TITANIC INTERVIEW - Peter Stone

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Peter Stone is the dean of American librettists. He's won his Tonys (1776 and others) and an Oscar (Father Goose). And there's a good reason.

Peter Stone is the dean of American librettists. He's won his Tonys (1776 and others) and an Oscar (Father Goose). And there's a good reason.

Shows like The Will Rogers Follies which had little in the way of a dramatic story, have been held together by a concept -- in that case, telling Rogers' life as a series of sequences in the Ziegfeld Follies, several editions of which starred Rogers. In Grand Hotel, the idea was that time was running out in the final days of the Weimar Republic. It gave tension to every scene.

To Titanic Stone brought a pair of concepts. One was "It's a new world out there," which gives the passengers reason to put their faith in the colossal technology of the Titanic, and to push its masters to take hubristic risks with their ship and the lives in their care.

The other concept was that since the audience knows the fate of the passengers, Stone uses that foreknowledge to sharpen the show's drama.

"The owner says 'I want this boat to create a legend,' and the audience reacts to that because they of course know just what kind of legend it will make," Stone said. "A young woman said 'I'm going to get married as soon as I get there.' And the audience reacts. A guy who missed the boat is furious: 'I've got the worst luck in the world. I've missed the biggest event of the year!'" Commentators have remarked on the outlandish nature of doing a musical about a catastrophe, to which Stone replies. "When I did 1776 I learned several things. The unlikeliness of the material is an advantage -- if you make the show good. Audiences like information. They're grateful and interested in it.

Tonight, the workability of his concepts will come to the ultimate test.

"By opening night, it's out of your hands," Stone said. "You're a helpless bystander."

Broadway opening nights have changed over the years, Stone said. With the critics coming in the final previews instead of on opening night, "the pressure and the audience are a little looser. On the other hand, you now have four or five nights to get it right."

Opening night brings in a whole different audience. "It's not a great audience," Stone said. "It's mostly friends, backers and some members of the press, and none of them reacts well. The press is silent. The backers are there with their families and they're scared to death. The staff people and lawyers have seen it before. So you've got the whole center of downstairs inhabited by people who don't react much. The actors, who are used to a strong reaction, start to think it's failing and they start to 'push.' So the performance becomes distorted."

Nevertheless, he said "the excitement of live theatre" draws him back to the institution of the opening night, and he'll be adding to the glamour factor by sitting beside stage and screen legend, Lauren Bacall.

Stone said his opening night ritual, honed over years of first nights, remains the same. Stone said he takes a carefully calibrated amount of liquid stimulant. "I drink just enough to put on a glow, but not enough to make me incoherent," he said. "I've got it pretty much down to the gram. And I applaud very loudly at everything."

-- By Robert Viagas

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