Since the pandemic lockdown, theaters have upped their exploration of streaming options, realizing there are audiences to be had beyond in-house seating. At their best, these video captures are more than just, “Well, I can’t be there live, so I’ll have to settle for this” compromises. Instead, they can be terrifically satisfying as films. Yes, films. Shot-from-the-stage films of theater productions — and, sometimes, the issues they raise — will be the focus of the recurring feature Screen Plays. And now, on with the show!
How is it that we get shot-from-the-stage versions of Broadway duds such as Diana and Allegiance but not hits like Once and Avenue Q?
Why, of the 21st century’s Tony-winning Best Musicals, have only four (Memphis, Billy Elliot, Hamilton and Kinky Boots) been made available in shot-from-the-stage versions?
For those of us outside of the deal-making loop, the voyage to movie and TV screens for stage musicals can be baffling. However, I was still surprised when I heard that Fathom Entertainment was sending Titanic: The Musical out to movie theaters.
For those familiar with the story of the ship but not this version of it, let’s make clear upfront that this is not the James Cameron take. The musical, composed by Maury Yeston (best known for Nine), opened on Broadway months before the cinematic juggernaut. In addition to the core disaster, what it shares with the film is that, prior to its official opening day, it was best known for technical problems that plagued the production. In the musical’s case, New York gossips relished stories of previews where the action ground to a halt. At one point, the director even offered an apology to the audience.
The show opened to mixed reviews. But in part thanks to Rosie O’Donnell, who championed and featured the show on her then-influential chat show, it went on to a nearly two-year run, picking up a Tony Award along the way. I hopped aboard mid-run, and while some elements clunked, the overall outcome was strong, and I have found myself returning to the original cast recording multiple times over the years.
The assumption was that the show required a big budget to operate, hence the limited number of regional productions. How many theaters can tilt their entire stage? However, some ambitious companies have taken it on, scaling back the effects and focusing on the characters. That’s the case in the British touring production, filmed on stage and hitting theaters. Gone is the piano sliding from one side of the stage to the other. Gone is the awkward looking-through-portholes scene while scenery changed behind it.
But, thankfully, Yeston’s powerful score arrives intact and well sung. For me, the highlights of the show were and continue to be three particular numbers:
- The epic opening, with more shifts than “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that manages to establish multiple characters while also anchoring this as a story of ambition and yearning.
- “Lady’s Maid,” a song launched by one of the show’s three Kates, all of whom long for better lives in America. It’s a great example of what the great lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II was referring to when he said, “I cry at naive happiness.”
- The “The Proposal / The Night Was Alive” duet with the ship’s telegraph operator and one of its coal stokers. Whether it was Yeston or book writer Peter Stone (1776) who came up with the idea of putting these disparate characters together in the same scene, it’s one of those magical theater moments that artificial intelligence could never possibly produce.
The downside is that these three sequences all take place in the first act. Once ship and iceberg meet, the show has a much tougher time finding its rhythm. The otherwise lovely “Still,” a duet for the elderly Isidor and Ida Straus, awkwardly slows down the action. And the eloping Clarke couple just seems to get in the way and could easily have been excised for the good of the show.
The Broadway production’s cast was packed not with household names but with names (Victoria Clarke, Brian D’Arcy James, Michael Cerveris) now familiar to those who follow theater. The filmed production has the benefit of anonymity. At least for American audiences, none of the company members are likely to carry any baggage., but it’s well cast, highlighted by Adam Filipe as the stoker and Lucie-Mae Sumner as the amorous Kate.
But the real star is Yeston’s score. Unashamedly sincere and aimed high, for me it generates more tears, empathy and awe than anything Cameron put on the screen. And a bonus: In this version, nobody selfishly throws away expensive jewelry in the end that could have endowed a hospital.
Titanic: The Musical will screen in theaters at 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, and 7 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 7 as a special screening from Fathom Events. Check your local listings for showtimes.