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On 4th April Titanic the musical returns to The Grand Opera House. This poignant piece celebrates the lives of those who boarded the ship, their hopes and aspirations, carrying the sense of loss that not only affected the individuals who boarded the ship and their loved ones, but resonated throughout the world. This critically acclaimed production is a must-see for Belfast audiences and beyond.

Ahead of its arrival theatre Critic Matt Wolf interviewed the show's Producer Thomas Southerland and Danielle Tarento & Maury Yeston who wrote the music and lyrics.

Early in 2005, the director Thom Southerland was on 42 nd Street in Manhattan, having just attended the final performance of the Broadway revival of 42 nd Street. It was the recent drama school graduate’s first visit to Manhattan, and as he was leaving the theatre, he noticed a shop selling old theatre merchandise including souvenir brochures.

Rummaging through, he came upon a programme for the musical Titanic, which had completed an 804-performance Broadway run in March, 1999, having won Tony Awards in every category for which it was nominated two years earlier – Best Musical included.

“I remember picking the programme up and looking at it and thinking, ‘This is unreal,” said Southerland, who scurried along to the then-mighty Tower Records emporium near Times Square to buy the show’s cast album.

Flash forward 8-1/2 years, and Southerland had teamed up with his frequent producer Danielle Tarento to bring Titanic The Musical to London’s Southwark Playhouse in an entirely fresh production that became a major success and has been in performance somewhere or other in the world for much of the intervening decade. Its tenth anniversary this year is being marked with a UK and Ireland tour running 16 March-5 August, and recent conversations with its creators – the show’s Tony-winning composer-lyricist Maury Yeston included – showed an undimmed appetite for this audacious work.

Did this trio envisage such a prolonged and triumphant life for a show based on the fateful story of the RMS Titanic, which struck an iceberg and sank in 1912 during the ship’s maiden voyage from Southampton to New York? (More than 1500 people died, their names memorialised in the foyer of Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre during the initial engagement.) “I had no idea,” says Southerland, recalling the slow build of a production that in time was getting ink from the likes of The New York Post’s showbiz scribe Michael Riedel that Titanic was enjoying a new lease on life.

“We tried to get across the notion that people would have a wonderful time, if they could get over the idea that they were seeing a musical about a sinking ship; audiences who went to see it really took it to their heart.” Southerland elaborates on the production’s trajectory: “There are photos on my desk from the technical rehearsals and, my God, we look like children. But every year since we first did it, except when we were locked down in COVID, Titanic The Musical has been part of my life; this show just keeps giving.” (This is the production’s sixth separate iteration, following various UK tours and engagements in Canada, Germany, and China; a hoped-for Broadway revival has yet to happen.)

Wasn’t there concern that playgoers might expect a version of the James Cameron film, which, interestingly, opened in cinemas the same year the musical premiered on Broadway and, following on from the show’s Tony, won the Best Picture Oscar? (Celine Dion is in no way connected to this musical.) Southerland recognises that a certain percentage of the audience for Titanic may arrive wanting the film, “but after the first 20 minutes or so, they’re embarrassed; they’re won round by the quality of the material.”

“Truth is a better story than fiction,” says Tarento, distinguishing between the late Peter Stone’s Tony-winning book for the musical – itself heavily researched - and the large-screen romance of a film about lovers, Rose and Jack, who were invented. “This is the true story of the people on the Titanic,” Tarento adds, the musical’s characters ranging from J Bruce Ismay, the English chairman of the White Star Line who was among those to survive the sinking, to Thomas Andrews, the naval architect of the ocean liner who went down with the ship.

A 25-strong ensemble double up, or more, as required, and one asset in producing terms is the eternal recognition attached to the event itself. Tarento knows the risk inherent in a narrative where “everyone is waiting for the boat to sink”, but the show sails into spectators’ heart as a study, she says, in “humanity, about there but for the grace of God go I. Titanic is the star; we don’t need names.” And for what it’s worth, the musical is the same length – 2 hours 40 minutes – that it took the Titanic to sink: an extraordinary synergy, by anyone’s reckoning.

Southerland points to Yeston’s genius in mixing up the moods, his lyric “we’ll meet tomorrow” finding an optimism against the odds even as the lifeboats are being readied. “I would never want to be on a ship like that,” says Southerland, “but I think we’d all like to hope if it ever came to that moment that we would find the beautiful union shown [between couples] in Titanic The Musical.”

Tarento and Southerland are unwavering in their affection and respect for Yeston, now 77. They’ve brought his musicals Grand Hotel and Death Takes a Holiday to London and yearn still to revive Yeston’s career-making 1982 musical, Nine, the title that brought them to him in the first place; Titanic happened instead. Unlike Titanic The Musical, that show, adapted from the celebrated Federico Fellini movie 8-1/2, really does require a top-billed star; never say never, as they say. In the meantime, Southerland enthuses of the evolving rapport with his composer: “I adored Maury before I met him, and I adore him even more now.”

Reached by telephone at his Manhattan apartment, Yeston returns the compliment. While ceaselessly admiring of opera director Richard Jones’s original Broadway approach to the material, Yeston realised early that “nobody but Richard could come up with that production, so it was ipso facto that any other production was going to be something else.”

Fully aware of the limitations of an Off West End playhouse seating 230 against a capacious Broadway venue, Yeston was ready for reinvention. “I knew that Thom and Danielle would come up with something utterly brilliant and allow the score to do the work – to help place the people in their midst and to allow the imagination of the audience to be part of the collaborative process: to create the fantasy onstage.”

“The art of writing is rewriting,” Yeston says of the musical theatre, “and if you’re not open to that, you can’t fine tune.” That original economy of scale at Southwark, itself tweaked and enlarged as needed over time, has sustained an unbridled excitement in the show to this day. “I find myself very fortunate that the show I love is the show people still want to see,” says Southerland, a sentiment ever so succinctly echoed by Yeston: “Titanic was magic then, and it still is.”

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