On the Titanic centennial there seems to be some sort of obligation that every blog focus on the tragedy. And I might as well confess it: the catastrophe was completely my fault. I thoroughly botched it. But at least I got paid.
It’s rare I get hired – well, we could stop that sentence right there: It’s rare I get hired. But I meant to say it’s rare someone wants me to be just the librettist of a piece. And that makes sense because people hear my songs, and therefore become aware of my composer-lyricist abilities; for book writing, you’ve got to see a performance of one of the shows I wrote the book for. And that’s not most of them.
A wonderfully warm actor and singer, Lee Winston, had some sort of relationship with a musical group that was planning a Titanic-related performance. They’d meticulously researched what pieces were played by the ship-board ensemble, including, most famously, Nearer My God To Thee. The story goes that the musicians’ sense of duty to the vessel was such, they continued playing until a big wave drowned them all.
Lee’s idea was to add dialogue. It would be interesting, and far more moving, to get to know these musicians. They’d play all the music, and, when the characters went on break, they’d interact. Certain that he could procure my modest fee from the ensemble, Lee told me to go ahead and write it post haste.
The structure of this little drama was dictated by the chronology of events. Get to know the musicians, then there’s this big crash sound. There’d be some uncertainty about how serious the accident was: after all, the Titanic had been touted as an unsinkable boat. Worry and panic would grow and then, at the denouement, we’d see the musicians’ decision process, to stay on board, playing.
Now, all of that sounds plenty dramatic, but there’s an inherent problem: the audience is ahead of it. I don’t know how widely-known it is that the band played on, but surely publicity materials for the show would make the ending clear.
There was also the matter of making the characters individuals, and lovable ones. That’s something that needed to be established in the opening scenes. And since all the numbers would be diegetic, I couldn’t rely on songs to help characterize anybody. In this way, the project wasn’t like a jukebox musical, which attempts to use pre-existing well-known songs to tell a story. I had my story handed to me, and a large set of songs that weren’t fondly-remembered hits. But now it sounds like I’m making excuses for myself.
The script I came up with was perfunctory; none of it heart-felt. The producers of the concert took one look at it and decided their concert should remain a concert. Lee, a man of his word, paid me for the script that would never be used. I felt bad taking the money. While I regret not doing a better job, and have no one to blame but myself, looking back on it, I feel sorry the producers failed to collaborate. A first draft is a little like an architect’s first drawing. It’s a way of beginning a conversation, in which all parties discuss, and put forth their ideas of what the thing should turn out to be. In this case, it was one unimpressive draft and the plug was pulled.
A few years after my ship sank, and in a hurry (producers apparently wanted the opening to coincide with the 85th anniversary, but failed) estimable Tony-winners Peter Stone and Maury Yeston created a musical, Titanic, and faced some of the same problems. (And both again won Tonys, as did the show itself.) Stone’s approach to the script involved introducing us to an extremely large panoply of characters, assumedly letting us know just enough of each so it would be moving when so many of them die. The quantity of passengers and staff is dizzying, and one song just involves an amusing woman rattling off names and descriptions of First Class toffs. On the plus side, Stone provided a number of romantic situations for Yeston to turn into his typically rapturous songs. There’s a marriage proposal, a new love, and an old married couple deciding to perish in each other’s arms. But ultimately, I think, the authors get done in by this approach. Way too much time is spent introducing new characters; there’s way too little plot. And there’s no denying it feels like they’re just rearranging deck chairs while we’re all waiting for some hardly impressive special effect we know is coming.
And now to tell a tale out of school: One year, I did a musical showcase in which a large group of students did my favorite number from Titanic, Lady’s Maid. In it, Yeston shows the immigrants in steerage, all expressing their dreams of what life in America will be like. “I want to be a lady’s maid, lady’s maid in America. In America the streets are paved with gold.” About a month later, non-musical track students did their own cabaret, and it was considered sporting to send up the more serious-minded musical track crowd. So, I wrote up a parody, which was then costumed exactly the same way as the previous version, with precisely the same staging, about lower class passengers with a more primal need: “I want to use the ladies room, ladies room in America. In America the pipes are made of gold.”
If you’ve read this blog enough, you know of my passion for verisimilitude and echt period detail. So I don’t need to tell you what I thought of the James Cameron blockbuster in which the main characters all act and talk as absolutely no one in 1912 ever did. I recommend a blog on the cinematic disaster that’s far funnier than I would have been: I Re-Watched Titanic So You Don’t Have To. You’re Welcome