Last month in an article in “Smithsonian Magazine,” writer Andrew Wilson speculated that “Titanic” is the third most widely recognized word in the world – trailing only “God” and “Coca-Cola.” (And you thought it was going to be “Facebook” or “Fruit Ninja.”) Indeed, the 1912 maritime disaster has a titanic place in our hearts.
There are a variety of reasons for this, of which James Cameron is either one or 1.8 billion – the latter number being the worldwide gross sales for his 1997 movie, “Titanic.” That number, incidentally, does not include revenue for last week’s 3-D re-release.
And while I can be as jaded and cynical as the next person, I will readily admit that I am transfixed, haunted, and moved by the Titanic saga. The tale has it all: Hubris, heroism, class warfare, and a band playing “Nearer My God to Thee” as the ship tips almost vertical before breaking in half and slipping into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. It’s a riveting story. . .and a true one.
For those of you who have been in sensory deprivation tanks, this week marks the centennial of the tragedy. The ship set sail on her maiden voyage on April 10, 1912, hit an iceberg late at night on the 14th, and sank in the early hours of the 15th. Just over 1,500 people perished; less than half that many survived.
Of all the ways the story has been told, among the most poignant is Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s Tony Award-winning musical, “Titanic.” Why? Well, partly because the characters in the musical are based on the real people who lived and died on the ship. Lyric Theatre is presenting it this week at Burlington, Vermont’s Flynn Center and I’m looking forward to the production immensely.
Moreover, because I am such a Titanic geek (pun intended), I went to the Lyric warehouse in Williston to learn how you sink a ship on stage that in reality was 882 feet long and 175 feet high.
The answer? I’m not going to tell you. That’s stage magic.
But I will tell you this. Doug Viehmann and Tim Henderson, the set designer and the set construction chair respectively, have created something wondrous that left me a little staggered. And dizzy. It begins with a porthole that is 24 feet high and 50 feet across, and is pieced together from nine massive flats. The ship itself has a bridge that is 14 feet off the stage, with the crow’s nest higher still. The Flynn’s main curtain normally rests 20 feet above the stage; for this show, it has been raised to 23 feet.
And in the final moments of the musical, you will see the ship rise up and out of the water, with the passengers and crew clawing desperately up a steeply pitched deck that is about to disappear beneath the waves. “The last few minutes of the show are an emotional roller-coaster,” Viehmann told me. “There will be confusion and terror and panic.”
Viehmann and Henderson, like all Lyric cast and crew, are volunteers. Viehmann is an architect and Henderson is a software engineer. They both stress that the musical is a far cry from Cameron’s movie, emphasizing that the tale they are helping to bring to the Flynn focuses on the actual passengers and crew. And their stories were so wrenching that the musical doesn’t need to have the fictional Jack and Rose steaming up a Renault below deck or the search for a fictional blue diamond.
“The cast is in tears when they’re rehearsing the show,” Peter Brownell told me. Brownell, a retired educator, financial analyst, and (yes) former mayor of Burlington, is one of the volunteers building the ship that will set sail this coming Thursday. “They’re going through whole boxes of Kleenex every night.”
Will the audience need Kleenex too? We’ll see. But this is “Titanic.” It is – in a word – epic. And the emotions it triggers are as big as that boat.