Theatrical iterations of Titanic, and detailings of what happened on the night of Sunday, April 14, 1912, will do anything but sink. Over the past 109 years since the RMS Titanic disaster, the theater has kept the memory of that historic maiden voyage afloat.
At about 11:40 p.m., the “unsinkable” British luxury liner, struck an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean, and reportedly broke through five “watertight” compartments toward the bow. The ship, nicknamed the “Millionaire’s Special,” engulfed by water slowly submerged off the coast of Newfoundland taking the lives of 1,500 passengers and crew members. Many of the travelers were notably wealthy Americans. This entire narrative was a dramatic play waiting to be written.
Though marked as another tragedy on water at the time, had not millionaire and real estate developer John J. Astor, or businessman Benjamin Guggenheim or Isidor Straus, co-founder of Macy’s Department Store, not been onboard, would the story be as interesting or noteworthy? Dozens of passenger ships have sunk, but none saw the loss of life like the Titanic due to lack of planning for the inevitable. Today’s cruise ships have enough lifeboats for everyone onboard, voyages are safer, and the treatment of travelers isn’t as classist; perhaps that sense of its history is the draw.
Storytellings and theatrical productions inspired by the sinking of the “ship of dreams” have evolved over time. Ironically, only 29 days after the ship’s sinking, survivor Dorothy Gibson released a film, Saved from the Titanic. Unfortunately, this invaluable glimpse into real life, directed by Étienne Arnaud, was destroyed in a studio fire leaving nothing to examine. The drama.
Some 85 years and multiple books and films later, Titanic: The Musical, the first musical based on the story of the ship and that fateful night, arrived at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway, on April 23, 1997. The discovery of the ship’s wreckage in 1985 inspired Maury Yeston to write the musical. “What drew me to [a musical about the story of the Titanic] was the positive aspects of what the ship represented: humankind's striving after great artistic works and similar technological feats, despite the possibility of tragic failure, and the dreams of the passengers on board: 3rd Class, to immigrate to America for a better life; 2nd Class, to live a leisured lifestyle in imitation of the upper classes; 1st Class, to maintain their privileged positions forever,” Yeston detailed when asked what inspired him. “The collision with the iceberg dashed all of these dreams simultaneously, and the subsequent transformation of character the passengers and crew had, it seemed to me, the potential for great emotional and musical expression onstage.” With a book by Peter Stone, the production directed by Richard Jones was based in fact, and gave theater audiences a concept of the people aboard the ship. The set, designed by Stewart Laing, included several wooden moveable decks, a White Star Line boarding area, a first class smoking lounge and other accouterments, contributed to one of the most expensive musicals on Broadway. The theater lobby included a complete passenger list on its walls, highlighting those who survived the disastrous voyage. Titanic went on to win five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, but didn’t quite capture the hearts of everyone. The show ran for only 804 performances, closing on March 21, 1999. It is believed it earned a little more than half of its initial 10 million dollar investment.
That same year in December, 20th Century Fox along with Paramount Pictures, released Titanic, a film with no connection to the musical. Keeping in the tradition of the Titanics before it, it too was quite an expensive undertaking, touting a 200 million dollar production budget. The film, directed, written, produced, and co-edited by James Cameron, was not all based in truth. In fact the movie’s dramatization of characters, Rose and Jack were fictionalized stories made for this film’s script. Some theater goers who had seen the film prior to the onstage musical production complained about the difference in storytelling, believing that they were both meant to be the same. This reasoning is also thought to be grounds for why the musical production closed prematurely.
Titanic: The Musical has gone on to see many regional and touring productions after its Broadway closing on March 21, 1999. One of the more notable ones was the 2017 Signature Theatre production in DC directed by Eric Schaeffer, it featured a 20-person cast with a 17-piece orchestra. Set in-the-round, this production intimately engaged the audience, giving them the feeling of being on board the ship. Amanda Zieve’s lighting design, with its rich mix of blue hues, helped theatergoers experience the placid yet undaunting ocean and the array of emotions felt during that frightening fiasco. This production was scheduled to move to Broadway in 2019, but was put on pause after COVID-19 forced all theaters to shutdown for over a year.
Most recently, Brooklyn-based performance artist, Michael Kinnan, took the dramatization of Titanic to new heights with Never Let Go. His new one-man show was recently staged at The Brick Theatre in Brooklyn for a limited run. Kinnan has been developing this “unauthorized solo retelling of James Cameron’s Titanic” film since 2011. He details that the idea was created from a college assignment and growing up worshiping the 1997 blockbuster film. He manages to condense three hours and fifteen minutes into one bedazzling hour, without missing a beat. Kinnan reenacts memorable moments and has memorized the entire film line for line. During the production he manages to switch effortlessly from character to character using the appropriate hand and body movements, mannerisms, and speech. The show was previously produced at the Drama Book Shop in 2017 and then again at the Vital Joint in 2018 to sold-out audiences.
Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition in Orlando, Florida turns the tragic night in April 1912 into a dinner theater experience at night. Upon entree, every attendee receives a boarding pass with the name, class accommodations, and short bio of an actual Titanic passenger. Actors playing Captain Smith, Margaret “Molly” Brown, and other first-class passengers, reenact the night the Titanic sank over cocktails and baked chicken. Captain Smith welcomes his guests and Molly Brown initiates small talk with them. After a toast is made in celebration of the Titanic, the actors mingle festively in the simulated dining room. Attendees find out at the end of the show whether their person survived or sank with the Titanic.
The story of Titanic has moved from presentations for viewing, to more immersive productions with audience participation. Most recently, the now shuttered Serenbe Playhouse, just outside of Atlanta, moved the musical outdoors in 2018. The outdoor, site-specific production, was set on a lake located within the Serenbe community. Brian Clowdus, the artistic director and visionary, created a three-story structure that sunk into the middle of that lake every night at the end of the performance. “When I’m planning each season, I always choose an anchor show, and this year, Titanic felt completely right,” Clowdus said to the Atlanta Journal. “Titanic is a story about hope and journey. In the place that we are in, around the nation and the world, a story of hope is very current.”
One thing is for sure, there continues to be a deeply rooted fascination with Titanic. It was one of the greatest global tragedies of the 20th century. Around the world, newspapers captured the horrific event. Nations felt the pain and loss of lives that were not supposed to die on a ship touted as grand and unsinkable. The truth is, for the next 100 years Titanic on stage, performed as a musical or play, with new and improved technologies will grace stages globally because of its unwavering glory.