Titanic Without $10 Million Sets Is Just as Effective, Says Maury Yeston | Playbill

Special Features Titanic Without $10 Million Sets Is Just as Effective, Says Maury Yeston

With a chamber staging of the musical hitting cinemas November 4, we talk to the show's composer-lyricist about why size doesn't always matter.

The cast of Titanic: The Musical Pamela Raith

To composer Maury Yeston, Titanic—both the boat that famously sank in 1912 and his 1997 musical recounting the tragic tale—is all about class. “It was everything. You lived or died based on what costume you were wearing,” Yeston told Playbill by phone.

Yeston is reflecting back on his musical as the stars have aligned to bring it back in full force. The show will hit movie theatres November 4 and 8 via Fathom Events, filmed live on stage during a recent U.K. tour. In 2024, New York City City Encores! is poised to bring the show back to Manhattan. And both of these come as, and were no doubt planned prior to, the Titanic itself again making headlines this past summer—when a small, private submersible on its way to see the watery resting place of the ship’s wreckage combusted 320 nautical miles below the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean, killing its mostly billionaire passengers. That story created conversations around class and privilege, too.

Yeston says his fascination with that element started decades ago when he spent two years studying in England at Cambridge. “I was living in a society built on class differences that go back hundreds upon hundreds of years.” Shortly after moving into his student housing, Yeston discovered he would be waited on by a butler who was immediately eager to shine his shoes. More used to the norms of his New Jersey upbringing, Yeston balked.

Maury Yeston Joseph Marzullo/WENN

“I told him, ‘We had a revolution with this country. I’m happy to shine my own shoes,’” Yeston remembers. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Well if everybody felt that way, I’d be out of a job.’” I saw that he was terribly proud of serving the upper intellectual class of England. It’s so foreign to anybody brought up in America.”

Five days later, through bizarre happenstance, Yeston found himself wearing his tux and attending an uppercrust Cambridge party with England’s elite—Prince Charles was amongst the esteemed guests. And who should he run into serving drinks at the bar but the very butler who was so eager to shine Yeston’s shoes. “His eyes narrowed, and his lips curled a bit. And he said to me in a very serious way, ‘Now, how did you get in here?’” Yeston couldn’t believe the change in attitude. “Five days ago, this man was proud to shine my shoes. And now he’s offended that I was in a place where I shouldn’t be because that was above my class.” The encounter stuck with the young composer. “That experience is why I grew up and wrote Titanic.”

Well, it’s half of why he grew up and wrote Titanic. The second half of that story came a few decades later. Sitting in his Connecticut home, Yeston found himself thinking about the famous sinking, and the audacity of believing mankind had enough control over the world that one could build an “unsinkable” ship. “And as I was thinking that, I swear to you, I turned on the television and the Challenger space shuttle had just blown up over my head,” remembers Yeston. “And I thought, ‘We have not learned anything. I’m going to write Titanic. This is a story that just happened again.’ Seven wonderful, young people lost their lives, not because of the sin of pride. They lost their lives in the pursuit of a dream.”

That impetus had a profound impact on Yeston’s version of the Titanic story, which he musicalized with book writer Peter Stone. Instead of inventing a fictional story on which to hang the events of the sinking, their's would be the real story of the ship itself and the roughly 2,200 people onboard, a story of class conflict, immigrant dreams, and immense hubris. In Yeston’s score, the cast sings of a “Ship of Dreams.” A few moments later, the third-class passengers, mostly poor immigrants, sing of their plans for a new life in America in “Lady’s Maid,” the dramatic irony that they will never live out those dreams palpable.

Irony abounds in Yeston’s writing, but not always as a dramatic tool. Titanic opened on Broadway in April 1997, just nine months before James Cameron’s Titanic blockbuster opened in movie theatres—the film became a cultural landmark and juggernaut that took in more than $2 billion at the box office. That timing led many to incorrectly believe that the musical and movie were in some way connected, or that Yeston and Stone were trying to ride on the coattails of Cameron’s success.

And it didn’t help that it was the second time something like this happened in Yeston’s career. In the early '80s, he began working on a musical adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera shortly after Nine premiered on Broadway. By the middle of the decade, he was in the midst of getting investors together for a Broadway run when Andrew Lloyd Webber announced his own take on the story, which opened in London’s West End with Broadway to follow, and became a wild success. Lloyd Webber's Broadway Phantom closed earlier this year after a historic and unmatched 35-year run. Yeston’s Phantom, written with his Nine book writer Arthur Kopit and featuring a story substantially different than that of Lloyd Webber’s, eventually premiered in 1991. And to its credit, it's become a favorite at regional houses, and is especially popular in international markets. A Korean production was filmed and came to movie theatres in 2022.

Even though the piece had been in development since before Lloyd Webber even began work on his Phantom, Yeston had to fight off the notion that his musical was inspired by Lloyd Webber’s success. “In the words of Yul Brynner, ‘It’s a puzzlement,’” Yeston says, quoting Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. “I think it’s no accident that we’re connected to a wave somehow—that what I may be thinking is maybe what a lot of other people are thinking. It’s luck, but I also think it has to do with a sensitivity to what’s going on in the world.”

To his credit, he’s not bitter. Yeston says it’s somewhat inevitable with the way theatre gets made. “With me, it’s always seven years or more. Nothing that I write gets on quickly. I had written Titanic, been working on it for years and years. And then James Cameron says he’s doing a film about it—why should I be surprised? It’s the most famous story in the world. Of course there’s going to be movies about it.” Yeston says he thinks the movie version is “a wonderful film,” and he counts himself a big fan of Lloyd Webber, too. 

Furthermore, he says that multiple artists going after the same story is nothing new. “How many times has the same story been told with five different composers in the history of classical music?” he posits.

The original Broadway cast of Titanic Joan Marcus

But there was even more offstage irony afoot when Titanic made its Broadway premiere in 1997. Yeston’s notion of the technological hubris present in the building of the doomed ship came to haunt the massive original production, too. At a reported cost of $10 million, that show featured a hydraulic set (designed by Stewart Laing, who won a Tony Award for his work) so complex that a pre-Broadway tryout proved impossible and Broadway previews became notorious for frequent technical problems. “We lost our record for worst preview period in Broadway history when Spider-Man came along. I’m sorry for them, but boy have I been there,” Yeston told us in 2012. Despite mixed to positive reviews, five 1997 Tony wins including Best Musical, and a run of nearly two years, Titanic closed as one of the most expensive failures Broadway had yet seen—though producers told The New York Times that they had recouped more than half of the initial investment.

But the version of the musical coming to the big screen now is a very different situation altogether. The production uses a chamber version of the musical developed by original Broadway cast member Don Stephenson that debuted in 2012 at Ithaca, New York’s Hangar Theatre and later played Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford, New York. Stephenson’s revision cuts the cast size down from the Broadway original’s 43 to just 25, and the orchestra from 26 to six. This version of the script and score, which is now licensed through Concord Theatricals, has made the show much more accessible to a wider range of theatre groups.

The filmed production, captured during a U.K. tour, originates from London’s Southwark Playhouse, a small Off-West End theatre. Director Thom Southerland dispenses with the hydraulics for a rather simple unit set—you will not see any tilted floors as this Titanic goes down.

But Yeston says that doesn’t make things low rent. “Size doesn’t come from the size of the orchestra,” he says. “Size comes from the size of the music. If I play Titanic on the piano, it’s enormous. When we reduce the number of instruments, it doesn’t sound like the same number of people playing—but the music doesn’t shrink.” By way of example, Yeston, ever the musicologist and professor, points out the piano concerti of the concert world, in which a single piano can match the power and dominance of an entire orchestra thanks to the magnitude of the writing for that solo instrument.

Ian McLarnon in Titanic: The Musical Pamela Raith

In Southerland’s Titanic, this might best be on display in the second act’s “To the Lifeboats/We’ll Meet Tomorrow.” The sequence, which Yeston counts his most favorite (“It’s a perfect example of something that only musical theatre can do,” he says proudly), is a dramatization of the Titanic passengers boarding lifeboats. It contains all its accompanying pathos—from families being split up to debates over who gets a seat, all with the specter of certain death in an ice-cold Atlantic Ocean looking over everyone’s shoulder.

But Yeston starts the scene quiet as can be, with a character having a small, private conversation with a child. “When you go that small,” Yeston says, “the smaller you can get, the bigger it’s going to be when it gets bigger. Size is as much the variance between how quiet and how loud you can get as it is between how many people were playing it.”

And even in a smaller production like the one on film, Yeston has another trick up his sleeve. There may only be six musicians playing in the pit, but there are 25 singers. “What I might lack in the band, I don’t lack in the mass of choral voices and choral writing that’s happening on stage,” he explains. “The combination of the two manages, even in a smaller form, to give you that immensity in power that matches the monumentality of the subject matter.”

At least when it comes to those $10 million sets, Yeston says they can be very impressive and effective, but it’s never been what excites him about live theatre. Seeing many productions of his musicals over the years, he’s come to find smaller school productions the most satisfying because the lack of budget forces designers to get creative. “My stuff isn’t about the set and 10 tons of scenery,” says Yeston. “You can do Nine with 20 chairs, and it’s the same with Titanic. It’s the music that tells the story. It makes pictures in your mind, and it enabled designers to be original and daring instead of trying to knock your eyes out with 10 tons of scenery.”

In Southerland’s Titanic, that leads to some nice moments of poetic staging that wouldn’t have been possible in the more realism-based original design. Early in the score, we hear a stoker singing about the challenges of working in the ship’s boiler room in “Barrett’s Song.” The character is amongst the lowest class aboard the ship, paid just a few pounds for the entire two-week voyage. But in Southerland’s staging (which also features musical staging by Cressida Carré), the character is perched atop an elegant dining-room table as smartly dressed servants lay place settings for a first-class dining service around him. Suddenly Yeston’s read of how class played such a vital role aboard the ship is front and center—and suddenly less scenery becomes an asset, not a hinderance.

And yet Titanic will return to New York City later this season back at its original size, at least in terms of the cast and orchestra. New York City Center Encores! is presenting a revival that begins performances in June 2024, with Anne Kauffman at the helm. You might think the show’s composer would prefer to hear his work with the largest orchestra possible, but Yeston balks at this idea.

“Versions of these things are no different than fingers,” he says. “Which one would you cut off? It’s just lucky to have all those things. It’s so meaningful to me.”

Find out where Titanic: The Musical is playing near you and get tickets at FathomEvents.com.

Photos From the Stage Film of Titanic: The Musical

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