In 1997, two versions of the Titanic story surfaced: James Cameron’s Oscar-winning epic which became one of the highest-grossing films of all time; and the Maury Yeston-Peter Stone Broadway musical, which nearly capsized on its way to opening. The latter was righted just in time to take advantage of a weak season and win five Tony Awards including Best Musical and a well-deserved Best Score for Yeston’s glorious songs. But the $10 million musical never recouped and it has long had a reputation as a “problem” musical.
Now a creative team has tried to solve it in a scaled-down production at a 240-seat theater in London. And, according to the London critics, they have largely succeeded. “The contrast between the epic nature of the story and the intimacy of the venue is superbly exploited, generating an emotional power that threatens to blast the roof off,” wrote Paul Taylor in The Independent. “From my lookout post, I’d judge that the enterprise is on a collision course with glory.”
There is a talk of a transfer from the Southwark Theatre to the West End with Broadway as an ultimate berth. These adaptations of once-epic musicals into chamber affairs are becoming something of a trend. They are fueled by the punishing costs of putting on mega-musicals and an auteur conviction that less is more. This “Titanic” was directed by Thom Southerland, a protégé of John Doyle, whose minimalist style has been on display in such Broadway revivals as “Sweeney Todd,” for which he won a Tony Award, and “Company.” These productions were not only spare but also the actors doubled as the orchestra in them. Each played an instrument.
In fact, Doyle has recently directed a scaled-down revival of “The Color Purple” at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, halving the cast size and cutting 30 minutes out of the show that opened on Broadway in 2005. There is also talk of that revival transferring to Broadway, having attracted the attention of its most celebrated booster and producer, Oprah Winfrey, who won an Oscar nomination in Steven Spielberg’s earlier film version.
Given the commercial climate, “The Color Purple” might have the better chance of becoming a hit for one reason: expectations. At its heart, Alice Walker’s 1930s tale of Celie, a poor, uneducated and abused young African-American, is a fairly intimate drama. Cutting away some of the bloat that infected both Spielberg’s movie version and the Broadway musical appears to have helped it.
On the other hand, audiences expect anything named “Titanic” to live up to its title. In Southerland’s production, the actors double, playing all three classes of passengers through swift costume and accent changes. The sets by David Woodhead are intimated, a railing here, some halyards. That was somewhat true of the original Broadway production, which opened with Yeston’s number “Ship of Dreams,” and with most of the large cast on the dock looking up at an imaginary ship represented by mooring ropes. That inspired Gerard Alessandrini to write a spoof, “Ship of Air,” for that season’s edition of “Forbidden Broadway.”
Whatever its commercial prospects — and the London run is totally sold out — I am hoping that this production does transfer, as Yeston’s songs are among the most melodic and moving ever written for the stage. The Southwark production features only six musicians in the pit, but I am told that the sound is rich and full. You needn’t wait for a transfer, however, if you want to hear the songs. One of the hottest tickets of the winter 2014 season will be the one-night-only concert version of “Titanic,” performed on February 17 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, with a 30-piece orchestra and 100-person choir. Keep your eye on that one. It too will be sold out quickly.
Photo by Annabel Vere