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'Titanic' Sets Sail for Stage

'A New Musical' Foundered Early, but Now Is Going Swimmingly


Sure, "Titanic: A New Musical" is considered a smash now, with a successful Broadway run, a sack of Tonys and national tours to brag about.

But when the Maury Yeston-Peter Stone vehicle opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1997, there were enough problems and skepticism to sink even the most optimistic in the crew. Technical snafus kept surfacing, and the New York press, wary of the sentimental subject, enjoyed a good smirk.

"It was bad, especially during the previews," said composer Yeston, recalling those early days when it felt like icebergs stood in the way of almost every performance. "For one [preview] we didn't have a part for the machinery that allows the ship to sink, so we told the audience and went on with the show anyway.

"The next day there were headlines all around the world: 'Titanic Can't Sink!' We were eventually vindicated, [but] it was difficult in the beginning."

Yeston can laugh about it these days. "Titanic: A New Musical," which opens at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday for a six-day run, eventually won top musical, book, sets and orchestration prizes at the 1997 Tony Awards, and Yeston picked up the Best Score trophy.

Along the way, the show broke box-office records, and reviews turned from mixed or worse (the New York Times called it "simply hokey and stereotyped" right after the opening) to positive, with many major newspapers and the New Yorker magazine praising its music and story-telling. As for Yeston, he can barely contain his enthusiasm.

"This is just a great labor of love, [and] it's way near the top" of all the musicals he's helped create, which include "Nine," "Grand Hotel" and "Phantom."

"For me, it was an opportunity to do something new, something I'd been thinking about for a long time."

Yeston explained that he'd wanted to do the musical since 1985, when accounts of Dr. Robert Ballard's expedition to find the Titanic hit the news. For Yeston, the ship's disaster on April 14, 1912, held his imagination and he began thinking of ways to dramatize it.

Then, in 1989, Yeston was working with book writer Stone on "Grand Hotel," and the two got to talking. It turned out that Stone, who wrote "1776" and "The Will Rogers Follies," had independently been planning a Titanic-based musical. They decided to collaborate but other projects intervened; it wasn't until 1991 when the first outlines emerged.

"So, you can see we were before the movie; it came out way after us," Yeston noted, dispelling the notion that the musical was somehow tied to the popular, very commercial James Cameron film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

"In fact, they were so happy to see us win all those Tonys. They were deep over budget at the time, and I think we invigorated them."

Yeston said his own vigor rarely flagged while composing, simply because he found the story and its people so fascinating. Beyond the facts, he was inspired by what Titanic represented to society at the time and the parallels today.

The luxury liner, all 46,000 tons of it, symbolized the growing power of technology when it set sail, a power that "soon got out of hand [when] nature showed its force," Yeston explained. "I wanted to convey something of that, that feeling of technology getting away from us."

He also saw the disaster as the end of an era. "When it went down, the Edwardian world, the Gilded Age, went down with it," Yeston said. "We went from optimism to a more pessimistic view. After [the Titanic sank] came the First World War and the Great Depression. The Age of Anxiety was born.

"I wanted to give a feel for that [but] also have a positive message. Until that boat hit the iceberg, the people on deck were having the time of their lives, dreaming of the future [and] living the dream of technology."

But how do you do all that in song? First off, you make it big. Yeston wrote numbers that, at times, use the entire 37-person cast. He also combined varied styles, including ragtime, Irish and English folk tunes, and melodies that could have come from Gilbert and Sullivan.

Yeston has his favorites, including "Dressed in Your Pyjamas in the Grand Salon" that opens the second act.

"It's definitely one of the best moments," he said. "They're in first class, partying away, even chipping ice from an iceberg for their drinks. Then the tea cart slowly moves [showing that the sinking has begun], and they realize what's happening."

But the song that means the most to him is "The Proposal/The Night Was Alive" in the first act. It comes when the ship's furnace stoker decides to propose to his girlfriend back home with the help of the telegraph operator.

"It's just a soaring duet between these two guys," Yeston said. "To me, there's something magical about it."

Yeston likes to think "Titanic: A New Musical" has grandeur, something he assured is part of the traveling show. While some touring musicals can be streamlined, even threadbare, he said this production has kept a full cast and even has the climactic sinking, although the technology is somewhat less sophisticated than the heavy machinery used on Broadway.

Yeston said he "wasn't disappointed" when he saw this version. "We wanted to make sure there wasn't any skimping and that's what we did."

"Titanic: A New Musical" opens Tuesday and continues through Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center's Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Performances Tuesday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m.; and Sunday, 7:30 p.m. $28.50 to $62.50. (714) 556-2122.

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