Musical to Set Sail on Broadway
Correction: The Titanic sailed from Southampton, England, nearly
ago, on April 10, 1912. The "Play By Play" feature in yesterday's
stated the number of years since the voyage incorrectly. Almost 61 years
to the to the day the Titanic sailed from Southampton, England, on its
fateful voyage, its namesake arrives on Broadway in the form of a lavish
$10-million musical whose creators are betting won't suffer the same
as the ship. "If we go down," Michael David, one of the producers,
with a sigh, "we'll be the butt of every joke in town." Most
of the show's
creative staff, save British director Richard Jones ("La Bete"),
hand recently at a downtown rehearsal studio for the press' first glimpse
at the show, which begins previews at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre March
27 and opens April 23.
Composer Maury Yeston ("Grand Hotel") and librettist Peter
watched from the sidelines as the 42-member cast - including John
Cunningham ("Six Degrees of Separation")as the captain,
Michael Cerveris ("Tommy") as the ship's builder and David
(TV's "Law and Order") as a villainous shipping line executive
- ran through
an opening number that sets up the dramatic stories and class differences
of those boarding the "floating palace."
"It's a terrific yarn, perfectly ordered for drama with its layers
said Stone. "If you made up that this would happen on its maiden
no one would believe it." He noted the timeliness of the musical's
"That nature still has primacy over technology." Theater audiences had
matured enough to accept a "bittersweet saga of heroism and cowardice,"
said composer Yeston. "We couldn't write `The Love Boat.' This is a story
about a ship and why the tragedy happened and the hubris of the men
who built it." The musical remains buoyant, he insists, despite the story's
tragic end. More than 1,500 people perished, but "you have to remember
that until the ship hit the iceberg, they were having the time of their lives,"
said about the musical that seeks to recapture the era's indomitable optimism
and elegance - also a victim of the tragedy.
Day at the Beach
On the Waterfront / For the musicals `Titanic' and `Steel Pier,'
trying to work out the kinks under the duress of New York preview
audiences hasn't been at day at the beach
By Patrick Pacheco
"Titanic" and "Steel Pier,"
two new American musicals that open this
week, may both allude to water, but that's where the similarity ends.
They couldn't be more different. "Titanic," which opens Wednesday
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, is an attempt to push the parameters of American
musical theater, challenging audiences with British director Richard
Jones' avant-garde vision of one of this century's most enduring
legends. "Steel Pier," which opens Thursday at the Richard
banks on redefining the traditional romantic musical - with
Broadway music men John Kander and Fred Ebb and direction by Scott
Ellis, who made his reputation by breathing new life into an old flop,
"She Loves Me."
Unlike the Olympics, where degree of difficulty counts for
something, a simple idea well executed is more likely to score on
Broadway than a complicated attempt to entertain with a certain perverse
originality. Consequently, since both shows began performances without
benefit of an out-of-town tryout or previous full-scale production,
infamous New York preview audiences have been sending buckets of nervous
sweat cascading down the backs of both creative teams. At times like
these, says Maury Yeston, composer of "Titanic," one remembers
Larry Gelbart's admonition to all who would dare create musical
theater: "If Hitler's still alive, I hope he's out of town with
The scuttlebutt: "Titanic," which focuses on the hubris of
ship's builder, owner and captain as the cause of the disaster, is in
choppy waters; "Steel Pier," about a "dead" stunt
pilot with a
three-week reprieve to romance and liberate a young songbird in an
abusive relationship, has had smoother sailing.
Still, nobody's conceding anything, and nobody's taking anything for
granted. Running scared, of course, is the nature of a business in which
a $10-million investment can go up in smoke - or sink from
after just one performance. But this week appears to be the defining
for this musical-theater season, given the stark risks of these highly
anticipated shows, each of which provides its own window on the state
the art. Like "The Life," the Cy Coleman musical that opens
the two shows are wholly original and American - adjectives
been rather rare around Broadway in the past decade.
"Titanic" ran into heavy seas even before it began rehearsals
winter. One of the producers, Michael Braun, died suddenly on Jan. 27,
leaving his partners to scramble for his $4-million investment.
previews scheduled to begin on March 27 had to be postponed for a couple
of days because of technical problems with the elaborate and complicated
sets - they wouldn't tilt to indicate the ship was sinking
immediately set the New York media buzzing. "Titanic" had
hit an iceberg
even before leaving port.
"When you have a title like `Titanic,' you have the kind of
awareness which can make you the butt of every joke in town," says
Michael David, president of the Dodgers, the chief producing entity.
"But if anybody thought that we were doing this musical called
`Titanic' simply to put lavish scenery onstage and sink something, then
they're not aware of what I hope our reputation is for doing something
new, unexpected and, hopefully, perversely exciting."
"Titanic" is a huge and nervy venture for the Dodgers, a team
has built a reputation on Broadway for a savvy mix of glitzy, sleek
revivals ("Guys and Dolls" and "The King and I")
ground-breaking originals ("Into the Woods," "Tommy").
Indeed, a musical
called "Titanic" would not have seemed right for the Dodgers
ago, when composer Yeston ("Nine") and veteran writer Peter
("1776," "Will Rogers Follies") almost simultaneously
had the idea to
musicalize a story they considered "well-ordered" for drama,
levels of irony and the stories of heroism and cowardice. At that time,
Tommy Tune was a director with whom both Stone and Yeston had worked
on "Nine" and "Will Rogers Follies," respectively
- and the
likelihood is that he would have turned the story into a traditional
musical, a sort of glitzy floating "Grand Hotel."
The involvement of the Dodgers came two years later, when Richard
Jones was on the short list of directors who the producers and creative
team felt could help transform a well-known story into something that
wasn't, as Stone put it, a musical version of "A Night to Remember."
Jones, an inventive opera director whose Ring Cycle has been in
repertory at London's Covent Garden for four years, had had a Broadway
flop with a production of "La Bete," a satire of 17th-Century
court foibles. But it was his London production of "Into the Woods,"
Stephen Sondheim musical that the Dodgers had successfully presented
Broadway, that most convinced Michael David he was right for "Titanic."
"His `Into the Woods' was extraordinarily twisted and wonderful,"
says David, "and his involvement came as a consequence of a romance
Peter and Maury - that he could bring to `Titanic' something
potentially daring and visionary and modern that would appeal to the
Sondheimites, the Next Wave crowd and the matinee audience."
big order, to be sure; some would say impossible. The reaction of
preview audiences has been further confused by a show that is driven
more by ideas than by characters caught up by fate and destiny in a
defining moment in history. "It is a story about a humanity rather
one particular member of that humanity," David says of Stone's
which demonstrates how an arrogant age was irrevocably humbled by the
tragedy, which claimed more than 1,500 lives. Confounding audience
expectations as well are Stewart Laing's designs, which choose to bypass
re-creating a first-class cabin modeled on Versailles in order to
suggest a microcosmic world in which machinery is pitted against nature,
the upper classes against the lower classes.
Two weeks before the show was set to open, the producers and the
creative team were clearly in crisis mode. The sheer logistics of the
show prevented out-of-town tryouts and workshops - the usual
development for the Dodgers. And the timing of the show was influenced,
said David, not only by Jones' availability but also by the fact that
$180-million movie about the Titanic was - and is
still - set to be
released this summer. "We wanted to take the window of opportunity
tell the story our way without the advantage of ice and metal
breaking," he says.
Indeed, theirs is such a highly theatrical way of telling
that the creators feel no need to incorporate recent scientific
discoveries concerning the Titanic. The media of late have been filled
with stories of how the great ocean liner was sunk not by one long gash,
as previously had been believed, but by six small, but fatally placed,
slits. "Everything that could go wrong went wrong," a scientist
Yet, in the musical the ship's designer, played by Michael Cerveris
("Tommy"), still sings of a "three-hundred-foot gash"
below the water
line on the starboard side. "It's not a documentary; it's art,"
spokesperson Suzanne Tighe said when asked why the musical is not
reflecting the new information.
The rule is that anything goes on the stage - if it works.
"Titanic" dares more than most. "It's a crazy, wild cultural
says David, "and we know it's a thin line we have to hit, but this
where the action is on Broadway for us right now."
John Kander, the composer of "Steel Pier," left a note for
friend Peter Stone at the stage door of the Lunt-Fontanne, where
"Titanic" is in previews: "I don't know about you, but
I wish I were in
Boston." He immediately got an affirmative, he says, "along
with a lot
of exclamation marks." Working under the duress of New York preview
audiences, says Kander, has been the most frustrating experience of
preparing "Steel Pier" for its opening. "You get so much
opinion from very savvy people that it can make your eyeballs twirl,"
says. "At least when you're out of town, you get reviewed, and
number of critics point to the same problem, then it's probably a good
idea to take a look at that part of the show. I've found the best way
what Mr. [George] Abbott taught us when we were working on `Flora, the
Red Menace,' and that was simply to sit in the audience and listen for
the response. You know when you hear coughing you're in trouble."
There wasn't much of that at a matinee preview of "Steel Pier"
weeks before the show was scheduled to face the critics. The audience
seemed to go with the romantic fantasy, almost certainly the most
traditional and least risky of the new musicals - and what
expect from the songwriting team that The Washington Post once called
"Broadway's foremost advocates of the power of positive thinking."
glow suffuses this love story, however bittersweet, set against the
backdrop of 1930s marathon dancing in Atlantic City. Finding the silver
memorably jaunty tunes for such dark musicals as "Cabaret,"
Time," "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "Chicago"
- which 20 years after
its creation now appears to be right in sync with a cynical post-O.J.
" `Steel Pier' is absolutely the opposite of `Chicago,' "
Kander. "It has all the warmth and goodness and compassion that
[`Chicago'] didn't have. But we don't ever think in terms of `breaking
new ground' for the musical theater. We write about what we care about.
In this case, it started out with working with people we knew and liked
and had worked with before and wanting to do something about marathon
The "Steel Pier" creative team - including Ellis,
Susan Stroman and writer David Thompson - had worked together
on a 1988 revision of "Flora, the Red Menace" as well as "And
Goes 'Round," a 1991 Off-Broadway revue of Kander and Ebb music
featured a young singer named Karen Ziemba, for whom "Steel Pier"
written. (The flyboy is played by newcomer Daniel McDonald, with Debra
Monk as the wise-cracking second banana and Gregory Harrison as a
manipulative ballroom emcee.) Four or five years ago, says Ellis, the
group got together and simply started doing readings of the play while
Kander and Ebb sang the songs.
In much the same way that producer Garth Drabinsky
"Ragtime" for its full production, producer Roger Berlind,
who signed on
two years ago, arranged for first a two-week workshop and then, last
summer, an eight-week workshop. It proved to be of incalculable help,
according to the creative team, exposing the strengths and weaknesses
the show. "It was an illuminating experience," says Berlind.
established then is probably the most important thing in the development
of a show: Everyone had the same vision; everyone was on the same
Kander says he is thrilled that suddenly there are "all these
American musicals around," but he is afraid he and Ebb, Stephen
Sondheim and Cy Coleman were all part of the "last generation to
allowed to fail."
"I'm sorry that there are not younger composers represented this
season," he says. "It's going to be tougher for the next generation.
just because of financing but because we demand more deftness and skill
in musical theater. Everybody talks about the old days as if everything
then was a masterpiece, but some of those shows were pretty much
stitched together - a socko number for the stars, a funny
the comedian. Now the standard is really much higher. But I think,
however tough it gets, you'll still have any number of artists who are
willing to gamble their life - and sanity -
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