Matt Wolf chats to Titanic The Musical Directors, Thom Sutherland & Danielle Tarento, ahead of the show’s arrival at New Theatre, Cardiff this week.
Early in 2005, the director Thom Southerland was making a first visit to Manhattan, and as he was leaving the show 42nd Street at a theatre on 42nd Street, he noticed a shop selling old theatre merchandise.
Rummaging through, he came upon a programme for the musical Titanic, which had completed an 804-performance Broadway run in March, 1999, having won Tony Awards in every category for which it was nominated two years earlier – Best Musical included.
“I remember picking it up and looking at it and thinking, ‘This is unreal,” said Southerland, who scurried along to the then-mighty Tower Records emporium near Times Square to buy the show’s cast album.
Flash forward eight and a half years, and Southerland had teamed up with his frequent producer Danielle Tarento to bring that very musical to London’s Southwark Playhouse in an entirely fresh production that became a major success and has been in performance somewhere or other in the world in their iteration of it for much of the intervening decade.
Its tenth anniversary this year is being marked with a UK and Ireland tour running 16 March-5 August, and recent conversations with its creators – the show’s Tony-winning composer-lyricist Maury Yeston included – show an undimmed appetite for this audacious work about a grievous event: the sinking on its maiden voyage in 1912 of the RMS Titanic, en route from Southampton to New York. More than 1500 people died.
“We tried to get across the notion that people would have a wonderful time,” says Southerland, “if they could get over the idea that they were seeing a musical about a sinking ship; audiences who went to see it really took it to their heart.” (This marks the sixth version of the same production, following various UK tours and engagements in Canada, Germany, China, and Japan.)
Wasn’t there concern that playgoers might expect a version of the James Cameron film? “Truth is a better story than fiction,” says Tarento, distinguishing between the late Peter Stone’s Tony-winning book for the musical – itself heavily researched – and the large-screen romance of a film about two made-up lovers, Rose and Jack. The musical’s characters range from J Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line who was among those to survive the sinking, to Thomas Andrews, the naval architect of the ocean liner who went down with the ship.
A 25-strong ensemble double up, or more, as required, and one asset is the recognition attached to the event itself: The ship Titanic, says Tarento, “is the star; we don’t need names.” And for what it’s worth, the musical takes the same time – 2 hours 40 minutes – to tell its story that it took the Titanic to sink: an extraordinary synergy.
Yeston, an exuberant 77, speaks of being ready for reinvention with a show conceived on a large scale that could be reconfigured, given the right talents at the helm.
“I knew Thom and Danielle would come up with something utterly brilliant and allow the score to do the work – to help place the people in their midst and to allow the imagination of the audience to be part of the collaborative process: to create the fantasy onstage.”
“The art of writing is rewriting,” Yeston says of the musical theatre, “and if you’re not open to that, you can’t fine tune.” That original economy of scale at Southwark, itself tweaked and enlarged as needed over time, has sustained a shared and unbridled excitement in the show to this day. “I find myself very fortunate that the show I love is the show people still want to see,” says Southerland, a sentiment succinctly echoed by its originator: “Titanic was magic then, and it still is.”
Titanic The Musical plays New Theatre, Cardiff from Tuesday-Saturday May 9-13, 2023. For ticket availability visit the New Theatre website.