The 1997 musical version of the Titanic story has finally reached London in a new chamber staging at the Southwark Playhouse. Michael Darvell meets the show’s composer and lyricist Maury Yeston.
It may be more than 100 years since the Titanic sank, losing some 1,500 lives, but the disaster still fascinates the general public, the writers of history books and the makers of popular entertainment. There have been umpteen films on the subject, the first appearing as early as 1912, the year of the worst peacetime maritime tragedy. Saved From the Titanic opened a month after the disaster, starring one of the survivors, Dorothy Gibson. Some 20 films were made over the years in France, Germany Denmark, America and Britain. Then there have been the television series, the latest being last year’s ITV four-parter by Julian (Downton Abbey) Fellowes. Another series in 12 parts called Titanic: Blood and Steel, with Derek Jacobi and Neve Campbell, was screened in Europe, US and Canada in 2012 but not in the UK.
There have also been hundreds of books and magazine articles on the disaster as well as the occasional play and musical about a subject that has for a century refused to go away. Maybe this is because we identify with the passengers on board the ship, believing that in other circumstances it could have been us or our relatives or friends who could have perished at sea. Maury Yeston and Peter Stone found the story so inspiring that it set them on the road to creating a musical show that would pay homage to the cross-section of passengers who lost their lives. They wrote the show in 1997 but it has only now reached London. I asked composer and lyricist Yeston whether he had tried to bring Titanic to London before now.
“It hasn’t been in London specifically before, but it has been done numerous times in the UK by amateur operatic companies – first in York, then twice in Liverpool, twice in Belfast, but the closest it has been to London was a production in Stevenage. The way these things tend to work is that they open on Broadway, and in this case Titanic won all five of the Tony Awards we were nominated for, including Best Score, Best Book and Best Musical. Whether transfers either happen or not are due to all kinds of reasons, the economy, the practicalities of the show, the availability of the director etc. If a show doesn’t appear in London within three or four years, often it’s a case of, well, perhaps we should wait until later. The West End, as opposed to the Off-West End, is a great commercial undertaking involving enormous expense, but that is completely unnecessary. I believe if a musical is to succeed, it should function as a radio play. You should be able to listen to it and imagine it, so your stage set can be minimalist. You then have the advantage of utilising the imagination of the audience.”
Was Yeston involved in the scaling down of the show to fit a small venue like Southwark Playhouse with just 240 seats?
“In the States, after a long period of time a show such as Titanic is licensed to large or medium-sized venues that can afford a big production involving the minimum requirement of a cast of 30 and an orchestra of, let’s say, 16, because the music is written on a symphonic scale. However, a number of years ago the original director and some of the actors were anxious to find a way of doing the show as small as possible in an ensemble. They asked me if I would grant permission to experiment with a version of of Titanic. I am not one of those controlling Broadway artists who say it must be done my way or the highway. I love to be surprised by the way other people interpret my work. Anyway they created a way of doing Titanic with only 20 actors – of which just three play single roles, the Captain, the architect and the owner of the ship. Everybody else plays multiple roles and they managed to find a magnificent way of orchestrating the score for six instruments. I know that sounds ridiculous but, being a composer myself, I know that if you have six of the right players, they can sound like a big orchestra.
“They put the show on in a small theatre in upstate New York and I went to see it and was gobsmacked. I take no credit for it because they found out how to do it with just 20 people and capture all the huge choral writing I had put into it. The orchestra was beautifully balanced – in addition to the wonderful string section, there was a keyboard, but it didn’t really act like a synthesiser, in that there was a harp sound and a harpsichord sound, and that was all. The brilliance of the orchestration was that they had used a live percussionist, so that in a small space like Southwark Playhouse with 240 seats, when you hit the timpani or hit a cymbal or even a triangle, you really do hit it. No synthesiser can create that power. So this is the orchestration we are using in London.”
As in his other shows such as Grand Hotel, Nine, a version of Phantom, Death Takes a Holiday, his ballet music for Tom Sawyer, or his concert album of Goya: A Life in Song, with Placido Domingo and Gloria Estefan, Yeston always seems to be emotionally involved with his characters. Is this how he came to write Titanic?
“I have to be involved. I have never undertaken a job if I wasn’t involved. I work from where I get my best ideas, from where my heart fastens onto something. That’s the best way if my feelings are passionate about a project. In the case of Titanic, when they found the ship on the ocean floor in 1985, I began to think about it. As the century was coming to an end, this story seems to have been one of the central myths of the 20th century. It’s a story that has been repeated again and again all over the world and I thought this show could be an extraordinary piece.
“In early 1986 the Space Shuttle blew up and that’s when I realised that we still haven’t learned the lesson of not putting our unconditional faith in the infallibility of technology. Now we really need to tell the story so that we can live and learn from it. I started writing and plotting it out and when we were in Boston working on Grand Hotel, Peter Stone came to help out with the book, and he asked me what I was working on, and when I told him about Titanic, he said let’s write it together. Now Peter had written the show 1776, and had taken an historic event, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and convinced the audience by the end of the play that they were not going to sign it! I said, Peter, you are the perfect man to write Titanic because you are somehow going to convince the audience that the ship is not going to sink or at least hope that it won’t. It was a passion for us and we kept working at it and it was a dream project for us both, and a dream that came true.”
Titanic continues at the Southwark Playhouse, London until 31 August. The production has received seven Offie-Off West End Award nominations.