ON THE RECORD: Julie and Carol and Liza, Live; Plus a Re-Listen to Maury Yeston's Titanic

By Steven Suskin
15 Apr 2012

Cover art
As you might have noticed, the world — or at least the media — has been celebrating the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Would they be doing so if the ship hadn't sunk; would anyone, in that case, even remember the Titanic? Anyway, mention of the ship's April 15 sinking automatically brings to mind — to me at least — the Broadway musical of the same name. (There was a movie "Titanic" that same year, wasn't there? Did anyone see that??)

At any rate, I have celebrated the occasion by pulling out the original cast album of Maury Yeston's Titanic [RCA Victor 09026-68834]. It is a score that I admire and think highly of, but rarely feel compelled to revisit. Something about it seems weighty — not unlike the musical itself — in a manner that makes me less than eager to push the play button. It's almost as if I need to prepare myself to pay close attention, which rules out putting it on just for fun.

With the Titanic anniversary at hand — and with the prodding of my editor — I have duly listened to it thrice over the last day. Once as a refresher, once analytically, and once just playing through the tracks I like best. Yes, this is a score to admire. Yeston seems to have built his score on a grand scale, just as the Titanic itself was built. The opening sequence — incorporating "How Did They Build Titanic?" and "I Must Get on That Ship" — remains astounding. It is presented on the recording in a 16-minute stretch, spread across six tracks; at once bounteous, majestic and intriguing.

Does the recording live up to the opening? Did the show itself live up to it? Not quite was my opinion back in 1997, when I saw it just before and just after the opening, and so it remains. I expect that the problem derived from the overstocking of characters in the book by Peter Stone. This sort of thing works sufficiently well in a disaster movie, where you have two dozen or so faded movie stars each with a scene or two. What happened in Titanic at the Lunt, for me, was that I was instantly and earnestly involved with some of the characters: the Second Class lady created with comic flair by Victoria Clark, Brian d'Arcy James as the earnest stoker with the voice, the three Irish lasses named Kate. But I was not quite so interested in too many of the others. As the boat hit an iceberg and started to slide into the sea, I was all the more concerned with the fate of the characters I cared about — but impatient when the authors insisted on spending time with the rest.

Brian d'Arcy James in Titanic.
photo by Joan Marcus

The best of Titanic is thrilling, indeed; listening to it now after a stretch of five years, I realize that this Titanic-less time has been my loss. So much so that I have moved the album to my iPhone so I can carry it around with me. In addition to the extended opening, this prime-Yeston list includes the ever-so-lovely "Lady's Maid"; the intermingled songs for Stoker (d'Arcy James) and Radioman (Martin Moran), "The Proposal/The Night Was Alive"; the ragtime number led by Ted Sperling, "Doing the Latest Rag"; and "No Moon" ("And We Go Sailing"), a beauty from ship's lookout David Elder which was expertly intermingled with book scenes. This leads into the first act finale, featuring "Autumn" — also led by Mr. Sperling, who more customarily is found behind the baton, not in front of it. (Sperling's production of The Mikado for the Collegiate Chorale, at Carnegie Hall last week, was pure delight; when was the last time we saw a truly funny production of The Mikado? Kelli O'Hara, Jason Danieley, Christopher Fitzgerald, the above-mentioned Ms. Clark — this was indeed a night to remember, to borrow a Titanic phrase.)

Give Yeston full credit for tackling a difficult and complicated project, and for doing it so well; and to Jonathan Tunick, whose orchestrations create the image of the everpresent ocean lapping at the ship's side, serenely or dangerously as required. And to all those actors, some of whom I had over time quite forgotten were onboard. I well remember Clark, d'Arcy James, Moran, Michael Cerveris (who had a very good scene, as the architect, as his ship went down), and Judy Blazer (who seemed to be a major character whose big song — and big scene — were cut midway through previews). Listening to the album again, I find myself reacquainted with the performances of John Cunningham, Allan Corduner, Larry Keith, Alma Cuervo, Michael Mulheren, Becky Ann Baker, Don Stephenson, Jennifer Piech, Erin Hill and Theresa McCarthy.

If Titanic is languishing on your shelf, this is an apt time to refresh your acquaintance. If you don't know Titanic — and you have any interest in full-scale, dramatic Broadway musicals with soaring scores — you might want to take a maiden voyage. In a manner of speaking.

Read more about the Broadway history of Titanic in the Playbill Vault

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(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" (now available in paperback), "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)