By Philip Hoffman
24 Jul 2012
You may have heard about the new “downsized” version of Titanic currently running at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY. It is a great production. I had the pleasure of playing Bruce Ismay in the national tour back in 1999. Christianne Tisdale was playing Caroline at the time. In this production we play Edgar and Alice Beane. But let me back up a bit ...
Those who've delved even a bit into the story of the legendary disaster know that it was not merely one big event but the consequences of many small ones that led to that iconic tragedy. When the Peter Stone/Maury Yeston Broadway production opened, it had survived numerous missteps, and just plain bad luck, that might have scuttled its own maiden voyage.
Maury Yeston claimed to feel slighted that the troubles of Spider-Man had overshadowed the dubious distinction of "most disastrous previews" previously held by Titanic. "People thought we'd never open," he said after a recent performance, as he told us tales of technical difficulties, sacrificed characters, smart but over-long book scenes and hastily written songs.
The Broadway reviews were less than stellar. (Forgive me if I don't quote them here.) And yet, the Stone/Yeston Titanic, directed by Richard Jones and choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, won five Tony Awards: for Musical, Book and Score, Scenic Design (Stewart Laing) and Orchestrations (Jonathan Tunick.) While our enduring curiosity and fascination with the big shipwreck is due in part to its scale, it is also, most importantly, about the individuals. Director Don Stephenson would say, "I keep coming back to what would I do if I were there? How would I react in those moments? We all wonder-- and we can't really be sure." (Don played Charles Clark in the original production.) "The numbers distract us from the fact that these were individuals,” he said. “They were on an intoxicating adventure. It was, until it wasn’t, The Best Day Of Their Lives."
Okay. So, Don Stephenson had this idea: Why not bring those stories and that glorious score to more people? Up-close and personal. He got together with Mr. Yeston, Kevin Stites (musical director of the original Broadway production), Liza Gennaro (choreographer) and the Hangar Theatre. They made some calls.
Kevin Stites brought in musical director Ian Weinberger and supervised Ian's beautiful reduction of the complete score (orchestrated by Mr. Tunick for an orchestra of 26) to be played by—wait for it—six dynamic musicians.
Don called friends: original cast members and others he had worked with. (And let me tell you, we were all happy to get to work with Don again.)
When the dust settled, he had Alma Cuervo, Drew McVety and William Youmans from the original cast of Titanic; Joneal Joplin, who had played Captain Smith under Don's direction in a recent MUNY Opera of St. Louis production; Christianne Tisdale, Bob Cuccioli for Thomas Andrews, and a baker's dozen of talented actors eager to bring the tale back to life. (One last-minute hitch: Bob was tapped for Spider-Man and had to bow out (hey, when Broadway calls …! ) and was replaced in our production by Tom Hewitt (who had played Andrews in Don's MUNY Opera production alongside Joneal Joplin and Bill Youmans). Now came the actual doing: No tilting stage or tri-level set at the Hangar (which seats about 350). Here a cast of 20 replaced the original 40. The budget, obviously, was NOT $10 million. And we had less than three weeks till opening.
All the pre-production—and I hear it was exhaustive—paid off. Don and his team came in and kicked ass. "In this production everybody sings everything," Don would say. In the original production the first-class characters had third-class counterparts in the "Ladies Maid" but in our production, some actors seemed to leave the stage only for a change of costume and character. Our earthy Frederick Barrett (the stoker) appeared more than once as a first-class prig. Our three Kates morphed into several other characters throughout. Our young lookout Fleet also (1) plays the lucky fellow who missed the boat at the top of the show, (2) shovels coal in the engine room, (3) entertains the passengers by dancing The Latest Rag, and (4) drinks champagne in the Grand Salon. Joneal Joplin, William Youmans and Tom Hewitt appeared only as Captain Smith, J. Bruce Ismay, and Thomas Andrews, respectively, but they were surprised to learn that they would appear onstage singing "What A Remarkable Age" and "Doing The Latest Rag" with the rest of the company. (I was somehow spared learning those numbers, though I do make a brief appearance as Mr. Boxhall in the opening number, and most of us are in “Ladies Maid.”)
The audience response has been terrific. Because of the intimacy of the space, it’s easier to relate to the personal experiences of the passengers and crew. The bigger issues that have always been part of the interesting back-story (upper-class hubris, working-class dreams, bravery, selflessness, love and cowardice) are presented at hand, rather than at arms-length in service to the spectacle.
The new orchestrations sound amazing. The story is fresh, lively, deep and stirring. There's life in the old girl yet. Sail on!