Interview: Maury Yeston of TITANIC THE MUSICAL at Cineplex

Tony-winning musical sails into Toronto theatres for a limited engagement

By: Nov. 15, 2023
Interview: Maury Yeston of TITANIC THE MUSICAL at Cineplex

Interview: Maury Yeston of TITANIC THE MUSICAL at Cineplex

Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s TITANIC, winner of five 1997 Tony Awards including Best Musical, sails to Toronto in film form for two showings via Cineplex on November 16th and 19th. The show is based on TITANIC’s recent sold-out UK tour directed by Thom Southerland, which marked the 10-year anniversary of Southerland’s production’s premiere at London’s Southwark Playhouse. Filmed before a live audience, the chamber staging of the musical features a 25-person cast and new musical arrangements by Ian Weinberger, with musical staging by Cressida Carré and musical supervision by Mark Aspinall, lighting design by Howard Hudson, sound design by Andrew Johnson, and set and costumes by David Woodhead.

BroadwayWorld spoke to Maury Yeston, the show’s award-winning composer and lyricist, in advance of its arrival in Toronto.

BWW: Good afternoon, Mr. Yeston. We’re looking forward to welcoming your show in Toronto this week.

YESTON: My dad's family immigrated from Warsaw to London, lived in London for a long time, then went to Montreal. And then an uncle actually moved to Toronto. So, hello Toronto! I love Toronto.

BWW: When the show premiered in 1997, you mentioned that what draws us to the story of the Titanic is its positive aspects; in particular, the dreams that it represents, striving for bigger and better, whether in terms of technological achievement or a better life. Do you still feel that way? What special relevance might the story have for audiences now?

YESTON: Very much so. It's not unusual for musicals to have very unlikely subject matter. You know, when I thought about this, it was the mid ‘80s, and I was thinking about something I wanted to write. And I start thinking about the Titanic. It’s a universal story, and it's incredibly well known. A truly great story overcomes boundaries, and is relevant to every language, every culture; is as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago.

The really great stories are mythic. A myth is a story that reconciles two absolutely contradictory ideas. And this one is such a classic. We have this idea that man is the center of the universe, and he's the master of all things, he can accomplish anything. We look at that idea, and we aspire to the best of what we can be. But at the same time, we also live with the scientific fact that we are nothing but an infinitesimal speck on an infinitesimal planet in a far off galaxy, living around a star that has nothing special about it at all.

Myths bring two contradictory stories and bring them together. Like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. Something about the Titanic has a structure of that myth. I thought about it more, and I realized we’re also talking about the British empire, which had been, in 1912, the greatest historical empire in history. Technical engineering from the late nineteenth century had literally created the Industrial Revolution, and what they were able to do in terms of creating international trade through their maritime industry was unprecedented in history. The only drawback, the only danger in what they had is that sometimes, there's a maritime disaster and people die.

But with that technology from this industrial revolution that we participated in, why would we not try to build a ship that will protect human life? What a great dream! It was no different, I thought, than Jonas Salk having a dream of creating a vaccine that would prevent millions of people from dying from polio. And so I thought what a worthy dream to have built that kind of ship. And they had incredible confidence in it. They failed because we are fallible, yet we are the greatest thinkers and best in the world, but we're also fallible.

As I was thinking about that as a theme for a show and this story in 1986, the Challenger blew up. And I thought: this is a story we may never stop learning. It’s tragic, but at the same time, here we were at the apex of space technology. And what were we doing? We were trying to nobly and selflessly increase human knowledge, to explore the universe. Like that, we dream nobly. We try. Sometimes we fail, but we fail in a noble action, and this is a story I want to tell.

BWW: What also connects the Challenger to the Titanic is that one of the main parts of the Challenger story is that this was the first time we were sending a civilian up into space.

YESTON: She was a schoolteacher!

BWW: That reminds me very much of the Titanic, which is not just this supposed miracle of engineering, but also had so many civilians on board. We were marrying this technological wonder with something that's going to carry people, from the billionaires to the general population.

YESTON: What’s extraordinary about that technological wonderment is that's why they didn’t have enough lifeboats to accommodate all the people who were on that ship. It never could have occurred to them if it would go down, and that they would need them. The lifeboats also would have taken up too much deck space for the upper class to have their tennis courts. When you see the show, you'll see that there are these watertight compartments. They were only watertight up to a certain height; they were supposed to be watertight all the way up to the deck of the ship. But had they been watertight even further up, it would have taken faith away from the size of the bedrooms in the first class compartment.

BWW: This is a show that's set in 1912, but we see so many of the themes and the flaws of humanity that still remain today. There's the allure of celebrity culture. There's the embrace of the flawed American dream, there's the fascination with the promise of technology, and of course the prioritization of speed over safety.

YESTON: All that is in the show. I was aware of it then; I was aware I was writing it, and it’ll never not be so. And I think that's why, maybe not my show, but that story will live forever in exactly the terms that you've described it. At the same time, we want to celebrate the heroism and celebrate the people who were aboard that ship. And also celebrate how brilliantly and how humanely they dealt with it.

I mean, there's Mr. And Mrs. Straus. He was one of the wealthiest men in the world. They were religious Jews. They were on the ship. They could have taken up space in the lifeboats, but they elected not to. Because there were younger people and they were at the end of their lives. And the last thing that they do in the show is they look at each other, and they say it together, I love you now, as much as I did on the day we were married. And they literally remarry each other. During the Broadway show, at the end of that song, he takes his champagne glass, puts it in a napkin, and steps on it. [Stepping on a glass is a Jewish wedding tradition.]

I think that’s the story of heroism. So, things that sound like bad ideas for musicals can really be good ideas. Like Phantom of the Opera, it’s a balance of ugliness and beauty. In both stories, you see this interaction, and at the heart of it is the concept of aspiration. Aspiration to things we could not achieve, but nevertheless, we aspire. I find that very moving. That's why I devoted so much time to the Titanic, and I'll never regret it.

BWW: Speaking about the Strauses, most people don’t necessarily think of the story of the Titanic as a love story, but the musical is a series of love stories.

YESTON: It very much is. There are love stories everywhere in it. You've got the young couple, they've been engaged, they’re planning on getting married when they get to America. Why would they go to America? It was the place to go to, to get away, to have a better life. That's why they went there. There’s the Strauses. There’s the young woman in third class who is pregnant, and says to the man she meets on the ship, “Well? Are you going to marry me?”

BWW: Love is also the one thing in the musical that transcends the otherwise very rigid class system that is baked into it. You have the first class, second class and third class passengers, and the ship’s workers, and there’s a love story in each class.

YESTON: In other words, even in the worst of disaster, this wonderful thing is that there’s such heroism simply in people living in spite of all the things in life that can work against them and how we thrive and triumph against them in spite of it all. That's what really moves me. That what makes me think.

BWW: It interests me that the steward Henry Etches is our quasi-narrator because he's the only person who's able to move seamlessly through these three classes.

YESTON: He’s the play’s focus. He’s the audience. And that's where you see the compassion he has for the Strauses. You see he knows exactly that the couple that says they’re married isn’t married, but they’re planning on getting married. He sees it all. He’s our guide through the ship.

What’s great about it is that the world is changing, you know, and that's what we keep on saying on the ship, things changing all the time. It's a new world out there. They're going to a new world in America. And, of course, the wreck of the Titanic literally destroyed that tripartite social boundary. That world went down with the ship. It was never going to be again that there weren't enough places in the lifeboat for every person on the ship.

Allan Jay Lerner once said to me, the first thing you have to do in a show is, we have to fall in love with the people. I never forgot he said that.

BWW: It's interesting that you say that you have to fall in love with the characters, because one of the first things that you do in the show is a number where you’re not only introducing us to the characters, but you're introducing us to the ship. Really, the ship is its own character that we have to fall in love with. We have to fall in love with the idea of the ship.

YESTON: Exactly. It's the story of the ship. And so we anthropomorphize it. We call ships “she,” because we see her as a mother, who will protect us and care for us. How greater is the depth of the tragedy and the weight of it when we’ve lost our mother? We’ve lost the one person in all the world who will be devoted to protecting us even at the expense of her own life. And yet that ship couldn't protect us. And of course we learn again the sin of overconfidence in technology, which we keep on relearning. I couldn't not write it.

BWW: Speaking of technology, what was your experience like, seeing the film for the first time?

YESTON: I think that [director] Thom Southerland has done such a splendid job. I was stunned when I saw the film. I'd never really had the understanding of the difference between live theater and film until I saw this film of my show. You're sitting in the theater, you're 18 rows back, the people on stage look smaller than people really are, and you can hardly see their mouths. And so it's hard to reconcile the sound that’s coming out of them because you can’t lip read them. But you know what? What's great about it is that you're there. In the theatre, when something happens, it’s for the first time only, it will never happen again. There’s nothing more electric than a theatrical experience.

And yet, when I saw this film, I was stunned. They must have had a six or ten camera shoot. All of a sudden, here were these faces larger than life on an enormous screen. I could read every lip and I could see the slightest wink of an eye, or sidelong glance, or curled lip.

I realized that the brilliance of film is that we get that subtlety and we get that direct emotion and we hear every word. Not only that, but you can cut to a closeup of somebody else who's listening so you can get a reaction shot. We can't do that in the theater. And I thought, what a blessing to have been able to see my work in both media, and to see the gift and the excitement of what they both can offer you in terms of studying human behavior and in terms of drama. I was really excited to see that because it's something that I could never have anticipated.

BWW: The camera definitely directs the eye in a way that you can't manage even as the best theatre director. In the theatre, it's all just unfolding in front of you. So in the theatre we get the sort of grand scale of the Titanic and everybody on it, and then in film you can focus a little bit more on the individual human moments.

YESTON: The only weapon I have at all on that level is what you can do where you have a soliloquy in live theater. You can even put music into a soliloquy, which is additional element that that that musical theater can add, which is one of the reasons that we love it so much.

BWW: How did the film actually come about?

YESTON: The show was such a smash hit in London. Thom’s work is so brilliant, and all the actors were so wonderful. It was very well thought of. People loved going to see it. They saw it multiple times. About four or five years ago, the show did an all UK tour. When they launched the second all-UK tour, a company said, we know the show, and if you're going to do it again, we'd like to consider filming it. I think they did that because the show had proven itself worthy in terms of being a profitable capitalist venture. And we didn’t have to create something new; we just had to film something that already is, and figure out a way to make it cinematic. I think they did it. I think it was a brilliant idea. I adore their work.

BWW: The show is both a very British and a very American story. Is there something different about seeing it with a British cast versus in an American production?

YESTON: My dad comes from England. I have an English background. I’m mid-Atlantic, and I know both cultures. And I would say, yes. My mother would say that the English and Americans are separated by a common language. But I think if you look at English history, English culture, English literature and American literature, you’ll find that there are different cultural traditions, different writing traditions. We share a lot of things, but let’s not forget this is their story.

Titanic is a British ship. It’s a maritime country. It carries with it the legends and the myths of British navy and ship engineering going back hundreds and hundreds of years. There were British ships sailing hundreds of years before there was a United States. So it seems to me that they own British maritime culture going back centuries, generations, and through families. Having a British company and British actors do something as English and as immersed in British national culture and tradition as that? This is their culture. This is their lingua franca. I think that they brought something special to those performances. This is in their DNA. I love that, and I’m so happy for it. I think they loved performing the film.

BWW: It looks like they did.

YESTON: This is their story. This is their culture, their history. If it's going to be British, nobody does it better. And I love that. I know them all, and they're all wonderful people.

BWW: Is there anything else you want to say to Toronto audiences?

YESTON: Just to express my gratitude to the audience coming to see this. I hope they enjoy it. And to say that I think the great joy of what I do is that it brings me together with people all over the world. My work is done so often in Japan and in Korea, virtually every European country, and recorded in so many different languages. It’s especially meaningful to me that my film is going to be shown in Canada because a lot of my family is still there. It means so much to me that I'm able to connect with those venues and with that audience again.

BWW: It was wonderful to talk to you. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to BroadwayWorld!

Photo of Titanic The Musical by Pamela Raith

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