Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Largest Moving Object in the World

A year ago today there was much to-do, but 100 years, after all, seems somehow more worth observing than 101.  Nonetheless, I think it would be too bad to let it go unrecognized that this is the date, 101 years ago, that the hubris of the Edwardian world was well and truly shaken by the sinking of the ship someone had what turned out to be the very poor idea of describing as "unsinkable": White Star's magnificent RMS Titanic.

Here we have the first few numbers of the Sydney production of Maury Yeston and Peter Stone's musical on the subject.  When the Broadway version was in preparation, back in the late '90s while I was still living in Manhattan, the show was the subject of much malicious speculation regarding just how big a flop it would turn out to be, mavens of such things all expecting a turkey of, well, titanic proportions, a kind of seagoing Carrie or Moose Murders.  Come opening night and the knives were out - but the thing itself proved something of a hit.  A few months later I took a flock of nephews and a niece, and they were enthralled and I impressed by the whole thing.

Tucked into this 2006 Australian cast, which seems on the whole to me vocally the equal to or better than the one I saw on Broadway all those years ago, is the great Antipodean diva Joan Carden, who plays Ida Straus against the distinguished tenor Robert Gard.  The Straus' story caps a series of plotlines of young love and marital devotion that punctuate the musical, and their duet late in the second act, the almost operettische "Still," (in which Carden and Gard shine*) is inexpressibly touching.  Not surprisingly, the Strauses were reduced to a single fleeting shot in the James Cameron film, which was longer on sex than sentiment (except about the ship itself).

Remarkably, what seems to be the entire Sydney production is YouTubable, for anyone who'd like a look at a work that I think has some of the finest ensemble and choral writing of any recent musical (if some longueurs in the recitative and solo writing).  The Broadway production suffered from a certain lack of visual panache that this one hasn't escaped, but the various sliding panels and rising and falling bridges do the trick.

Crossing the Atlantic last summer, we thought a lot about that cold April night.  Among our tablemates, there in the dining room of the Queen Mary 2 (grander by far than could have seemed possible in 1912), was a lovely older couple.  A few days out, they confided that they had decided to come across on the Queen because the husband's great uncle had been a crewman on Titanic, and they wanted to see the spot, or as close to as they could, where the great ship foundered.  They had his last letter home, sent from Southampton, and a memoir written by a cousin of how the family learned the sad news - White Star, a few days after the tragedy, telegraphed the big house in their village to confirm the death.  Sitting there over our Baked Alaska, with the dark ocean rushing by outside, it all seemed very close.  One morning they were taken down to a crew deck at the stern - as close as you can get, apparently, to the water - and threw a rose out into the wake, in memory of a young baker who had given up his apprenticeship in the local shop to go sea.  Watching the crew arrive (on stage) and register their wonder ("There she is!") makes me think of him.  Godspeed, indeed...

* It's about halfway through the fifth and final YouTube segment


  1. we're having north atlantic weather
    here right now.the way things are
    going, we'll probably hit a berg as well.

  2. Saw Joan C a few times back in the day. Tosca springs to mind, and the one with the nuns. She had a reputation as a warm and friendly woman from my friends backstage.

    I think the Strausses got a much lovelier cameo in the 1958 version. But then it was a superior film in almost every way!