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John Cunningham having his makeup applied
John Cunningham having his makeup applied Photo by Photo credit: Starla Smith

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John Cunningham -- Captain Smith

Though a ubiquitous presence in Broadway (Six Degrees Of Separation) and Off-Broadway (Sylvia, Quartermaine's Terms) plays, Titanic's John Cunningham hasn't been in many musicals lately. It's ironic that his last musical before Titanic, which is about a disaster, was the box-office disaster, Anna Karenina.

Cunningham, who has appeared in such shows as Cabaret, Company and Zorba, says the reason for his recent non-musical leanings has more to do with personal choice. "I concentrate, by reasons of my pleasures, on plays. They give me the most intense pleasure, since the actor is in total control of telling the story. It's a more absorbing experience for me. That said, Titanic is more of a community effort. The cast are 40 of the most talented, intelligent, wonderful people. I've never experienced this in a group that large, and I attribute this to director Richard Jones. He just says, `why don't you try this or try that,' and you just see it happen. I'm just amazed."

Cunningham was also convinced to take the role of Captain E.J. Smith by Titanic's score. "The music is even better than my first impression. It's just a glorious score. Jonathan Tunick has done extraordinary work in arranging it. . . I love the sound of 40 voices singing at once at one single time. You can't erase the emotional effect of the human voice." The tall, salt-and-pepper haired actor is often cast as uptight father figures or corporate types. "It's inevitable that your physical type affects how they use you in theatre," says Cunningham. "But I played Henry Ford in Camping With Henry And Tom, which was kind of a change."

Continued Cunningham, "I sometimes feel I'm a character actor trapped inside this WASP look, but one cannot fight that. Inevitably, I'm cast to type. Here, the Captain becomes the God figure. There's irony in this case, since he's the person you place complete trust in, because he looks like he knows what he's doing. It's part of our society. I look and sound like the Captain of a ship, and I think the casting is right. Part of it is how we present the idea of travel. Capt. Smith was the star of the White Star Line. People would go out of the way to travel with him, to sit at his table. Almost like a movie star."

The sea is not a stranger to Cunningham. "I'm a sailor; my wife and I moved to Rye [N.Y.] to be on the water years ago. We've had this boat for 20 years, and when we were thinking what to name it, we decided on `Hubris,' just so you remember that you're not in total control. It's a respectful awareness of the possibilities that could happen on the water. Part of what goes on in Titanic is massive hubris. As for the Captain, this was to be his last journey before retiring. Because they needed a star they convinced him, and he said, `okay, one more.' Maybe he was not quite focused on his work. If you've been 43 years at sea, and you're the number one guy, and it's your last time, and it's the biggest ship and event ever. . . you're thinking of all those ramifications. It's a very interesting series of forces at work on him -- including the owner being on board to make sure the ship moved as quickly as possible, so he could compete in the business."

Asked about early reports about the show's technical difficulties, Cunningham said, "All the hoopla in the press was the result of not being in Boston. But you can't tour a central hydraulic unit that weighs more than the ship. We were doing our homework in previews, and people said "it isn't finished." No-o-o-o-o-o, it's a preview."

As for special opening night rituals, veteran Cunningham said, "I don't believe in any of that. That makes no difference. That's all nonsense. It has nothing to do with anything, although that's just my feeling. Whatever works for you. For me, the same ritual should go into every performance that you do. In theatre you get to do it again, and again, and again. My whole pleasure is trying to get better. So my ritual is to take time with myself, review what has happened, prepare myself so that inspiration can happen to me in the moment onstage. Be prepared to be alive."

--By David Lefkowitz

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