Playbill Critics Circle: Your Views of Titanic, Part 2

News   Playbill Critics Circle: Your Views of Titanic, Part 2
Even after 85 years, the story of the sinking of the luxury liner Titanic has the power to fascinate. Maury Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel ) and Peter Stone (1776, The Will Rogers Follies ) have brought the storytelling power of musical theatre to the saga, with the new show, Titanic, currently in previews for an April 23 opening on Broadway.

Even after 85 years, the story of the sinking of the luxury liner Titanic has the power to fascinate. Maury Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel ) and Peter Stone (1776, The Will Rogers Follies ) have brought the storytelling power of musical theatre to the saga, with the new show, Titanic, currently in previews for an April 23 opening on Broadway.

If you have seen the show in previews, please let everyone know what the show looks, sounds and feels like. Be as specific and descriptive as possible. How well does the show express its themes? How well does it capture its milieu -- a cross-section of society confronted by disaster? How are the performances, the dancing, the design elements -- especially the innovative sets? How are the songs, and how do they compare to other Yeston works? Keep in mind that the show is currently in previews and you are the first people anywhere to see and write about this new show.

Write your comments -- long or short -- and e-mail them to Managing Editor Robert Viagas at Comments will be posted as they come in.

Please make sure to include your town and state, and please note whether you'd like us to include your full e-mail address so you can receive responses. This is optional, of course.

Owing to the great number of responses we have created this second Titanic file. Playbill On-line thanks all those who took the time to write. Here are more of the results: From Peter Rinaldi ( New York City:
I saw the show on April 12th evening performance and was anticipating a disaster. What i found was a big Broadway hit in the making. From the sensational opening number to the finale I and the rest of the people I was with were enthralled by this production. I suggest everyone who saw this show in its first previews go back for a second look.
The staging, set, music and acting were all suberb. The creators of this show should be applauded for their hard work in trying to make this show work. They are suceeding and I think they will have a major hit on their hands. It has been quite a time since a musical had such a strong book. The story is the main attracion here and the book, music and lyrics all add to the story that unfolds. The performances are all strong and the staging and sets are wonderful. How they portray the ship as it is sinking is worth the price of admission alone. The show ran smoothly and we were out of the theatre by 10:35pm.
Congratulations to all the creators, cast and crew of this production.I hope this Titanic sails ahead for a long run. (4/13/97)


From Naoko Suzuki:
I was very much looking forward to see "Titanic" on my spring break. However it turned out the worst show among the other four new opening musicals I saw. (The Life, Steel Pier, Jekelly and Hyde, and Play On!) I read people's opinions and agree with them. I just hope they will make a lot of changes to make it better. I saw it on Tuesday 4/8.
They need to eliminate the toy ship scenes for sure. I don't think they were necessary at all. They only made some audiences laugh and I did not want hear them laugh at all. The set can be better, especially those plain cardboard looking walls. However, there were some interesting moments such as third class passengers looking down the bottom of the ship. It took me a while to see what was going on, but it was something new. When Mr. Andrew was singing at the end, I thought the piano was going to hit him. That scene was very exciting. I think elimination is the key. Since there are too many characters, I had a hard time following who main characters were. When one of the passenger was singing, I actually felt like I don't really care about this guy's life. There were just too many people. They need to pick a few important people and focus on them more.
I really hope that they would make many changes to make a show live longer on Broadway and not disappoint us. (4/13/97)


From Kenneth C. Sherman:
I saw the Saturday evening April 12, 1997 performance. I am not going to analyze the show ad nauseum or pick it apart many others have. The bottom-line is that it is an entertaining evening of theatre and is ambitious in scale and scope. Haunting music, wonderful performances, a fully operating set, and loud applause from an enthusiastic audience. Many scenes still linger in my mind. Wish I could say the same for Steel Pier which I had seen the week before. (4/13/97)


From HurHugo ( Miramar, FL:
The first sign of icebergs dead ahead was when I checked at the box office to make sure that evening's preview (#7) was scheduled to go on. A mimeographed sign requested some seat holders in rows Q and T in the orchestra to see the house manager. Since the specified seats included ours, I inquired at the box office for the reason. "The director needs to use those seats," was the reply. "You'll be re-seated in a comparable location...which tonight is row K center."
Pleased with the upgrade, we took our seats in row K. Why, I wondered, did the director want seats relatively far from the stage-- rows Q and T?b The answer was soon obvious. Once "Titanic" started and the poor quality of the show became all too evident, it was clear that the director chose those seats in order to be far enough away to avoid getting drawn in by the suction when "Titanic: The Musical" sinks.
Too bad, because "Titanic" has some potential. After the extended opening number, where the ship's passengers and crew gather in excitement about boarding the huge vessel, I thought that despite the ominous reports from the first preview, maybe the show had a chance after all. The music and singing was stirring, especially the segments featuring the full chorus, and could be heard with full clarity, a pleasant surprise given some of the earlier complaints about muddled sound.
From there, "Titanic" began its descent, and unless drastic revisions are made, it will plunge into the icy waters of Broadway sharks, poised with sharpened reviews, deadlier than any iceberg. Dramas about the Titanic have always depended on being able to place oneself somewhere on that ship, identifying with one or more of the characters or even with the mass of humanity and the choices they made or had made for them that night. But with the uninspiring character development in "Titanic," one ends up simply hoping that the damn ship will finally hit the iceberg so we can get on with the sinking.
Unfortunately, we have to wait until the very end of Act One for that. Act One does finish with some terrific effects -- the crow's nest dropping from the ceiling a la the chandelier in "Phantom," with lookout Frederick Fleet in it, and a stunning but too brief tableau with a model of the Titanic sailing across the ocean and colliding with iceberg. It does so with a great crash, which any novice student of the Titanic knows was not the case. There was only a minor grinding. The force of impact seemed so insignificant that many passengers were not even awakened. Desperate to inject some drama into the mostly lifeless first act, author Peter Stone might be forgiven for this, one among many other historical transgressions. But why, when the real story has no equal as drama?
No such forgiveness will be forthcoming from these quarters regarding Act Two. The creative crew guiding "Titanic" have managed to squander every bit of drama inherent in the actual sinking, one of the most compelling stories of our time, often compared to a classic Greek tragedy.
The only part of that phrase applicable to the second act of "Titanic" would be tragedy. For example, after the passengers who are to be saved leave in lifeboats, the deck seems to be free of the bothersome passengers who were left behind. Except for the four millionaires who sing the gratuitous "Behind Every Fortune" (these were four heroes who gave up the chance to escape--what is the purpose of a song where they admit to being unrepentant sinners?), those left on deck are few. Over 1500 died in the sinking; couldn't their numbers be approximated by re-costuming cast members who'd fled in lifeboats? The deck of the sinking Titanic looks deserted, and thus absurd. What about the ship's band that played heroically right up until the final moments? A natural for a musical about the Titanic, they would surely have added pathos for the soon-to-be victims (themselves included), but they're not even mentioned.
"Titanic" also resorts to the cliche of making White Star Line shipping line magnate Bruce Ismay the cardboard villain, pestering Captain Smith to operate the new ship at ever-faster speed through waters Smith had been warned contained icebergs. There is little evidence Ismay did this. Captain Smith was ultimately responsible for Titanic's course and speed; he is the true tragic figure, not Ismay, who simply entered a lifeboat when he saw a space (the lifeboats had room for 400 more passengers than were saved) and lived the remainder of his life in infamy because of it. Smith went down with his ship, but "Titanic" barely explores his character; John Cunningham is wasted in the role.
By this time the audience is going down with the ship, numbed by sound alike music, trumped-up plot devices and hokey special effects, like the distress rockets, which on the real Titanic exploded with great noise and brightness, surprising the passengers. Admittedly, sinking a ship on stage is a tall order, but failing to have realistic rockets? In "Titanic" they sound like submerged sparklers.
When the Titanic finally sinks, in another underwhelming effect, suddenly we hear screams of the previously non-existent stranded passengers--or were they coming from the audience, which couldn't take any more?
The obligatory scene on the deck of the Carpathia is a throw-away, and it's followed even more inexplicably by Michael Cerveris, who had played shipbuilder Thomas Andrews now portraying Dr. Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck in 1985. Though it was a great discovery of our time, the scene proves totally incongruous with the rest of "Titanic." Suddenly the lights come up on the entire cast, and it's the curtain call! No solo bows, only one brief ensemble bow, to some of the most tepid applause I've heard at any show I've attended.
All this is not to say that there aren't some worthy elements in "Titanic." Brian D'Arcy James, David Elder and particularly Victoria Clark stand out in a cast that does its best to make both good and indifferent material shine. The sets and effects range from excellent to laughable. But the way "Titanic" has been conceived makes it a show that would seem to present insurmountable difficulties in fixing. I hope it can be fixed, because of the unlimited potential in the story and what's positive in the show now.
At full Broadway prices, it's disgraceful that the producers are presenting what amounts to, at the time I saw it (and even worse, I understand at earlier previews) little more than a run-through of a show with virtually no high, over-the-top emotional moments that the story of the Titanic cries out for. Not quite a candidate for re-naming Ken Mandelbaum's classic flop chronicle, Not Since Carrie, I would call this "Titanic," with apologies to Maury Yeston's occasionally worthy score, "Bland Hotel At Sea."
Before you buy tickets, make sure you're guaranteed seats in the lifeboats. With the shape "Titanic" is in now, you'll need them. (4/13/97)


From Acl15:
I was one of the unfortunate members of the audience, in the soon-to-be-vacant Lunt Fontanne Theater, on March 31 for the first complete performance of Titanic. To say this musical is bad is unfair to other bad musicals.
Its a bad idea that gets worse and thatis all there is to it. The score is dull, the book is boring and the characters are so one dimensional you wish they would all drown fast ! The set, is massive, ugly, overly mechanical and doesnit seem to serve the piece at all. I would much rather have seen no hydraulics, just a good musical. The direction by Richard Jones is uninspired and lifeless. Its hard to believe Maury Yeston and Peter Stone created this bomb.
Some of the cast, Michael Ceveris, Victoria Clark and especially Brian diArcy Jones try hard but to no avail. Also lost in this mess are Judy Blazer, Alma Cuervo, David Garrison, Joseph Kolinski and many other talented and soon to be unemployed actors.
It should be noted that the production is not in previews but in rehearsal. It is being rewritten daily and some of the music is without orchestrations, piano only. The top price however, is still $65.
I spotted one of the producers in the audience during intermission and was tempted to ask him if he had read the book or listened to the score before deciding to produce the show. Hey Dodgers, do us all a favor and save yourself the embarrassment of the inevitably horrid reviews, close it now. (4/10/97)


From Girodet:
Though not as disastrous as everyone had stated, Titanic is not likely to survive the icy reception it might receive from the critics. On the preview I saw on April 8th, it appears that the creative team has worked out many of the flaws previously reported. In example, the itoy boati sequence that ends Act One with the thunderous crash that was greeted with laughter from audiences in earlier previews actually received an enthusiastic applause (though bits of laughter could still be heard for those who were listening for it). Still, from beginning to end, I found myself saying iWhat were they thinking?i The story of the Titanic is as huge as the infamous ocean liner and really it has no place on the stage, let alone in musical format. Each person who sailed on the Titanic had enough of a story to fill their own two-hour musical. Instead each story is squished into two and some odd hours of twenty stories and everyone gets lost in the shuffle.
It appears that the creative team felt they had to offer this story on a grand scale and they hired plenty of cast members to accommodate. The ensemble numbers (each and every ensemble number) were intended to be larger than life and they definitely made use of the numerous voices. However, each number ended with one of those iIsnit is great how we can belt right here, all together, in perfect unisoni. Sometimes less is better and by the fifth or the sixth staggering belt, I was aching for subtly. The over abundance of characters also backfires incredibly when at the end, one could care less about any of them by the time they meet their fate. Even the most beautiful of stories in its true form, that of the plight of Isador and Ida Straus, is a complete drag here.
Mr. Yestonis music is not all that memorable with a few exceptions. I did enjoy iThe Blamei where J. Bruce Ismay, Thomas Andrews and Captain E. J. Smith all argue about whois at fault for the disaster. Don Stephenson (as Charles Clarke) tries desperately to offer a show stopping iWeill Meet Tomorrowi (again with a belt overkill) and though momentarily poignant, itis defenseless against the ridiculous backdrop. And that is the case with most of the songs, they just donit mesh with their intended moment and compassion for the characters is completely destroyed. Horrible to say, but I thought to myself at one particular moment, wouldnit the song iWeti from Steel Pier be more appropriate right here? This disappointing array of musical pieces came from the same composer who enraptured me with the beautiful iYou Are Musici and iLove Canit Happeni - and it was a painful to see his talent wasted on this. The cast worked very hard against the yawn fest this musical inspires and by the time they bowed, they looked drained and unenthusiastic as did the audience.
The bottom line is this production was sloppily put together in a very short period of time and it shows. The staging is devastatingly boring and the technical wizardry one might expect is simply not there. In fact, the only clever moment, in my opinion, is with iThe Staircasei where passengers offer a scene from a different point of view, and that moment does not even rely on any hydrogliphics. More of that kind of staging would have been welcome.
What makes me so frustrated is that this show deserves much more work than itis getting. The producers made poor decisions with this production and the first and foremost is its crying for an out-of-town tryout. With their haste to get it on stage before the Tony deadline, they have made a big mistake and it will reflect when they are most likely not recognized by the Tony committee. My immediate reaction is to close it down as soon as possible, perhaps before opening. Spend the spring and summer months at La Jolla or Old Globe, offer it to Broadway next season and give it half a chance to survive. (4/9/97)


From William Coombes:
I, too, saw the infamous preview of Titanic on Saturday night and was very excited to be part of that event. Granted, $75 was a bit much to see a dress/tech, but it was interesting and entertaining in it's own right. I also saw the show on the following Tuesday to see if any of the problems had been fixed. The answer was a mixed yes/no.
The main problem that I have with the show is the set. Yes, it is hard for any designer to tackle the sinking of a ship, but this was a poor attempt. There is a huge mix of styles that clash. We go from suggested realism with two dimensional stylized drops, to realistic, three dimensional set peices and several variations in between, including the use of scale models. These scenic devices (tableus in the program) drew laughter from the audience. It's as if someone had a vision that worked on paper but is impossible to realize on stage. Oh, and who thought of using computerized message boards?!? Kill them!!
The music is quite memorable. I did not feel this way on Saturday, but after seeing the show again I remembered more of the tunes and even find myself humming them now and then. People must take into consideration that this show has not had the benefit of a concept album. But the music is simply gorgeous with a repeated listen.
The performances are solid, and many applause go out to this hard working, listing cast. I hope that the bugs can be worked out because this show deserves a chance. (4/9/97)


From Faith L. Burwasser:
After having seen the first preview of Titanic and having talked to friends who have seen subsequent previews, I've ome to this conclusion- the show was rushed onto B'way well before it was ready. (when has anyone ever seen a show start performing on B'way without having complete orchestrations?) Which is a shame, because I don't think they have enough time left to do the amount of changes that the show requires. From what people have written, one might expect that the show was a complete waste. However, I found that there were some elements of promise, but that it just wasn't fully complete (the show was like what I'd imagine a pre-B'way workshop to be- except with bigger sets).
The changes that I think would be needed to make the show better include stremaling the plot. It's commendable that the creators tried to show the diversity of the passengers on board, but there quite simply are way too many characters to be able to develop any of them well, or for the audience to care very much about them. I'd suggest concentrating more deeply on just a few (maybe Ismay, Andrews, Barrette, Ida and Isador Strauss, Kate McGowen- and the Beanes for comic relief). As much as I like Judith Blazer, her storyline could be cut, with no great loss to the show. Some of the other characters could be kept, but as secondary figures.
Also- they could do without the discovery scene tacked on at the end- a real finale, somehow tying things together, would work better. The show right now seems to be designed so that the ship itself is the star. Especially because of the technical problems it has suffered , this is not a wise decision. The much hyped ship effects seem to be more funny than exciting. Musicals need to be about people, and only use scenery/props as a supplement to telling the story.
But, on the positive side, there were things I liked about the show. I liked how the audience had an added perspective of knowing the outcome- which made the show have a tragic feel. The opening had the proper sense of excitement (and I, as an audience member, found it bittersweet since I knew how it would turn out). And I found it interesting to see all the little decisions that led up to the tragedy. Another good approach was to show how differently people reacted in the face of tragedy- some of the characters became truly heroic (though this would be appreciated even more if there were more developed characters, as suggested above). In short, I liked the tone of the piece and the angle used to tell the story. Some of the music was also very good, though not the most memorable).
I wish there was a feasible way of putting another year (or even a few months) of work into the show. Sadly, that doesn't appear to be the case. Hopefully, the lesson learned from this show will be not to rush a show to Broadway in order to meet an artificial deadline (such as this yr's Tonys, or when a certain theatre is available, etc). Ironically, the story of the Titanic itself suggests that man shouldn't be overconfident about his creations, and he should take time to nurture them properly- but the creators of the musical must not have paid attention. (4/9/97)


From Mary Ellen Kelly ( New York, NY:
I watched Wednesday night (4/2) as the big ship went down . . .
But it's not QUITE "Carrie"; it lacks "Carrie"'s unabashedly lurid, vulgar trashiness. Instead, the whole enterprise--tasteful, serious, well meaning, scrupulously historically accurate--seemed suffused with a sort of doomed-yet-dashing, "stiff upper lip, lads!" air: appropriate to the material, true; but I imagine backstage is sharing the feeling with onstage.
I would characterize the audience reaction at the end as tepid-but-wanting-to-be-warm. (Who were they? In addition to the show disaster aficionados and NYC beat-the-critics types, I saw some mid American-touristy-looking families--mit kinder--and overheard some foreign accents.)
The theatre looked pretty full; I was in the mezzanine (yes, a REAL mezzanine) and could see all the way up to the back of the balcony; it was filled.
The show started off well; the applause for the opening number (embarkation/introduction to the characters) was strong. But there were problems apparent fairly early on: too many stories to tell and no one on stage long enough to really get to "know"--or sympathize with--a person; a purposely spare and somewhat abstract setting that at times became TOO bare-bones (a scene in the first-class dining saloon was followed by a similar scene in steerage; the table settings, chairs, and linens were identical). And the BIG problem is that Act One ends as the ship hits the berg--making Act Two one long downer . . . (We don't actually see the boat/berg bang-up; to voices over, a lit-up model sails across a shiny sea--and there's a blackout.)
. . . do I have to add that Mr. and Mrs. Strauss have a poignant number together on the sloping deck in Act Two?
. . . or that there are feisty Irish lasses (and one lad) in steerage?
There are also images and incidents borrowed from the book (and film) "A Night to Remember" (from the film: a serving trolley taking on a life of its own and sliding slowly across the now slightly tilting deck).
And, yes, in Act Two the deck DOES tilt ever upward--until it reaches an angle that I suspect is as great as they could achieve and still have people walk safely, pulling themselves "aft" and up as the ship heads for the final (unseen) plunge.
There is even an appearance by Robert Ballard at the very end (he's played by the same actor who played Titanic architect Andrews; a neatish touch), as a sort of coda. (They kinda had to do SOMETHING to avoid ending with steamer-rug wrapped widows on the deck of the Carpathia!) Ballard, describing his discovery expedition, leans over to the orchestra pit and is handed a model of Alvin--a gesture that echoes a moment at the very start of Act One, when Andrews, describing his creation, leans over and is handed a model of Titanic.
There was no laughter at Andrews' model-cradling scene -but it is perhaps NOT insignificant that titters greeted Ballard's identical moment.
They ARE "rearranging the deckchairs" here- literally as well as figuratively (the effects are still not all working)- but I think it is fixable, and I think it has a chance at a run if the critics are kind and the word of mouth is positive. EVERYONE knows the story, and there's a definite built-in emotional tug to the material, so it COULD catch on with a mass audience the way "Phantom" and "Les Miz" and "Jekyll and Hyde" have caught on.( It certainly doesn't need to run the sort of ads necessary to "position" a show: With a title like "Titanic," one word says it all.)
The music is of the forgettable-but-appropriate sort that is VERY popular with today's mass pop audience (heartfelt anthems, romantic ballads, the odd peppy ragtime or periodish waltz, a hymn meant to evoke "Eternal Father, Strong to Save,"--and a rather elegiac new tune called "Autumn.") It's never SERIOUSLY irritating, but it's never very good or moving or exciting, either. You can usually anticipate the lyrics and even, at times, the turns the tunes will take.
These are exactly the sort of songs that skaters perform to and that Miss America contestants sing. The score is more or less in the same vein as Les Miz, ALW's Phantom, J&H, and Titanic composer Maury Yeston's own Phantom--which last named has been a hit at theatres all over the country, and the album of which has been selling well. (It's on RCA, which already has contracted to record "Titanic.") This score is, in fact, very much like Yeston's score for Phantom in some respects--actually a bit better, in my estimation.
Funnily enough, I think Yeston has done again here what he did with his Phantom: Mine the same vein as someone else at the same time but not as well. Just as Yeston's own Phantom (which he started working on first without knowing of the other project) is a well-meaning but pale shadow of a really towering "other," his "Titanic" is destined to live (or die) as a shadow of the far better "Ragtime."
Both shows are set in the same period; both use ragtime elements in their scores; both tell multiple, interwoven stories; both bring real people on stage (in Titanic, ALL the characters are based on real people); both deal with the immigrant experience; both show the contrast between the heedless rich, the comfortable middle class, and the exploited working poor; both are concerned with technological progress and what effect it has on society. A list of the song titles from both scores would even show similar--if not outright parallel--names.
It's rather like that old trick opera question: "Who wrote La Boheme?"
--to which, of course, the correct answer is "Leoncavallo." (4/8/97)


From Bartlebyw:
I had the pleasure of attending the Wed, April 2 matinee of Titanic, and can only say that, despite a clumsy awkward sets and a poor ending, there is a lot that works in Titanic.
Yeston's score is breathtakingly beautiful; the main flaw is that it is not immediately exciting and grabbing, which is what the show really needs, particularly the first act. The book is never really effective until the second act- in the first act the authors spend too much time introducing too many characters. However, the end of the first act is chilling, and the evacuation scenes are truly of the few moments when I was able to forget about the inevitable conclusion. However, the show needs an ending- when I saw it, there was what I thought was goign to be the introduction to a stirring finale, and instead it was actually the ending. Also, Michael Cerveris' final song is rather weak.
The main problem with Titanic though is the abysmal set. I could not belive that I was looking at a $10 million production- the set was either stunningly beautiful, or cheap and clumsy. It was apparently designed with no thought of being easy to shift. The scene shifts took way too long when I saw it- Titanic's book is one that has to have momentum to build, and having thirty seconds between scenes impedes that flow..hoepfully these will quicken as the show previews.
The costumes (designed by the set designer) also don't always work, and the direction is at times innapropriate. I really have to wonder if Titanic might have been much better with a different creative team.
There are some problems that Titanic cannot fix, but there are many that it can. If these problems are fixed, Titanic will have the potential to be a good musical. It won't be a hit, and in this current production it won't really be one of those truly great musicals, but the score is marvelous, the cast is great, and, in a theater season with such musicals as Steel Pier, Jekyll and Hyde, and Dream, it is one of the better musicals that will play Broadway this season.
The biggest shame about Titanic is that, with that title, that subject material, and this season's particularly venomous crtics, it will not get a fair chance come opening night. (4/7/97)

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