The Titanic Diary: From Tragedy to Triumph

Special Features   The Titanic Diary: From Tragedy to Triumph
The cast of the Broadway musical Titanic has endured some unsually rough emotional seas.

David Garrison, John Cunningham and Michael Cerveris rehearse Titanic.
David Garrison, John Cunningham and Michael Cerveris rehearse Titanic. Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus

The cast of the Broadway musical Titanic has endured some unsually rough emotional seas.

The excitement of being in a major musical followed by the disappointment of cuts. The excitement of starting previews followed by unusual technical difficulties and negative word of mouth. The thrill of opening night followed by the devastation of mostly adverse reviews.

And then the Tony Award as Best Musical and sudden sellout status in the last two weeks.

Put yourself inside the emotions of the cast and crew. How have they coped?

Playbill On-Line consulted some of the folks involved, and compiled this diary.  

Wednesday, April 23, 1997

Opening night and the hosannas cascade through the theatre. What a celebration the gala party is! Everyone slaps each other on the back for a job well done.

That is until you notice, as Victoria Clark -- Titanic's Alice Beane, the second class passenger with higher aspirations -- did that the newspapers with your notices have arrived and no one is jumping up and down.

"I finally went to one of the producers and said, 'OK, just give it to me straight,'" said Clark. "He told me, 'It's not good. Most of the reviews are mixed.' I was crushed. I've been in the business long enough to know when producers tell you reviews are mixed it usually means they're bad! Producers and press people never utter the word 'Bad,'" they just say 'mixed.'"

Clark tried to carry on as before, but it was difficult.


Thursday, April 24

It was hard to resist, but Clark didn't read any of the reviews. "But when I came to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre the next day," she said, "I could tell from the mood that while the reviews might have been mixed, things were bad."

Clark said that she was skeptical about the way the musical would be received because of the title and subject matter. "As we progressed, I felt everyone was going to be in for a great surprise," she explained. "I expected the sort of headlines and stories we got after the Tonys. Because we didn't go out of town, we had some rough previews. We had to work right under the microscope of the theatre district.

"I don't know why people were surprised that we were trying to figure out the set, because the set hadn't been tried anywhere. The designers and crew had a lot less time to pull it together than the actors did."

Clark reported that a few nights before the show opened, she couldn't sleep. "I was wide awake at three and four in the morning thinking, 'This is going to hit so big.' It was the only thing to think. We'd been getting incredible audience response.

The show was pulling together even though we didn't freeze it until very shortly before the critics came. There was only one show where we didn't get any changes. We spent the majority of the two weeks in previews experimenting with the set and figure out safety concerns."

Emotions among the cast as well as the crew and creative team went from extreme elation the day before to gloom and doom the next. Forget about buying that Tribeca co-op you've yearned for so you'd have more than a closet for living space. Get your resume photos, envelopes, and labels ready to do a massive mailing. Check the bulletin board to see if the closing notice has gone up.

Allan Corduner, who has the showy role of first class steward Henry Etches, felt the reviews were a bit too harsh. "But we were an easy target -- especially our subject matter. The press was foolish. It's too easy to make fun of the Titanic. Our timing hit us hard. We suffered from opening first. The shows that followed were radically different. And not a bad bunch. Of course, I think we were the best.

"Our reviews flew in face of what the audiences seem to be thinking. From the word go, the audiences were on their feet cheering. It's a talented, very strong, experienced company, most of whom have been around for a while. You know when you're in a turkey. We never felt that. Ever. We all felt that Titanic had integrity and enormous intelligence."

John Cunningham, one of the seasoned Broadway veterans in the cast (The Sisters Rosensweig, Six Degrees of Separation, Cabaret, Zorba, Company) who plays Titanic captain E.J. Smith, said "There were some low spirits. Generally, we were surprised by the reviews. But it was what happened next that really surprised most of us. The Dodgers [lead producer, Dodger Endemol Theatricals] brought us all together onstage for a pep talk.

Among those present was composer Maury Yeston. He told the assembly, "The critics will accept the novel, but are afraid of the new. You have to remember that we're not the normal musical form. We believe in this show and you believe in it. And we will triumph."

The producers said they had a marketing plan and were certain that the Tony nominations the show would surely get on Monday, May 5 would boost boxoffice.

"But after negative reviews," Cunningham said, "it's always difficult. I don't mean that you're so fragile that you can't proceed. But the audience, not surprisingly, likes to believe they've made a good choice, too. If they're told by critics they've made a good one, the audience sense as they await the curtain is one of elation and self-congratulation. If they're told something else, it affects that night. It makes the job harder for the cast, but when you believe what you've got it's almost more fun to accept that challenge."

And accept it, the cast of Titanic did.


Sunday, June 1

The cast had just finished performing the Act I launch sequence on the Tony Awards. They were exiting into the wings as Whoopi Goldberg announced the Tony Award for Best Musical: Titanic! Pandemonium broke out among the jubilant cast. There were cheers of "We won! We won!" and much hugging and kissing.

"The feeling is sweet, sweet!" said Cunningham. "When a majority of the 763 Tony voters go through the process and choose you, believe me, the feeling is incredible. It makes it all worthwhile."

Kay Walbye, one of the musical's swings, exclaimed, "The moment was sweeter than you can possible imagine!"

Andy Taylor, who plays four roles including one of the ship's officers and one of its passengers, said "Titanic came in under a dark cloud, so this award is tremendous vindication for us since we always believed in it. We were surprised that we took such hard knocks from the critics, but the audiences have always loved the show. I can't describe the feeling to overcome all that."

Brian d'Arcy James, prominent in the show as ship stoker Frederick Barrett, said "l'm overwhelmed! My reaction? I'm overwhelmed. Overwhelmed!" He took a moment to reflect. "But I'm not entirely surprised. I didn't expect the show to win five Tonys, but I'm glad we did so well."

Clark was giddy with laughter. "No! I went berserk. I thought every musical that was nominated had a strong chance. I certainly didn't expect us to win. We were crying, jumping up and down, screaming and laughing. I couldn't have been happier if five Tonys had been put in my hands, engraved to me personally."

Corduner exclaimed, "This means we finally get the recognition we deserve. We suffered some slings and arrows, but the groundswell of opinion ever did start to shift in our favor. And the public (who saw the show) were always pleased and in our corner."


Monday, June 2

Cunningham revealed that composer Yeston received a congratulatory telegram from director Hal Prince. It read: "You are living a Frank Capra movie."

That was especially true that night, the first performance after the Tonys.

"We hadn't had a day off," said Clark. "We spent Sunday at the theatre getting into wigs and costumes, then at the Music Hall waiting for our 10:40 PM call. Of course, afterward, we partied into the wee hours. Monday it was absolutely crazy. When the lights went down, people began screaming before the music even started."

"It was fabulous, just fabulous," said Cunningham. "Elation for everybody. The audience and all of us onstage. That first show after the Tony Award was the moment of truth for all of us. We realized our faith in the show was warranted."

Reflecting on that "terrific moment," two weeks after the show's big win, Clark explained that "it really made us a family. We all felt like we made it happen. Every single one of us takes such pride in the group effort that it's been. Everyone has put a lot of heart, soul, and hard work into it."


The Calm After the Storm

And how are things now? "Just swimmingly, as we on the Titanic would say," said Cunningham. "Yes, we could say swimmingly. We've settled in and settled down. We're a hit, and now everybody knows it."

Was it a difficult journey getting from previews to opening to the big Tony win?

"There were difficult moments," reported Cunningham. "There were enormous changes! All of them good, all of them right. I've never been with anything that underwent as much sensitive, effective, and complete changing. Songs went out and new ones came in. We were coming down more toward three hours. The aim was two and a half. Richard Jones, our director, and the producers were enormously creative. Peter (Stone, book writer) had to shave material to get the desired length. They changed the ending to make it more upbeat--"

Was there ever a notion that the ship shouldn't sink?

"No," he said. "There was no way to avoid history. That ending we know. But the new ending had the emotional impact that had been missing. There was hardly a misstep during the three and a half weeks (starting March 29) of previews.

"Now we're coming down at two hours and thirty-five minutes," continued Cunningham. "In the beginning there was a slow tempo of scene changes as the crew got to know the show. After the kinks were worked out of the computer-driven machinery, things picked up."

What about the doom and gloom rumors that were rampant in the theatrical community about technical problems and canceled previews?

"There's no denying that rumors existed, but there was no basis in actual fact for them. There was problem once when our computers weren't talking to each other. The easy headline was that the ship won't sink. That never happened. We did have to stop and announce over the loudspeaker that we had to take a few minutes to fix some technical difficulties. That was once, and after previews had begun."

Cunningham has been around, seen and done some special things. So does the cast, especially the younger members, look to him as a calm voice of experience, and for advice?

"I always say, I'm the captain of the good ship!" replied Cunningham. "I tell them they're on no sinking ship. We're afloat, and we're staying afloat."

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