This 1912 maritime disaster seems about as likely a subject for musical theaters as the plague. It leaves one with bilious visions of kick-lines in the briny deep, impassioned duets turning to gurgling bubbles. What could have been a monument to rampant bad taste proves to be the most elegant of the last decade's musicals: a duchess among tarts.
The creators have envisioned the sinking of the Titanic as the death of the British Empire. The opening chorus refers to the ship as the "perfection of physical engineering" and sings hymns worthy of a monarch's coronation. Its demise may be likened to the death of Queen Victoria. How audacious, in a Broadway ruled by Disney, to find a love letter to the last days of La Belle Epoque, a melancholy ode to the fading glory of imperialism. Out of Kipling is the ship's owner, who, to thrill the millionaire passengers, orders the captain to speed the ship through icy waters.
The show's creators, Maury Yeston (music and lyrics) and Peter Stone (story and book), have a pedigree of musicalizing the unsingable. They initially joined forces to turn an old Greta Garbo movie, Grand Hotel, into a high-flung semi-operetta. Stone's previous claim to fame was turning our founding fathers into adorable singing rascals in 1776, a musical with the precision of a Swiss cuckoo clock. Yeston had previously fine-tuned Fellini's 8 1/2 into Nine -- a rousing, pulchritudinous minstrel show with Fellini's alter ego as the libidinous master of ceremonies.
Their musical version of the world's most beloved sinking is a less flashy but profoundly more human twin to the multimillion-dollar movie of the same name. The cinematic incarnation seemed to have extracted every ship's bolt, crystal table setting, and fur collar from its muddy Atlantic sarcophagus, making it sparkle like a window display at Tiffany's. Yet it all seemed like a masquerade, paid for with the national debt, for some narcissistic pretty children as far removed from the nuances of 1912 as Madonna from chastity. All this was so that they could, for three hours, play out their Romeo and Juliet fantasies on a grand scale to last week's oversweet soda-pop songs.
Compared to this cinematic lushness, Stewart Laing's sets and costumes seem like an impressionable child's drawing of something too massive for him to take in. We have a Lilliputian view of parts of a giant: a bit of gangplank, part of a rowboat, and halls that seem to be made of cardboard. What looks sleek and wildly imaginative on Broadway seems a rather cut-and-paste ramshackle affair on tour. That this work remains a thing of beauty against these contrivances is a testament to the happy confluence of words and music.
Though the show is labeled as a "new musical," this is a subterfuge for the unwashed, who equate anything classical as a thing devoutly to be eschewed. Yeston's score is in actuality of pure operatic lineage. Faithful and true to Edwardian musical style, it bounces to a whimsical Gilbert and Sullivan tempo with patter songs for the ship's stewards, breaking into a breezy early-Jerome Kern-like rag. At other times it coalesces into Viennese pastry out of Franz Lehar, plaintively evoking a love that still kindles in an aged couple as they bravely face death together. Occasionally, it even slips in a few strains of recrimination out of Stephen Sondheim.
Stone's book takes the pageant approach, striving for Grand Hotel tableaux with vignettes of all the ship's social classes, from stoker to captain, from hopeful ladies' maids to the owners of Macy's.
The musical reaches its tender apotheosis in a scene in the radio room between a stoker proposing to his girl back home and the ship's wireless officer singing an ode to the "dit-dot-dit" that gives him access to the universe. This is a scene of compassion and tenderness rivaling anything by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The actual sinking is handled with the inspired dignity of an Old Testament engraving.
When a cast is as finely woven as it should be for this intricate tapestry of musical storytelling, it is almost impossible to pick out single strands. Nevertheless, worthy of praise is S. Mark Jordan's Isidor Straus; Thom Sesma's tortured ship designer, Andrews; and Melissa Bell's fiery, man-hunting colleen, Kate McGowan.
Even though the opening night cruised a few knots short of full speed, Richard Jones directs with the same diplomacy and optimum effect used by Winston Churchill to bring England through World War II.
How ironic that this musical of lost dreams and sunken beauty sailed into the Allen the same week that iceberg Venus, Hedy Lamarr, ascended to that big studio in the sky. Like the liner itself, she was a magnificent pleasure palace. At the show's ending, a ghostly sailor, referring to perfection of physical engineering, could have been referring to either wonder. As we begin a new millennium, it refreshes the soul to bathe in yesterday's ecstasies.