Thursday, June 04, 2015

Theatre Review: 'Titanic'

Here’s the deal: if Kat likes something then you know it has something going for it.

Ever since I’ve known her, Kat has loved the musical Titanic.   So I knew when it came to Toronto that a.) we had to go that b.) it would have something amazing going for it.

Kat is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. So, she has no time for dumb stuff. 

Before I go further, let us make a few things clear a.) Titanic: the Musical is not as terrible as Titanic: the Musical sounds like it could be b.) it is a predecessor of the crappy James Cameron film. It has nothing to do with the film other than the fact that they are set on the same boat.

So I went in with the expectation that Kat likes it so it will have something going for it.

It had a ton going for it including one of the best Broadway scores I have heard in my lifetime.  Maury Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel ) doesn’t just jukebox the heck outta some nonsense content. He goes deep, he goes big and there is not a note of anachronism in his rendering of whatever musical period he is invested in.

For Titanic, a welcome marriage of Celtic influence, Edwardian popular pomp (think Sousa) and mournful melody ( think Vaughan Williams) as well as a reverent hymn and ragtime and dance hall: music of the period is knit together in a smorgasbord of perfectly suited style.

It's going to hades, Mr. Andrews, but you get a darned good song outta it

The music is so clever (the lyrics, too, but more on that in a moment ) that even its “happiest” melodies have a portentous note.  It is rapturous to listen to how intelligent this all is.  And when you add the lyrics and the marvelous way he knits the quilt of the story (Stoker and Telegraph operator have a duet,  the classes are distinguished with a triad  of couples--a third class Irish lass and her fellow, a social climbing American wannabe, Isador Strauss of Macy’s fame and his wife), as well as the captain, the builder and the owner  create a sequence of musical vignettes.  All, of course, are tied together in the metaphor of a floating city or world. The metaphor of Titanic as a representation of civilization is a recurring motif and embroidered throughout with references not only to class structure but to men speeding ahead of its time. For one, it notes the pyramids( as an example of many).

To add, musical tropes made slightly minor recur. At one moment a theme promenades the grand and opulent  launch of a great ship, when the theme is revisited it evokes the frantic and harried frenzy of passengers spilling into the lifeboats. 

And it goes even deeper.  Every lyric preludes what will happen.  For me, the most surprising and interestingly innovative duet is between Barrett, the Stoker, and Bride, the telegraph operator.  While Bride plunks out a message to Barrett’s love behind he sings of the loneliness made moot by Marconi’s world-bridging apparatus. The self same apparatus that will at once isolate and colonize the entire ship with hope and despair.  A lifeline when the Californian is near, a death-knell as it pats out the last SOS signal.     And yet this isolation juxtaposed with Barrett’s singing the imagery of heaven’s blanket foreshadows a starless, still night and the prayers of thousands facing the glass- shattered pricks of their icy deaths.

Another astonishing musical decision of Yeston’s was to forego the music history informs us was played on the voyage with his own similar composition.  The meters of his own hymn certainly reflect the hymns that would have been sung aboard ship while his version of the Autumn waltz( largely believed to be the last tune the band played as the ship sank ) has the same interesting measure and sequence as the original.

The musical is the best version of historical fiction: it creates its own world, populates it with actual personages and makes them more representation than individual character.  The characters here represent themes. Yeston doesn’t try to develop them---nor should he. They are already set in stone. Moreover, he rotates the carousel of the world so that stage and song-time is distributed in so many directions, it would do a disservice to funnel on one “lead” character.

This is a chorus piece. This is an ensemble dream.

The musical certainly captures the essence of the period and the event ( as mentioned, most pronouncedly in its musical setting) but from a deftly altered way.

The staging of the tour (late of Britain and now over in North America to make its rounds) is sparse.  You will use your imagination but the story, song sequences and sound make you feel as if your modern era has been peeled away.

There is a cacophony of eerie sounds and joyful robust resolutions. There is a layer of hope and dismal despair at once. The score, here, is a veritable feast. I cannot remember the last time I was this impressed by a Broadway score and surprised it took near 20 years from its debut for me to get my teeth into it.

It’s clever storytelling surrounded by majestic and magnificent music and, as it has nothing to do with effing James Cameron’s stupid film, you can go in satisfied and leave, as I did, with expectations exceeded.

 Also, everyone, the first 16 minutes of the show is brilliant storytelling. THIS is how you introduce character, theme and circumstance. It is how you establish action. Luckily, for musical theatre lovers, it is done in a brilliant and scrumptious way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow - this sounds awesome!!! I will have to see it. Thanks. Especially like how beautiful the lyrics are and intelligent (ie. the pyramids) Thanks for an awesome review. How long is it playing?