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

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13 Apr 2012

Maury Yeston
Maury Yeston
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

April 15, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the iconic luxury liner off the coast of Newfoundland and Playbill.com caught up with Titanic's Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist Maury Yeston to reflect on crafting a piece of history.

As the original ad campaign for Titanic mused, the ship of dreams set sail from Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912, and in spring of 1997, she finally arrived in New York.

The massive production, with a large ensemble cast that included Michael Cerveris, Victoria Clark, Brian d'Arcy James and Martin Moran, also faced some troubled waters on its course toward opening night.

As Yeston recalled with a laugh, "Nobody could get the set to work. We lost our record for worst preview period in Broadway history when Spider-Man came along. I'm sorry for them, but boy have I been there." Despite regular reporting in the press of Titanic's choppy preview process (and its multi-tiered hydraulic set), the musical opened to strong critical notices at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, and later earned the Tony Awards for Best Book (Peter Stone), Best Score, Best Orchestrations (Jonathan Tunick), Best Scenic Design (Stewart Laing) and Best Musical.

Visit the Playbill Vault to read the Playbill from the original Broadway production and view photos from the staging.

"It's unbelievable that it's now 15 years," Yeston said looking back. "I was always fascinated by the story of the Titanic growing up. But Titanic, as you become older and you start to think about things, was one of the great myths or stories of the 20th Century that stuck in my mind. In 1985 when Robert Ballard found the Titanic, I began thinking from a historical and intellectual point of view, 'Wow, this really is one of the primary stories of the 20th century.'"

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

Yeston found a collaborator in the late Tony-winning playwright and book writer Peter Stone. "He was the perfect person to write it because he was the person who had written the show 1776 that made you believe they would not sign the Declaration of Independence," Yeston said. "So, the question was, 'How do we get ahead of the audience?' and Peter had a great answer, which was, 'The people on stage don't know.' So this show really begins with a secret that the audience knows that the stage doesn't. And, that kind of tension is one of the best kind of things you can do in theatre."

From the start, the two collaborators knew they did not want to force a fictional love story to be set against the sinking of the Titanic. Their tale would focus on the stories of actual passengers and crew on the ship. "We did not want 'The Love Boat,'" Yeston laughed.

Titanic's musical narrative is laid out in groups of three characters. The story of the ship itself is told through the architect, the owner and the captain. "For me, the architect was the 'composer'; he was the creator of the ship, the spirit of creativity and the great dream of progress. So, that would tell the story of why things happen and whose fault it may have been," Yeston stated.

The following group is a trio who were important in the witnessing of the disaster, according to Yeston, "the Stoker, who was down below and knew they were going too fast; the look-out who knew that it was too dark and you couldn't see any froth up against the icebergs; and the telegraph operator, who was witness to why ships could not come soon enough."

Finally, there are the three Kates, the Irish immigrants who carry the hopes and dreams of the third-class passengers who long for an abundant life in a new world. From there, a series of other notable figures from the era, including John Jacob Astor and Isidor and Ida Strauss, thread through the narrative.


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