"Sail On, Titanic": 100 Years Later the Musical Has a Date With History

By Adam Hetrick
13 Apr 2012

Victoria Clark and Bill Buell
Photo by Joan Marcus

Yeston points out that in some ways the Titanic took with it the end of the Edwardian era and the world of privilege and rigid social class. The way the musical is structured, the same actors play the first, second and third class passengers. "Whether you lived or died depended on what you were wearing," Yeston said. This historical flashpoint also sets up man's own hubris when technological progress seeks to tame the natural world.

According to Yeston, "It is a profound warning story, and shortly after Ballard found the Titanic, the [Challenger] blew up, because of an O-Ring, and that is when it really cemented in my mind, that this is a lesson we keep on learning. The Titanic was built to save lives – the idea was that the ship would be its own lifeboat."

He continued, "Our dreams are counterbalanced by our dreams and our failures, but as tragic as it is, this is a story of a ship that carried the dreams of a whole world, and we conceived of the show in that way."

Since its lavish Broadway outing, Titanic has been staged to much simpler effect in schools, community and regional theatres across the country and throughout the world. Over 71 productions of Titanic are currently scheduled for performance this year, many of which are staged to commemorate the centennial of the ship's maiden voyage and the tragedy.

Perhaps the most poignant of these productions is currently playing Belfast, Ireland, where Titanic was built. The Belfast Operatic Company first staged Titanic in 2005 and is remounting the production for the 100th anniversary at the Grand Opera House.

Performances began April 10, the day Titanic first set sail, and the run will conclude with a special 11:40 PM curtain on April 14. The time marks the exact moment the ship struck the iceberg. It took just under three hours for the luxury liner to sink, which is almost the running-time of the musical. The cast will sing the final "Godspeed Titanic" in the early morning hours of April 15, the date of the ship's sinking.

Martin Moran
photo by Joan Marcus

"It's certainly overwhelming, it's virtually the time it took the ship to sink. It's dramatic and extraordinary," said Yeston, who will be in attendance for the performances. "One mile from the theatre is the large open meadow leading out to the water where they built the ship. The Harland and Wolff crane was still there and so was the dry dock where the ship was constructed."

The city has also just opened Titanic Belfast, a new state-of-the-art museum documenting the history of the great ship.

Yeston credits the musical's continued success in its ability to deliver audiences an emotionally compelling story that challenges their expectations of what they project will happen. But, as Stone also pointed out to Yeston, "It's one of those rare moments in history which has a beginning, middle and end."

"We start off with the Stoker coming out and kissing his girlfriend goodbye, saying, 'I'll see ya in two weeks,' as he sings, 'Fare thee well my darlin', I'll be back before a fortnight has passed.' So, the audience thinks they know the story, but from that point on, all best are off," he said.

"The reaction to what was happening to the Titanic was a perfectly human sequence of denial, followed by anger, followed by bargaining, followed by acceptance. But in every step along the way, the people are optimistic and will not accept the obvious tragedy that is befalling them, which is the essence of musical theatre. The show fights against expectation and underlines hope and dreams."