Director: Thom Sutherland
Book: Peter Stone
Music / Lyrics: Maury Yeston
Reviewer: Helen Tope
The recipient of five Tony Awards, Titanic the Musical deserves to be better known than it is. Making its debut in 1997, this revival returns to the stage, a leaner production.
The focus on telling Titanic’s story becomes more determined. We know how it ends, but the challenge posed is for us to think about the lives lost, not as a collective, but in terms of individuals. Rich, poor, successful, aspirational: the people who died and why, over a century later, we should continue to care.
The narrative, so familiar we could recite it by heart, moves forward with a dreadful compulsion. Too many passengers, not enough life-jackets, and foolish risks taken with a maiden voyage. We see it coming; it seems obvious that death is inviting itself in, but still, they sail onward.
In reviewing Titanic the Musical, it is impossible to ignore the film that emerged in the same year. The blockbuster of the 1990’s, Titanic featuring Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet, offers up a series of images are indelibly printed on our imagination. Steered by a director more focused on spectacle than story, James Cameron’s obsessive laying down of detail is the stuff of film legend, but it serves as a warning. Cameron’s Titanic made the mistake of honing in on two characters. Titanic had 2,200 people onboard, each with a voice deserving to be heard.
Titanic the Musical separates itself from its contemporaries early on. It establishes a people’s chorus; multi-strands of stories and reflection, weaving across the narrative. Titanic, as we are reminded, is a ‘floating city’. It is a richly-textured, sophisticated design from Maury Yeston.
What Titanic the Musical does well is to show us the aspirations of the travellers. To those in Third Class, the ship is far more than a ‘hot ticket’; it is a passage to a better life. Victoria Serra (Kate McGowan) and Niall Sheehy (Frederick Barratt) flesh out their characters with performances that remind us that these are not names plucked from thin air, but a passenger list.
In the final scenes, we are given a stark reminder of why Titanic strikes the note it does. The names of the dead are spread across the stage. It is as large a number as sitting in the auditorium. At the very least, it gives you pause.
This production has received great critical acclaim. On paper, Titanic the Musical has it all; great characters, beautifully-crafted songs and one heck of an ending. But at its heart, something feels lacking.
In its bid to be tasteful and respectful, this revival doesn’t give us enough of a reason to go back and see it again. The songs are gorgeous, but not memorable. There are so many characters on stage, our loyalties are stretched too far. We don’t have time to emotionally connect as we need to. Admittedly, there is only so far you can go when you are handling the detail of people’s lives, but musicals like Hamilton have managed the balance.
Whether we have been spoiled by musicals that hit us over the head with melody, or if we lack the patience to move to a slower beat, this revival suggests that maybe there are some experiences that cannot be realised in song. Perhaps Titanic is destined to appear and reappear on the silver screen, told at a pace only film can afford. Maybe there are places a musical cannot take us.
Runs until Saturday 23 June | Image: Scott Rylander