In the programme notes, the New York songwriter Maury Yeston, introducing his all-singing take on peacetime’s worst ever maritime disaster, tells us he was motivated to “do honour to those souls” who sailed on the unsinkable transatlantic liner of legend. Furthermore, addressing a British audience, he notes our forebears; those who “served bravely upon her, and behaved with such courage and honour.” A tribute that reads like a lyric. This sort of thing has been the clarion call of creatives with an alliterative and ghoulish fascination with this mass drowning since it all went down 106 years ago. Has it ever been true?
Every take on the ship of dreams and its socially stratified passengers justifies itself this way, delicately balancing our fascination with Edwardian endeavour and hubris with the appalling loss of life that resulted from basic lapses in good seamanship. But it’s odd that no matter what the format – miniseries, novel, film, musical theatre – the same myths endure; myths that have nothing to do with honouring the memories of the dead or testing our thought terminating ideas about courage and honour.
In Titanic: The Musical, Bruce Ismay, the mustache twirling White Star Line man remains the de facto villain of the piece – the bastard whose mercenary preoccupation with speed and media management led to disaster. His cowardice is palpable as he slinks off in a lifeboat, our attention drawn to his guilt ridden face, as it has been in every Titanic dramatization since 1912. William Murdoch, the Titanic’s unlucky first officer, who in reality had 30 seconds to take evasive action to avoid the looming iceberg, made an instinctive (and logical) choice to attempt to swerve around it. Having inadvertently doomed the ship (though Captain Smith ignoring ice warnings and maintaining speed was far more decisive), he did everything he could to help people to lifeboats, but takes the blame in the musical version, then shoots himself. There’s no evidence he thought this or did this; it’s unlikely anyone stopped to ask him as the crew were somewhat preoccupied and his last moments were not witnessed; but perhaps Peter Stone, who wrote the book, used James Cameron’s silly 1997 movie for research purposes, apparently unaware that Murdoch’s family had sought and received an apology from 20th Century Fox for what amounted to posthumous libel after it portrayed him blowing his brains out.
It’s a pity that Ismay and Murdoch continue to be pilloried in these so-called tributes, but judging them by early 20th century standards, whether it’s fair or true, keeps the story clean, stripping out any ambiguity, nuance or, heaven forefend, an iconoclastic reappraisal of women and children first that might cast that terrible two and a half hours in a rather different light. But this a musical, it’s melodrama; it’s about stirring the emotions, not stimulating the intellect or psychological realism, and on that basis Titanic: The Musical is just the job. It’s big, harmonious West End spectacle with a chorus of fine voices that fill a theatre like gushing seawater pouring into a not quite watertight compartment.
Put aside the fact Ismay’s life was ruined by surviving and all he did was take an empty seat in a lifeboat that if refused, for “honourable” reasons, would have been tantamount to suicide. Ignore that those who judged him and continue to judge him, in myth making spectacles like this production, have never faced the prospect of drowning, or been told that for reasons pertaining to propriety and convention, their life is worth less than a stranger’s, so they should graciously give it up without a fight. Instead, concentrate on the production’s well-orchestrated and controlled musical finery – the teeth and the swagger, the projection and the melancholy.
In fairness to Titanic: The Musical, it has a slick and talented cast whose voices could probably be heard on the Atlantic floor. The first half, that riffs on well-trod aspects of the Titanic story – the hubris, third class emigrants hopes for the New World, the ship’s luminous first class passengers – is the easy part, the scene setting. The show, we know, will be made or broken after the interval when the ‘berg has done its damage.
If you ignore the biographical lapses, as I haven’t, Act 2 is a dignified treatment of a horrifying incident. Wisely, the production truncates the disaster, unable to offer, in stage bound musical format, any of the visceral panic, social breakdown or physical destruction that characterised the real sinking. In its stead there’s a focus on the stuff a songwriter can work with (because the rest is, well – not quite flamboyant enough) – regret, the pain of separation, broken dreams. If you’re a fan of musical theatre and can ignore the disconnect between subject matter and treatment, then you’re set for an enlivening evening – Broadway in the ‘burbs. Or should that be ‘bergs?