalistic and the audience is never really dazzled by any of the sights onstage. The first act finale and the sinking of the ship are particularly dispiriting-- the crashing of the ship into the iceberg is represented by a minature model of the ship gliding offstage and a loud noise being heard (truth to tell, this causes much unwanted laughter and approachs camp heaven). The conclusion is just as much of a letdown, for all the set does is tilt on an angle and then a scrim (representing water) comes up from the stage floor and rises into the flies. And, although this draws applause, it truly isn't a strong enough way to represent the vast ship going down.
Director Richard Jones surely must take some of the responsiblity for not making the show more compelling, but, then again, it's hard to say whether even a Tommy Tune-level stager could make this musical work or, at least, camoflouge the problems. Peter Stone's book is competent but disappointing, considering that he's done such strong work in the past. Still, the basic flaw of Titanic is that it probably should not have been attempted and, although there are very real problems in the execution of the material, not even the most brilliant of show writers could keep this show from sinking. (4/18/97)

 

From Marty in Englewood Cliffs:
Saw preview on Monday evening (4/14) and was pleasantly surprised and very much entertained by the piece. While many of the earlier viewers have spoken of laugh-invoking scenic effects, none of this was apparent. In fact, the show is an earnest and well-produced musical drama that is actually, at times, impressive and exciting.
With a book that features awesome climaxes at the end of each act: the crash at the end of Act I and the sinking at the end of Act II, it is inevitable that audiences might grow somewhat impatient with the preliminary scenes in each act, which introduce and develop characters, relationships, and provide a certain commentary and perspective on the three classes of passengers onboard the vessel. Despite earlier reports from preview viewers, the authors have created a series of characters we can easily follow through the unfolding events.
The show has faults: it unfortunately resorts to some predictable and tiresome, and potentially ludicrous musical comedy styles in presenting the material. For instance, the only big dance scene in the show is costumed and choregraphed, and all too reminiscent of "Me and My Girl." At times, some of the cast seems poised to do "Anything Goes!"
The book and lyrics are generally and needlessly trite - Stone and Yeston are dealing with an event of universal awareness and do not shy from staging the usual scenes with the typical character types (except Molly Brown) that we have seen in movies about the ship like "A Night to Remember". While the outcome of the show is, of course, predictable, the show only occasionally varies from the predictable in the telling of the story. Finally, as is typical with many shows - it may be that some of the music would be easily memorable after several hearings. I suspect that this is the case: the show demands a memorable "anthem" and may actually have one in the number which is reprised at the finale. (N.B. the playbill's listing of scenes and musical numbers was not consistent with the show on stage). However, the score on first hearing seems a bit bland or repetitious.
Happily - the opening scene is well crafted and clever. Very similar in style to the "Grand Hotel" opening scene, "Titanic's" opener introduces the ship and all the characters in an entertaining manner and with a seeming avalanche of melodic Yeston music. The section which has Victoria Clark commenting on the noteworthy first class passengers is probably the most humorous part of the evening. The rest of the show is never quite as good as the opening segment, although the scenes in the dining rooms, card saloon, and the "Wake-Up" and "Porthole" segements are nicely/cleverly done.
"Titanic" lives up to the legend. It is truly an event to see: the creators satisfy the audience's expectations by providing a most stylish and sometimes imaginative scenic production. Some of the effects are startling, particularly the stairwell scene in the steerage section, and the various scenes performed on incline. Incidentally, the performance seen had no apparent technical glitches. The show started on time and ended approx. 10:30 P.M. Audience paid rapt attention, little or no coughing.
This is a seriously intended piece, and the creators have obviously given the whole production great thought. Audiences will not in anyway feel cheated, and I predict that while the show may not win any awards (except for scenery, etc.) it will please a great many people and be one of very few "not to be missed" events of the season. Please do not go expecting "Carrie" or "Springtime for Hitler". (4/16/97)

 

From Eric Paddon, Athens, OH:
I have been a Titanic historian since 1978 and attended a preview on April 9. I found the show to be entertaining, but flawed. By far, the best part of the show was the opening twenty minutes, before the action shifted to onboard the ship. "In Every Age" and "There She Is" are without question the best songs in the score, and I thought the sense of majesty being conveyed about what the Titanic was came off nicely.
The problem though, is that after this terrific opening, things were never as good. The sets are much too spartan to convey the majesty implied by the beginning of the show (and people who have seen the movie version of "A Night To Remember" which scrupulously recreated the Titanic's interiors will be even less impressed) although the costumes and props are accurate.
But more important, the chief problem with the show is not the fine acting or music (whatever happens, please let their be a CD!) but the very weak book. There are simply too many characters in the whole production for the audience to identify with (I expected Peter Stone who avoided this trap in "1776" by making John Adams the main character to know better), and some such as the Second Class passengers Caroline and Charles should be cut altogether (Their song "I Give You My Hand" really brought things to a crashing halt). Also, someone should tell Stone that Fireman Frederick Barrett (who is beautifully portrayed) was not among the dead and that he should have chosen the man who really manned the wireless that night, Senior Operator Jack Phillips who was lost, as the character to be depicted and not Second Operator Harold Bride.
I also found the dialogue in between the numbers to be woefully short of wit or creativity (the character of the Major has also got to go. If his function is to generate laughs, he doesn't do it) The music carries this show too much. It almost left me feeling that this whole thing could have easily been an opera instead of a musical.
While I gather that the revised ending I saw is an improvement over the one that first preview audiences saw, I still think it comes off as much too abrupt. (4/16/97)

 

From GrifPorter:
I went to see a preview last Wednesday, and this I think is an honest assessment: The show is going to sink fast.
The problem is lack of focus and no suspense. True, we know what the outcome will be when we walk into the theatre but there are a billion characters, and you never get to focus on any of them long enough to care about their fate. What makes the TITANIC tragedy so profound is the personal effect it had on people of that era. There is nothing personal about this show.
With the exception of a few moments, the score is rambling. It is as undelineating as are the plots of the show. I can totally live with the fact that certain songs were not orchestrated at my performance. A prime example is that the opening sequence is three seperate songs - none of which were distinguishable from one another, and none of which had a melody which could be identified. Other songs had big endings that had no purpose, lyrics were often (especially in the large ensemble numbers) unintelligible, and in some cases the songs were pointless.
The book is the major fault. The first question to ask (or at least the one I learned in my Creative Writing class) is why? Why a musical about a sinking ship? This hasn't been answered. The book tells too many stories in Act One, and gives you no suspense in Act Two. For instance, after a thrilling moment, where the first class is totally annoyed at being summoned, only to see a tea cart roll backwards as the ship begins to sink, what do you think would happen next? Well, it doesn't. It simpy ends. The next scene (after a brief staircase scene, staged with a wonderfully interesting perspective) are people leaving the boat and saying goodbye. What happened to the ensuing chaos that must have happened? Why was the only mention of the third class a passing remark that the captain makes and dismisses during a "Your Fault" number? No fights, no conflicts - just a simple wave goodbye as the first class men and the entire third class simply stay to await their fate.
The performances: Most of these were good in view of the material they were given to perform. Victoria Clark was a true standout, and deserves a nomination for being the only character you truly grew any attachment to, and that was largely due to her performance. (a moment between her and her husband, played by Larry Keith, was very moving and makes them the single couple you cared about) Michael Cerveris, David Garrison, and John Cunningham make the most of their roles, as does Barrett D'arcy Jones, who also almost makes you care. Special mention must be given to Mr. Ceveris, who has special task of singing a huge overbearing song while the stage is at a 45 degree angle. There are some wonderful moments. The end of Act One, which portrays all three decks while a lone man stands in the lookout deck (this is the other moment), is probably the best thing in the show. The music is haunting and beautifully sung; the moment builds as you see each class in their setting; and the moment the iceberg is sighted you genuinely feel the tension in your gut. (It was totally ruined by a little miniature boat sailing to a collision with an unseen iceberg. That choice will live in infamy). That was a perfect example of focus; although many things were happening onstage, the focus was on this lone man who we know is about to sight his doom, much to the unsuspecting passengers around him. A wonderful moment, well done and well thought out.
If the rest of the show were as focused and as thrilling both in material and performance, this show would be tremendous and ground-breaking. As it is, it seems to be fodder for a large, expensive and functional (but not picturesque) set. And if it is about the set, then at least make it look good. (4/16/97)

 

From Jeffdee:
At 8:00 PM, on the anniversary of the sinking of The RMS Titanic, I found myself sitting in the Lunt Fontanne waiting for the entire spectacle to be recreated before my eyes. What I left the theatre with was: 1) Amazement at the collection of talent on the stage (Victoria Clark, Martin Moran, Brian D'Arcy Jones, Judith Blazer, John Cunningham, Michael Cerveris, David Garrison,.....forget it. Just look at the cast list). 2) New Broadway music the likes of which I have not heard in the 1990's. The likes of which I wish to hear more of before the 1990's are over. 3) A story that seems to be brimming with drama and opportunites for a theatrical presentation, but is, in actuality, far too large to encompass its entire scope within 2 hours and change.
A musical will live and die by its Book. In the end the audience will put up with everything you throw them as long as the Book supports it. Titanic's book, in my opinion (for whatever that is worth), is weak. And from what I gather from the preceeding "reviews", has been cut a great deal. Let me say, then, without the opportunity of seeing any of the pre changed previews, the show that I saw on the 14th, was still a firmly packed melange of life aboard a doomed ship. There was not one character that I identified with or cared about. I don't think I was given the chance. "Snipits" is the word that pops into mind.
The interesting thing about this musical is that before you have even bought the tickets, you know the end. The entire creative staff seemed very interested in creepy foreshadowing rather than trusting that the characters real lives would stand on their own. These people obviously had no idea of what was going to happen, but I felt like some characters at certain times were "playing the end". Actors giving lots of dramatic weight to lines like (the Captain) "This is my last voyage" (incredibly paraphrased), and waiting for the laugh.
This, I feel, is the director's job to take care of. If that's what he wanted, then he got it. I feel that a better approach would have been to get us so engrossed in the stories and the lives of these people that we forget where they are. And then, when they are fighting to stay alive we actually care about who gets into a life boat and who doesn't. And when an actor is given staging like "Just look at him and sing to him. Then stand there and look out at the audience and stand still and then sing out there, then stand some more." We might have a little more to fill in the blanks with. As it "stands" now I feel like I found out 1/4 of everybody's story. I would have gladly taken one whole one.
From what I gather, the show is pretty much frozen from here on in. I can definately recommend the CD when it comes out. I would never recommend that anyone NOT see a show. Reviews are fine, but one should always go see a show for oneself. A reviewer is just one person, full of opinions governed by one life of tastes, likes and dislikes.
I await my Pulitzer. . . (4/15/97)

 

From Barton1899:
To the apparently considerable number of people who do not understand what theatrical previews and try-outs were invented for, I suggest you all hustle back to the Lunt-Fontanne while tickets are still available.
Almost all of the criticisms I read in this column have vanished, including set difficulties, sound difficulties, the length (it's by far the shortest of the three new musicals I saw this weekend); the final scene has been cut and replaced by a stunning and ironic tableau and chorale; the scale model ships have been cut down to the one coup-de theatre at the Act One curtain (and by the way, scale model ships appear in museums and as movie props all over the world and are not considered "toys").
No one has remarked on the presence of a 27-piece orchestra, a magnificent asset to the production that puts to shame the wretchedly inadequate little groups being sold for $75 at "The Life" (and "Once Upon a Mattress," among others).
Maury Yeston has turned in a staggering operetta score, playing his best suit, the quasi-neo-classical sound with a few bullseyes of the period (imagine "Titanic" without the rag number! Do we all have to be as humorless and dreary as A.L. Webber?). Yeston made it clear in his debut, "Nine," that he has bigger things on his mind than a "tune" here and a "tune" there. The score is panoramic (as is the show) and bigger than the sum of its frequently virtuosic parts.
Another word to the apparently new-in-town: new numbers are always being put in and out of a previewing show up until opening, and it's a simple technical fact of the theatre that only when a number is ready on the stage can it be orchestrated, resulting in usually a one-or-two-day delay while the orchestrations are completed by a team of experts working 24 hours a day. It is usually far preferable for the production staff, and the audience, to see the new number in the show and in performance, with the rehearsal pianist covering the accompaniment, than to have an inferior number or no number doing its damage pending the new orchestration. The "Titanic" people did not invent this procedure; Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along" had numerous sections accompanied by piano at the first previews (to say nothing of just about every other show). This is especially the case when the orchestrations are being written for a large ensemble rather than for the rattle-trap outfits in some of the other pits.
The acting and singing in "Titanic" is of the highest caliber (with the single exception of some young woman running around as an incomprehensible cabin boy, the only role I would cut -- put that girl in a nice dress and forget it).
Peter Stone's book is well above his average, particularly considering the ambition of the piece, which is again panoramic rather than a linear story-driven book. He is wittier than usual, and between Yeston and Stone they have an unerringly accurate ear for not only what happens to whom (something any idiot with an encyclopedia could put on the stage) but what the significance of the events are both to the characters and to the audience. I gather from the notes in this column that many people wish there were a clear-cut Ado Annie and Will Parker couple and a romantic couple and minimal story focus with a lot of chorus wandering around in the background (you may want to check out "Steel Pier").
And now onto the least important aspect of the show, the one that has all of New York buzzing -- the set. What I saw on April 12 was a stunning design of unparallelled simplicity combined with unparallelled virtuosity. From minute one, it was clearly a suggestive set in concept. What's everyone got against drops? Especially tastefully spare drops that aren't remotely trying to parade as photorealism? Suggestive scenery, which actually is the mainstay of musical theatre since its inception, does not need to present us with every knife and fork in the dining room and every loose thread in the wallpaper -- only certain dull-witted British designers see the need to club us over the head with a stage full of eight tons of clunking, clattering JUNK (complete with a $100,000 car) to convince us Neanderthal Americans that Norma Desmond has a big house. More importantly, a non realistic, restrained and impeccable set makes the literally million-dollar hydraulics that much more stirring when they finally are called upon to literally rock the world in Act Two.
And most importantly of all, a suggestive set takes the emphasis off the busy-body fussing of the designer and throws a backdrop around the characters -- the effects are only as important as their effect on the characters and it is to them that we look for what they're seeing. I would say this whole issue is one of the great threats to the future of musical (and any) theatre -- scenic inflation where multi-million-dollar clodding literal realism creates shows as emotionally involving as the Pirates of the Caribbean (a different kind of thrill, but not for $75). "West Side Story" had maybe one fire-escape -- the other 92 were projected and painted. They didn't bring on a full-size police car at the end (or even a scale-model "toy"). "Gypsy" didn't use a real car, or a real train screeching into the station as Merman sang "Everything's Coming Up Roses" -- all drops and flats. "Nine" didn't need a real mudbath or a three-story-high Catholic church apse, and "Dreamgirls" didn't need an elaborate four-winch record-company office set with twenty-two file cabinets and trash baskets and water coolers ("Sunset," of course, had the twenty-two file cabinets -- oh, I get it, they're in an office!).
The latest is, according both to my experience the other night and from my spies, that "Titanic" is getting very solid audience response throughout, with the occasional standing ovation at the conclusion. Of course, so did "Cats," and so is "The Life," so you never know. But don't judge a book by its backdrops, and don't go to previews if you want to see the finished product or if you're even remotely nervous about your $75.00.
By the way, both "Sunset" and "Les Miz" were seriously disfunctional in tryout, involving set malfunctions that closed the shows down, lock, stock, and barrel, before or in the middle of performances. The speech from the director is standard at early previews, including the memorable one from Gower Champion before a D.C. performance of "42nd Street" in which he apologized for the missing costumes for the "Money" number -- they performed the number in rehearsal clothes while Champion's arm emerged from the wing holding a costume-design painting for the audience to see. Michael Blakemore made remarks before the LA preview of "City of Angels" (a tried, tested, and acclaimed product), and numerous performances of it were stopped in the middle to correct scenery malfunction. Likewise the 1987 revival of "Cabaret" trying out in Cleveland. These are just the few I witnessed, and I doubt they are industry anomalies.
I'm vastly looking forward to seeing the finished "Titanic" and I am recommending it heavily to everyone I know, particularly considering its lackluster competition of the moment. (4/14/97)

 

From Cheshrkat:
Saw a preview of "Titanic" on April 4. Much better than I had expected. The best thing is the upbeat tone of the first act, reminding us that it was a great, jolly social event, not just the prelude to iceberg-crunching. Some good songs, especially the opening number as the passengers and crew assemble; another on the hopes of the third-class emigrants; and a touching duet by the Strauses.
The ending, however, seemed abrupt -- the audience didn't at first seem to know that the cast was appearing for its bow, not another number -- but overall it's an enjoyable musical, though needing some tightening up. (4/14/97)

 

From William Coombes, New York, NY I saw "Titanic" for a third time last night (Friday, April 11th) after seeing the first preview and then a week after. What a difference! The show really has improved tenfold from that first night.
The first to go were the horrid "Tableau" set peices, with the exception of "The Collision" at the end of Act I which still utilizes the large scale model of the ship sailing into disaster. This effect works well, though. There are also massive song cuts and scene cuts beginning in the first act with the removal of scene 10 and thus the song "I Give You My Hand" between Charles and Caroline. This obviously was cut because the tableau "Clear Sailing" was cut and the scene change that was happening behind the drop couldn't happen anymore. This basically makes the characters of Caroline and Charles non-essential, but it tightens the first act nicely.
The second act has undergone vast changes with only the first four scenes seeming the same as the first previews. Again, the song "We'll Meet Tomorrow" sung by Charles has now been given to the company with Bride, the radio operator seeing a reprise of "The Night Was Alive." From then on out all the scenes following are completely different. "Behind Every Fortune" is gone, and the final scenes that take place in the portals of the sinking ship have been moved forward, moving the Straus's lovely duet "Still" to one of the last numbers. "Mr. Andrew's Vision" works very well now with the ship actually listing during the number with a piano and chairs falling down at him......very effective number. The ship then actually sinks. The incline grows as people struggle up to the top and then the star back drop behind them moves upward as a black drop rises from the floor infront of the "ship" giving the illusion of sinking. The closing scene on the "Carpathia" with the ship's survivors is the same, but now the "Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution" scene is gone, as is the final tableau "The Discovery." The cast simply sings "In Every Age (reprise)" and then a reprise of the opening number "Godspeed Titanic," which still is not quite the perfect ending, but with the appropriate song could be.
All in all the show has improved much and seems to be headed in the right direction. The score is the best of any of the new works I have seen, and the cast is superb. Maybe now this production won't "sink." (4/13/97)

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