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Martin Moran
Martin Moran Photo by Production photo credit: Joan Marcus/Carol Rosegg

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Martin Moran: The Radio Man

First Martin Moran floated down rushing water on a homemade raft (in Big River). Then he dealt with the dangerous world of underground caves (Floyd Collins). Now he narrowly survives an epic sinking in the new Broadway musical, Titanic.

Moran explained the back-story for his character, Harold Bride: "Marconi won the Nobel Prize for Physics in the early 1900s. Several people made strides in radio communication, but Marconi was the first to prove radio could be done ship-to-shore over a long, long distance. He believed radio waves could travel up into the ionosphere and bounce off the water. Marconi kept perfecting this, so by the time my character and another real-life telegraph operator, Jack Phillips, were on the Titanic in 1912, you could send a signal over 2,000 miles at night. (It's a little less in the daytime because of the sun's radiation.)

"So the Titanic could have news in the morning tapped out like a small newspaper. You also knew every ship that was passing you on your way to or back from Europe. Bride was the computer nerd of 1912, since this was kind of the internet of that time. The sense that electricity could travel through the air was mysterious and frightening and completely amazing. It was a brand new profession, and most of the people involved were in their early 20s. They were Morse Code computer nerds and could communicate up to 50-words-per-minute." "But Phillips and Bride were heroes," Moran told Playbill On-Line. "They stayed at the key trying to call for help until the ship went down. And they were heard; the S.O.S. -- which was brand new and just being formulated -- was picked up by at least seven ships, but they were hundreds of miles away. One ship was 30 miles away but stuck in ice. The tragedy was that there was a ship with a radio within ten miles -- but the radio guy had gone to sleep and turned off the radio. Twenty minutes before, he was talking to Bride. It's very upsetting."

Continued Moran, "Rules changed massively because of what happened on the Titanic. My guy survived -- totally by chance. He was knocked over by a wave and ended up underneath an upside down boat. He swam up and stood there for hours balancing on the boat. He was born in 1890 and died in Scotland in the late 1950s. His buddy, Jack, drowned."

Moran's preparation for the role included studying back issues of the Marconi Graph, a magazine in the early part of the century. "It was the professional magazine of the telegraph operator, and it had great graphics." Moran also read the books "Titanic: End Of A Dream," and "Emperor Of The Air," the latter about the history of radio.

The real-life Jack Phillips didn't make the cut of Titanic the musical, leading to the question of size and scope, since Moran has worked in musicals both on and Off-Broadway. "The moment you get into a Broadway theatre," said Moran, "there are so many out-of-control elements. Huge unions and large scale of money. Scale is so much more enormous. Somehow in this project we've maintained a warm and collaborative atmosphere -- that's unusual for Broadway. It's easier Off Broadway, as in Floyd Collins, which had one set and students backstage helping run the show. Titanic has that spirit as well, but it's just huge. There are people you don't know in the orchestra, doing tech. We will, hopefully, know them in time, but there's 100-plus people involved every night in making the show happen.

Asked how he gets through opening nights, Moran said, "I used to have lots of superstitions, but then you walk under a ladder or mention Macbeth and your show goes fine, so you kind of lose those. You just go with the flow. Opening night needs to feel as focused and relaxed as any other night would ever be, even though there's always a self-consciousness to opening nights and press weeks. I have only one ritual -- my uncle always did it. I say an "Our Father" just before I walk onstage. I'm not necessarily very Catholic anymore, but there's still a sense of `thy will be done.'"

--By David Lefkowitz

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