Sets, Costume, Sound and Lighting Design 8-9/97
Sets and Costumes That Sinking Feeling Ship-Shape Sound

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Godspeed, Titanic

August-Sep 1997
By David Barbour, Ellen Lampert-Greaux and David Johnson

Sets and Costumes

In a Broadway season fraught with peril for producers, no show offered as many cliff-hanging thrills as the new musical Titanic. The show's title was enough to produce snickers from Broadway insiders months before the first performance. Even with its crew of experienced theatrical personnel, skeptics constantly asked, could you really make a successful musical out the greatest maritime disaster in history? What would it look like? Would there really be a sinking ship onstage?

Skepticism mounted when performances were postponed; it reached fever pitch when early previews were plagued by technical glitches, unfinished orchestrations, and a plot line that failed to engage the audience's emotions. Titanic and its many problems rapidly acquired talk-of-the-town status.

However, director Richard Jones and his team went to work. Songs and scenes were discarded; the entire second act was streamlined and restructured. The finale, an underwater tableau which baffled audiences, was discarded, in favor of a more effective closing. As the production began running more smoothly, it picked up pace and dramatic interest; the cast became more confident. Out of those messy early performances emerged a much stronger musical drama.

Then, just as Titanic, the ocean liner, crashed into that fatal iceberg, Titanic, the musical, ran into the New York critics. The notices weren't derisive, yet most reviewers expressed disappointment, faulting the book, the score, the design. When the show received relatively few Drama Desk nominations (and only one win, for Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations), failure seemed imminent.

That's when the turnaround began. When the rest of the end-of-season musicals--including Steel Pier, Jekyll and Hyde, and The Life, all drew mixed-to-negative press, Titanic began looking much better in retrospect. The show acquired a few strong partisans among the critics. Rosie O'Donnell began promoting it daily on her nationally-broadcast talk show. The Broadway community began talking about a pro-Titanic backlash.

The vindication occurred at the Tony Awards, when Titanic was named best musical (it was also cited for book, score, sets, and orchestrations). The day after the Tony broadcast, box office receipts were nearly quadruple the previous Monday's take. In spite of everything, Titanic was a hit.

Whatever one thinks of Titanic, it is unquestionably an ambitious and daring piece of work. Peter Stone's book follows a large group of characters comprising a cross-section of the boat's passengers and crew, from the boiler room to the captain's bridge. Maury Yeston's operatic score blends a number of influences, including ragtime, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Debussy, with the composer's own distinctive voice. The unusually large cast of 43 includes some of New York's best actors and singers.

Perhaps the most fascinating--certainly the most controversial--aspect of Titanic is its scenic design by Stewart Laing. The Scottish designer's only previous New York productions have been the 1993 New York Shakespeare Festival production of Alls Well That Ends Well and the stage version of Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt, produced Off Broadway in 1995. For Titanic, he has created an audacious design that fills the stage with a series of strong, arresting images--even before the whole thing begins to tilt.

There's no doubt that Laing's design (he also did the costumes) is one of the most controversial aspects of Titanic. Critical responses were all over the place, with reviews calling it overproduced and underdesigned, bold and timid, striking and banal. The truth is that Laing, who has worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal National Theatre, and English National Opera, as well as Glasgow Citizens Theatre, Scottish Opera, and Opera North, has brought a modernist sensibility to Titanic that has never been seen on Broadway before. To the literal-minded, hoping to see a giant sinking ship not unlike the helicopter in Miss Saigon, Titanic can be a bewildering experience. Yet in terms of originality and sheer theatricality, Laing's work is a significant achievement.

Titanic, says Laing, "takes you on a guided tour of the ship." The first thing the audience sees upon entering the theatre is the show curtain, which bears a surreal image: The Titanic, in all its glory, with the Statue of Liberty lying under it horizontally. "It's meant to indicate the scale of the ship," says Laing (Lady Liberty is severely dwarfed in comparison).

The lengthy opening sequence, part of which was seen on the Tony Awards, begins on the dock, represented by a blue-sky drop, and the gangplank, which heads up into the stage-left wings; it concludes on the deck of the ship, facing the stern. These drops set the style for the entire show; their bold colors, sharply angled perspectives, and abstract shapes are in the style of the Russian Constructivists. Although Constructivism belongs to the post-World-War-I era (Titanic sailed in 1912), that's part of Laing's point; the ship, he says, should look like "a futuristic object, a Jules Verne thing. What [the crew and passengers] are looking at is the equivalent of us looking at a space ship."

In contrast, there is the following scene, which is set both on the captain's bridge and the boiler room far below. What the audience sees is two narrow horizontal spaces behind black masking which obscures the rest of the stage--it's like a motion picture screen with two letterboxed images, one hovering above the other. The boiler room is represented by a drop; the captain's bridge is a set piece that flies in. This is the first of many scenes that will present a multi-level view of the ship.

The number "No Moon," which takes place right before the ship hits the iceberg, provides a stunning, three-level cross-section view of the ship. The stage deck contains an elevator which rises to reveal a partial view of the first-class smoking room, as well as the passenger deck above; the third level is created when the captain's bridge flies in. The visual climax of the scene occurs when the crow's nest is lowered out of the theatre ceiling and hangs suspended above the auditorium (more about that later).

There are a number of other scenes played in front of drops; these locations include the first- and third- class dining areas, which are dominated by radically different ceiling pieces, and an exterior view of the hull, which, in its nearly Mondrian arrangement of portholes and rivets, has the abstract look of a technical drawing. Sometimes the designer uses drops to make transitions with remarkable economy. The number "Wake Up, Wake Up!" shows the different ways first, second, and third classes are told of the accident. The basic scenic piece is a drop with a series of doors. Three times during the scene, a porter enters and knocks on all the doors, rousing the passengers. Each time the doors open, they reveal a different colored drop, allowing one set to do triple duty.

The most intimate scenes take place in the radio room, a tiny set, 7'x 15' in size, which appears downstage center. One especially spectacular moment involves a drop; it's a camera-eye view of a stairwell looking up from the bottom of the third-class deck. "It's based on something Richard Jones saw at the Folies Bergere," says Laing; the effect is rendered even more dizzying by having actors (in unseen harnesses) peering out from the upper stage-right corner of the masking.

As the design moves from small, severely masked playing areas to spectacular full-stage views in front of boldly painted drops, the effect is cinematic; it's as if a film camera is at work, capturing various scenes at distinct angles and employing a full array of techniques (close-ups, pans, wide-focus) without ever fully revealing the entire Titanic. (The only time the ship is seen in its entirety is the first-act finale, which is, in effect, a long shot,we see a 12' model of the boat make its way across the rear of the stage. As it exits stage left, we hear a horrendous crashing noise on the sound system, which indicates that the iceberg has been hit).

Nevertheless, the most talked-about part of Titanic's design is its movement. The basic stage elevator is powered by four Gala Spiralifts, but the really eye-popping stage movement occurs in Act II, when the boat begins to sink and the stage begins to tilt at astonishing angles. (One particularly striking moment occurs when the first- and second-class passengers, summoned to the first-class grand salon, are complaining in song about being awakened in the middle of the night; at the climax of the number, a tea trolley begins to roll across the stage without assistance, the first indication that the boat is beginning to sink.) As the second act goes on, the stage tilts more and more severely, until the stage-right side is 20' 8" in the air.

Speaking of all this, Laing says, "I don't know a lot about engineering. My associate, Guy Nicholson, does, because he's worked on musicals before. I haven't, and I haven't worked with hydraulics or any of that sort of engineering." He cites Fred Gallo, president of Scenic Technologies in New Windsor, NY, the shop that built the scenery. "Freddy Gallo and his crew got very excited over it. They developed it and made it work."

How does the tilting mechanism work? According to Hillary Blanken of Scenic Technologies, who was the project manager for the job, "Fred always envisioned it as a dump truck." The basic stage elevator, she notes, fits into the Lunt-Fontanne basement. "We built a frame that the four Spiralifts attach to. Above that frame is another frame with two telescoping cylinders. The two frames are tied together with a linkage bar that keeps the stage tilt centered as it lists. The cylinder is mounted on one frame and it lifts the other," making the stage tilt. "One cylinder can do the job, but we have two, for redundancy." All scenic movement in Titanic is controlled by the Stage Command System developed by Scenic Technologies.

Blanken notes that the elevator and tilting mechanism were put together in the Scenic Technologies shop. The Titanic cast then came to New Windsor to try it out. "We ran the elevator up and down in the shop," she says. "Michael Cerveris, who plays Thomas Andrews, the ship's architect, came up twice to ride it. The workshop ceiling is only 24' high, so we had to tilt it first, then let the actors walk on it, instead of tilting the whole piece with them on it."

Aurora Productions, headed by Gene O'Donovan along with associates Laura Brown and Abigail Koreto, was responsible for technical supervision on Titanic. "We started on the project in January 96," says O'Donovan. "We were in London doing the West End production of Tommy. We started there with Stewart, and that's when Guy Nicholson came in, also. We brought in [assistant set designer] David Gallo, who was also there with Tommy. That's when we saw the first storyboards. I think we knew that we were going into the Lunt-Fontanne. Richard Jones had seen the theatre, but Stewart hadn't."

In July, adds O'Donovan, after Laing had completed his design and before the bid session in September, "we spent a week in the Lunt-Fontanne. We laid out the hanging plot on the theatre floor and saw how things fit. Then we started moving things around."

The primary problem, he says, was fitting the production into the theatre. "The basement was a big challenge, and not only because of the elevator, which leaves 18" of space on either side of the basement. We also store the radio room set down there; it rolls off of the elevator and onto a storage platform. Usually, the wardrobe department uses the basement--not this time. We had to get rid of music storage lockers, the crossover in the basement, and an entrance to the orchestra pit."

The process of making room for all the stage machinery was, O'Donovan says, "like an archeological dig." The original stage was removed from the theatre, and, working with Bill Gorlin, a structural engineer from Scenic Technologies, ten 3' x 3' holes were cut in the basement and concrete poured for the supports and the Spiralifts.

There were other things to consider, too "We didn't know how many actors we had or how many dressing rooms we'd need," says O'Donovan, "so we prepared ourselves for a fairly sizable upgrade of the dressing-room areas. We had done [the short-lived musical] The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public there [in 1994], so we were familiar with the Lunt-Fontanne.

"There were huge issues with sightlines from the back of the audience," he continues, not that the Lunt-Fontanne has an exceptionally low-hanging mezzanine. "We have a three-level set in the number `No Moon,' so we made many trips to the back of the theatre to see where the obstructions were. We got [the theatrical soft goods company] I. Weiss to give us an old drop. David Gallo taped out the three levels of 'No Moon' to see where it all went. It was a giant storyboard." During one of these sessions, it became clear that the crow's nest, originally envisioned as an onstage piece, would not be visible; it was then redesigned as a flying piece which would be lowered on a winch from the theatre's ceiling.

This plan worked because the Lunt-Fontanne theatre, which has undergone more than one renovation, has a grid that extends out over the audience. "There's a big concrete floor up there, with some steel," says O'Donovan. Working with engineer Max Lincer, who, sadly, died after completing work on the project, the Aurora crew dug into the grid and installed the crow's nest. They also had to deal with a new HVAC unit which was being installed in the grid at the same time, an expected event which required some flexibility on everyone's part.

The other major challenge, O'Donovan notes, involved drops. There are two roll drops, which come up from below to show views of the Titanic deck, then fly out. "They're placed against the proscenium wall in the basement," he says; "they're almost on top of each other." Then there's the black masking, a 40'-wide by 30'-high wool serge drop which also comes out of a roller in the floor and raises and lowers to cover the stage during scenes revealing more than one level. "It fits into a slit about 2 1/2" deep and rolls onto an 8" tube," he adds.

One of the most alarming effects happens at the climax, when Andrews, the ship's architect, is in the first-class smoking room, reworking his design, even as the ship goes down. As he works, the stage reaches its most severe tilt--the stage-right end is 20' 8" in the air--and the furniture in the room begins to slide along the floor. "All of the chairs and tables are on tracks," says O'Donovan, adding,"they're released on free-fall. The piano, however, is on a winch. Also a prop man--my son, actually [assistant property men John O'Donovan], is hurling various objects at Michael."

Overall, says, O'Donovan, the true challenge of the project was finding space for everything; it often got down to a matter of, he says, "If I move this thing half an inch, what will happen, what won't be able to happen?" Indeed, a trip backstage to the Lunt-Fontanne reveals just how tightly packed the backstage area is; the technician who operates the machinery that drives the tilt mechanism is located in the basement, near the rear wall of the theatre. Fortunately, the Stage Command Systems by Scenic Technologies, which operates on a Windows 95 platform, allows the operator to see video images of the show as it happens; three cameras placed in the auditorium allow him to view the action from different angles.

Other contributors to the scenic look of Titanic besides Scenic Technologies (which built, painted, and motorized the scenery), were S. R. Seitzer and Associates (props), Wallace Studio (the first-act finale ship), and I. Weiss (soft goods and fiber optics).

Laing also designed the costumes for Titanic, a considerable task given the large cast from various walks of life. The show's costume parade includes crew uniforms, traveling clothes for the opening sequence, evening wear in the first-class dining saloon, and pajamas and other slumber wear for the second act. The designer estimates that he created 160 outfits for the production.

Although the designs are essentially period-accurate, Laing says that he "pushed in the second act in terms of color. The first-class night wear is really sort of stretched," also with brighter colors. There are, however, strikingly designed costumes through the show. In the opening number, the second-class couple Edgar and Alice Beane (Bill Buell and Victoria Clark) are identified by outfits in matching blue fabrics with white pinstripes. The number "Doing the Latest Rag," which takes place on the deck, makes use of what Laing calls "a winter sports look," with patterned sweaters, mittens, and wool hats in bright colors.

One all-important costume detail is the life vests worn in the second act. A note in the show's program says, "The life jacket design for the musical Titanic is based on an actual life jacket from the Stanley Lehrer Collection." However, Laing says, "We researched the vests and had them copied. When it came back it was tiny; you would think it was a child's life belt. I actually copied the life vests from the movie A Night to Remember," the classic film account of the sinking of the Titanic.

The construction of Titanic's costumes drew on a huge number of New York resources. Costumes were built by Barbara Matera Ltd., Carelli Costumes Inc., Dominic Gherardi, Euroco Costumes Ltd., and Parsons-Meares Ltd. Among other costume credits include custom knitwear by Maria Ficalora Knitwear, millinery by Woody Shelp and Rodney Gordon, men's hats bye J & J Hat Center, men's shirts by The Shirt Store, custom footwear by Frederick Longtin, Moulded Shoe, and J.C. Theatrical Footwear, reproduction furs by Lisa Furs Inc., custom gloves by La Crasia, life jacket reproduction by Izquierdo Studios, and fabric painting by Margaret Pact, Virginia Clow, Mary Macy, and Shelley Norton.

Now that Titanic is officially a success, there are new challenges ahead; even before the Tony Awards ceremony, the show's producers, Dodger Endemol Theatricals, announced that the show would tour. One imagines a whole new set of technical challenges opening for the design and technology team as it reconceives the show for rapid load-ins and shorter engagements. The maiden voyage of the Titanic may be over, but its oceangoing life has seemingly just begun.

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     That Sinking Feeling

Trying not to go overboard with sentimentality, the lighting designers for Titanic kept the look of the show quite stark and clean. Paul Gallo and associates Vivien Leone and David Weiner used bold primary colors to light Stewart Laing's Tony Award-winning scenery dramatically, yet never overwhelm it. "There are no gobos, no water effects, no literal textures," says Gallo. "It would have been too easy to sentimentalize this story." Their goal was to work in as unemotional a context as possible and avoid turning the musical into a melodrama. "We never violate the scenery or fight against it," says Weiner about the lighting's integrity. "We don't add another layer. The lighting supports what is there."

From the minute the curtain rises to reveal the gangplank of the Titanic jutting across the stage, the lighting plays on the architectural elements of the set design. Rather than indicate a time of day, or the direction of sunlight, Gallo worked distinctly against such limitations. Instead, he uses a bright light that changes direction as the actors move about on stage. "This kind of light is exciting in its power," says Gallo. "It's about the power of the people."

The colors Gallo uses move from white to bright, with soft tints to change the light from a cold white to warmer tones. "There is tremendous variety in the palette, but no pastels," he notes. Behind the cabin doors in the ship's corridors, for example, a single color of the light matches the scenic color representing each class. The magenta/red of first class, the royal blue of second class, and the green of third class go hand in hand with Laing's costumes for each group. Also, bright yellow light accents the yellow walls of the first-class promenade as Gallo keeps his colors true to the scenery.

Gallo's rig includes approximately 600 ETC Source Fours, 15 ETC Source Four PARs, approximately 100 sections of striplights, approximately 115 Wybron Coloram scrollers, 102 custom Four Star Lighting MR16 pods, three Lycian 1290 xenon followspots, 27 High End Systems Cyberlight[R] automated luminaires, 24 High End Systems Studio Colors[R] automated luminaires, and five Vari*Lite VL6[TM]spot luminaires. The automated fixtures helped Gallo optimize the lighting possibilities on a stage with an enormous amount of scenery and very little room. "You never see them move," he insists. "Each scene is like a snapshot. There are no real transitions." He also liked the white light quality of the HMI source in the VL6 and its contrast to the pastel tints of the Studio Colors that he used as washlights. "I used these tints as variations on white to push the light in one direction or another," Gallo says.

The scenic element for the ship's bridge is designed with its own set of electrics to light it. The slice of sky that can be seen changes from a light blue for day to a deep purple for night, before turning black. "This is not a realistic sky," Gallo explains, "but a sky that reflects the emotion of the scenes. If it is a romantic wonderful evening, the sky reflects that." As the backdrop of the scene changes, so does the color of the light, with gel color once again matched to the scenic color. Lights on the bottom of the bridge are used to light other scenes when the bridge is flown out.

In the ship's radio room, emotions mount as the radioman tries to make contact with other ships in the area after the Titanic has struck ice. "The lighting here has a conceptual feeling," says Weiner. "Scenically, the room is completely contained and sleeved into the red smoking room set." The only opening into the radio room is a door stage right. "We took poetic license," agrees Gallo, "to make the light look like it is coming in through the door, but we added light on the actors." In addition to a 2k Strand Bambino fresnel outside the door, Thomas birdies and custom-designed MR16s are mounted on the downstage edge of the stage, with overhead specials very close to the actors. "We tweaked until we got the right look," says Gallo. "But the actors have to be precise when they stop to be in the light." He also used extra lights to enhance the green walls in keeping with the architecture of the decor.

As passengers are struggling to reach the lifeboats, Gallo took an operatic approach, with the movement of the lighting following the staging of the group rather than remaining static or directional. The final scene, with a line of survivors wrapped in blankets from the ship that rescued them, has no front light and no color, once again to avoid an over-emotional reaction. The survivors are lit with pure white HMI downright from the VL6 automated luminaires, with low side light (also white) just above head height.

Control for Titanic is provided by an ETC Obsession 1500 console with Midi show control and a Flying Pig Systems Whole Hog II for the moving lights (with a second Whole Hog II on hand as a backup), plus eight full-size rolling racks of 96 x 2.4k Strand CD 80 dimmers. The equipment was provided by Four Star Lighting, except for the automated luminaires, which come directly from Vari-Lite. Paul Sonnleitner handled the moving lights programming, and Paul Miller served as followspot coordinator.

"The lighting choices were not always subtle, but specific," says Gallo. "The show is about the mass tragedy of these people, and about the end of the age of innocence and our belief that technology is never-failing. No one believed that ship could sink. The hopes and dreams of these people were devastated."

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     Ship-Shape Sound

What does it sound like when ship meets iceberg? Simple, according to John Shivers, associate sound designer on Titanic: an explosive avalanche and a mix of various sounds of metal scraping metal.

Those were the stock sounds designer Steve Canyon Kennedy and Shivers culled from the Masque Sound library in order to create the collision that helps signal the end of the first act of the musical. Kennedy's inspiration for the sound came courtesy of the 1958 film A Night To Remember, which served as the basis for much of the sound crew's research. "We also got the idea for the telephone rings on the bridge and the boiler room," Shivers says. "There were electric phones on that ship."

The duo also looked into the sound of Titanic's ship bell, which rings periodically to indicate the time, and were able to achieve an accurate sound. But several ship horns, which Kennedy and Shivers created, didn't make the final cut. "They just didn't seem to read very well, and it didn't really make sense," Shivers says. "It was the artistic choice of the director.

"The Morse Code we researched also," adds Shivers, "although I think a lot of times you just basically go with what sounds good or sounds right. It may not be exactly accurate, but it works."

The Morse Code figures prominently for the character of Harold Bride, the radio operator played by Mark Moran. Not only does he have to tap out messages during the show, but the code also figures in one of the show's numbers, "The Proposal/The Night Was Alive," a duet of sorts between Bride and the stoker Frederick Barrett. "[Moran] was actually into learning the Morse Code," Shivers explains. "A lot of what he's tapping out up there is pretty accurate."

In order to help Moran get into character, Shivers hooked up the Morse Code key so he could actually hear the dots and dashes. "So when he's tapping out the code, he's actually tapping the key up there, which I rigged up through a Masque Sound MIDI note generator. So he's triggering this sampler through the key, and then it gets fed back to a little control in the radio room."

Several scenes in Titanic take place on three different levels at once; this tri-level set consists of the bridge, the first-, second-, or third-class cabins (depending on the scene), and the first-class smoking room, all of which proved somewhat tricky when it came to monitoring. "There are a pair of downstage monitors that cover maybe 10" of the stage," says Shivers. "Then once the people are inside the various levels, there is a speaker hung directly above the heads of the people inside the bridge--the bridge flies in, so there's a speaker up above that covers the playing area. Then there are two speakers hung underneath the bridge, which covers the second level, and then there is another set of speakers for the people in the smoking room on the bottom level."

Titanic may be epic in scope--36 characters, more than 30 scenes, and dozens of set changes, not to mention that sinking ship--but it was just another day at the office for Kennedy and his crew. Well, another day at the office for a brand-new musical undergoing daily revisions prior to opening night.

"It had the challenges typical to any new Broadway show," says John Shivers, who is also production engineer on the show. "They'd come with maybe a dozen pages of script changes, and then we just had to re-program the CADAC console. And then some scenes got shifted around after that. So it was just a matter of dealing with it."

The CADAC in question is a J-Type; the main frame features 62 slots, while the sidecar has 40. The sidecar is strictly inputs, while the mainframe has a combination of input and output modules. There are also 81 moving faders and nine programmable routing modules.

The speaker system on Titanic includes 18 Tannoy 3836 two-way speakers for the proscenium, cluster, downfill and cluster delay system; 14 EAWJF50s for the front, 12JF60s under the balconies, a surround system comprised of 12 KF80s, four KF200s as onstage effects speakers, and KF80 stage monitors; and two Meyer USW subwoofers.

For microphones, Kennedy and Shivers used 40 Sennheiser MKE2s with SK50 transmitters and 1,046 receivers. In the orchestra pit, the string section is all AKG 414s, with the woodwinds using Sennheiser MIH40s, and the brass a combination of Sennheiser 409s and AKG 3600s. Other equipment includes three XTA GQ600s, six BSS TCS804s for delays, three Sony D3 recordable mini-disks for playback, an Akai S3200 sampler, three Lexicon PCM-80s for effects, and a Lexicon LXT 15 for reverb.

Titanic marks Shivers' fourth project with Kennedy; previous collaborations include Big, the tour of Tommy, and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Next up: Harmony, the Barry Manilow musical opening at La Jolla in the fall.

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