When it first opened on Broadway in 1997, Titanic received indifferent reviews. Fortuitously, it avoided the iceberg of disaster by winning five Tony awards, including Best Musical. Admittedly, Broadway offered very little competition that season, and the $10 million production enjoyed a run of 804 performances. Nonetheless, it still lost money.
I was at its New York opening and must admit there was little, if anything, I enjoyed about it – including Maury Yeston’s score, which was consumed by the sheer scale of the production. None of the performances registered, and even the elaborate set failed to make an impact.
The same year that Titanic opened on Broadway, James Cameron’s Oscar-winning film was released. It was the fourth screen version of a night to remember (as one of them was titled), and it brought the tragic events of April 12, 1912 to its widest public yet.
In 2012, for the 100th anniversary of the sinking, a scaled-down, more intimate version of the show opened off Broadway. The following year, the enterprising Southwark Playhouse bravely mounted its own modest take on it. It was rapturously received and played to packed houses before traveling to Canada en route to New York. Unfortunately, the intended Broadway transfer never materialised.
If it’s any consolation, that same production, captained by the innovative and hugely creative Thom Southerland, sails to glory once again and is currently berthed at the Charing Cross Theatre. It doesn’t matter that it’s not its maiden voyage; second-time round it’s just as entertaining as it was three years ago and far more moving and involving that it ever was on Broadway in 1997.
Because so much has been written about the Titanic in the last 20 years, the information supplied by the show’s book writer, Peter Stone, in his skilful libretto, is hardly unfamiliar. There isn’t a fact – from a list of the food being carried aboard to the number of empty spaces remaining in some of the lifeboats – that we haven’t heard before, and will certainly hear again. The back-stories of the Titanic are perennially haunting and impervious to repetition.
Stone augments the well-documented history of the crossing by succinctly dramatising the clashes between the ship’s wilful, self-serving owner J. Bruce Ismay (David Bardsley), designer Thomas Andrews (Sion Lloyd) and captain, E.J. Smith (Philip Rahm), and for human and romantic interest incorporates couples from all three of the ship’s classes, whose backgrounds, though sketched in the broadest of brush strokes, nonetheless compel attention while at the same time making some necessary observations about the Edwardian class system and how it operated.
The score, which I underestimated on my initial hearing, now strikes me as being one of the best of the 1990s, with the rousing "Godspeed Titanic," "Ship of Dreams," "What a Remarkable Age This Is" and "The Proposal/The Night Was Alive" as the standouts.
“The largest moving object in the world,” as the ship is described, is effectively depicted by set designer David Woodhead, who uses railings and a traveling staircase to convey both the interior and exterior of the ship. The various classes – stokers, Irish immigrants, international financiers, toffs and everything in between – are embodied by a versatile cast of 20, all differentiated by the clothes Woodhead has designed for them.
There are no stars in the cast, and there doesn’t need to be. Under Southerland’s fluid and uncluttered direction, they work as a well-oiled ensemble, sing as well as they act, and successfully convey the flavour of the ship’s multi-tiered passenger list and crew. Bravo to all concerned.