The Bay City Players Embark Upon an Ambitious Musical Production About the 'Ship of Dreams'

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre,   From Issue 658   By: Robert E Martin

10th April, 2008     0

As The Bay City Players enters the 90th season of providing quality community theatrical presentations, they are also embarking upon one of their most ambitious journeys yet - a full fledged presentation of Titanic - The Musical, which features 43 cast members and a 25-piece orchestra under the direction of Don Clark.

When Titanic: The Musical opened on Broadway in 1997, critics were skeptical about how the horrific tragedy concerning the epic ocean liner RMS Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage on April 15, 1912, could possibly be translated into a musical.   With a story written by Peter Stone and music & lyrics by Maury Yeston, the production went on to win 5 Tony Awards and span 804 performances.      

According to Tina Sills, director of the Bay City Players production, Stone (writer of the award winning 1776) and Yeston had worked on the production for a number of years prior to the blockbuster James Cameron film, with the goal of developing a factual script concerning the tragedy. 

"In many of the popular accounts about Titanic there exist fictional characters and composite characters, but with this production you have actual figures, such as Captain EJ Smith, The Astors, The Gugenheims, and several wealthy Philadelphia folks, along with actual crew members, and the goal of the production was to take a look at why this tragedy happened," she explains.       

"A lot of musicals are about people but this one is really about the ship," continues Tina, "and the production is more about what a momentous event this was.  The story is introduced by Thomas Andrews, the designer of the ship, who talks in a prologue about how past civilizations built the pyramids, and how his floating city is unsinkable and indestructible. Yet, the fact remains, it did sink." 

"To my mind there are three characters - Captain Smith, Andrews, and J. Bruce Ismay, Director of the White Star Line, who in many ways represent Greed, Compromise, and Complacency.  Questions abound   throughout the production. For example, Smith was brought out of retirement for this maiden voyage, so why didn't he pay attention to the icebergs? Why did they take a northern route when most ships would take southern routes? A lot of it centers around the issue of control, or lack of it, by taking the Northern route for speed and living in dreams of being the best and the fastest."    

"Many shortcuts were taken in order to make first class more comfortable," she continues, "and the bulkheads were smaller than they should have been for a ship this size. So you have feelings of pride and vision and guilt. Of course, once the iceberg is struck, nobody can make anything right, but this production is intriguing because it allows people to walk away with their own theories."       

When Titanic took her maiden voyage it was at the height of the Robber Baron period in America, where you had families such as the Rockefellers, Fords, and Carnegies building monopolistic empires for their families, and the nature of realizing grandiose dreams is at the core of Titanic: The Musical.   

"There is a definite excitement because at the time this ship was conceived you had the Dawn of Technology," reflects Tina. "Marconi had men talking from ship to shore, and radios were on the horizon, and really the story in one way is about the loss of control."

Perhaps the most intriguing component of the production is the notion of creating a musical around a tragedy that is predicated upon expectation - each person on board the ship was open to the possibilities of life, unaware that tragedy was one collision away.   

"Titanic was billed as the 'Ship of Dreams', " notes Tina, "and all the characters in the play have some type of dream in their life. There's a couple in 2nd Class who owns a hardware store in Indiana, and a young couple from England going to America to become citizens, and regardless of which class people were traveling, they all harbored tremendous hope. The music that shapes this is absolutely gorgeous."       

Musical Director Don Clark agrees wholeheartedly.      

"The majority of this music is very dark and somber with lots of low brass and string parts to bring that darkness through," he remarks. "It's a pretty remarkable show and to me the music has been a challenge not because it's difficult to sing but because so many leitmotifs show up, with repetition to bring people back and forth into the tragedy."  

"Once you grasp these musical moments and get tuned into them, you can sense tragedy coming. The opening number is about 10 or 15 minutes long, while everybody is loading on to the ship, with people excited and full of hope & promise - with a score that is upbeat and positive; but as the score unfolds you get this incredible sensation that things are not going to end well for these people."      

"For me having 43 people on stage and 25 in the orchestra is a challenge as a musician, because we have people in the cast who enjoy singing in the shower all the way to trained musicians with college backgrounds, so the range is very broad. Yet every person has stepped up and continues to amaze me in terms of how well they are gelling. I keep telling them to search for the highest denominator and it's exciting to watch unfold."       

"From a directorial perspective, having 40-plus people on stage getting into lifeboats is a challenge," notes Tina, "plus we are using the side stages for the bridge and radio room and getting a ship to rise on hydraulics is no cakewalk," she smiles.     

"I've done 15 shows here and started directing around 1986 and this is without doubt the most challenging production I've tackled, simply in terms of getting my head wrapped around what this needs to look like insofar as we don't have the technical facilities and budget of Broadway."   

"Sometimes if you take away all the production the book gets lost in a lot of modern theatre," notes Tina, "but you could do a concert version of this production and still have a great show. To me that's the true test. The music is almost operatic. In most musicals the song serves to move the theme along, but in this play the music moves everything along. The cast have worked very hard and I'm immensely proud of them." 

With so many varied perspectives shed on Titanic, what does Tina feel is the pivotal perspective from this musical in terms of shedding insight into what transpired?  

"In one part of the production 1st Class passengers are singing in the dining room about what a remarkable age this is and how things couldn't get better - we have the parachute, cellophane has been invented  - aren't things much better for business since monopolies formed," explains Don.      

"It's all about capitalism and all about success and really it represented a class system that existed in Western Civilization where we sill had all those 3rd Class passengers that were going to die like rats on a ship, yet nobody in the other classes is worried about them.

"I think it goes back to the ship itself and hope people will walk out with a deeper understanding of what a true disaster this was," summarizes Tina. "With so much power and the enormity of what that ship was - for it to go down so fast - it's a metaphor and lesson from which we all can learn."
The Bay City Players production of Titanic: The Musical will run from April 24-27 and May 1-4. Thursday, Friday & Saturday performances are at 8 PM and Sunday performances are at 3 PM. Ticket prices are $18 for adults, $16 for seniors and students. Bay City Players is located at 1214 Columbus Avenue in Bay City. The box office may be reached by phoning 989-893-5555.


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