King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 25 February 2017
Southern Light Opera returns to the King’s Theatre this week with its 120th annual show, a mammoth production of Titanic The Musical that the company hopes will get right into the soul of the tragedy.
Peter Stone wrote the story and book about the “unsinkable ship of dreams”, which struck an iceberg and sank with the loss of 1517 lives on April 15 1912. Featuring music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, the musical took five Tonys in 1997 – including best musical. The story of the Titanic has become so imbedded in our culture that it has turned into a piece of shorthand. A symbol for a thing or event that is gargantuan – or for something which has failed unexpectedly and with catastrophic consequences.
All of this makes it hard to begin to understand the human scale of the tragedy in the early hours of that April morning over a hundred years ago. In the mythology of the event, the iceberg somehow feels like a force of nature, there to bring down man’s grandest plans. Yet that is to ignore the whole series of human failings and misconceived attempts to cut corners which led to the ship being in that place at that time, and in the condition that it was.
Keith Kilgore is playing the role of Thomas Andrews, the designer of the Titanic who takes the opening number and who appears throughout the show to give context to the developing story, and “push it along a bit” as Kilgore says, as he gives a bit of a hint at the behind-the-scenes developments of the ship.
“Thomas Andrews starts out really proud about the decisions that he has made and the ship he has got,” says Kilgore “As the show goes on he starts to get angrier and angrier about the way the ship has been treated, the speed that it is now going and the decisions that are being made. Eventually he ends up in the depths of despair because it is sinking and people are dying.”
At the other end of the scale when it comes to the running of the ship is the Stoker, Frederick Barrett played by Craig Young, who is in charge of boilers and had to implement commands to increase the ship’s speed, in order to arrive in New York ahead of schedule.
“Because he is the very lowest of the low kind of guy, he is one of the first to see something is not right,” says Young. “He is the first to recognise that they were pushing it too fast and put that point across. More and more people start to catch on that something has been pushed just a bit too much.”
The other side of the tragedy is its human face. It’s that classic situation of being confronted by death on such a scale that you can can’t begin to understand its true impact. In that way, the musical attempts to discover the real people who were on board. Not just the millionaire first class passengers, but those down in steerage.
Nicole Graham is playing Kate McGowan from County Longford in Ireland. A young, third class passenger, she was one of the last to board the ship and is moving to America to make a new life there for herself, find a man, get married and become a lady’s maid.
“She had big dreams and aspirations,” says Graham. “She is based on a real person who was on the ship. There is a whole background story to every person in the show. Kate McGowan is one of many, so we went to Belfast to the Titanic Experience to hear first hand accounts, so-to-speak, from video recordings and research from the Titanic Encyclopaedia.”
The trip to Belfast has been a crucial part of the development of the production. Like any big theatrical event, the first reaction of the cast is about the thrill of staging a big musical on the stage of the King’s.
Craig Young pins it down when he says of taking part in the show: “At first it was so exciting! Then we started doing research on the characters and it just brought it home that these are real people we are portraying on the stage.
“Some of them made it off the ship, but not most. It just brings it home when you are singing your songs, that it is emotional. You are putting real emotion into it instead of having to act.”
Director Andy Johnston agrees, and points out that for the story to work, it has to be that way as you know the ending of before it even starts. Not that that is an unusual event in musical theatre – think of The King and I, or Blood Brothers.
“The way it is written you’ve got a really interesting series of characters,” says Johnston. “Throughout the first act you grow to know these characters and you care about them. If you didn’t then you wouldn’t care what happens in Act Two, so we have worked very hard on making sure that they are very empathetic, that they are people who genuinely care about.”
It is a musical, not a documentary, so certain liberties have been taken with the precise details of the events on the voyage. But Johnston is emphatic that the basic facts are correct. Something which he is keen to work with to help give the show even more of an impact.
“We went out of our way to find every single person in the company a real person,” says Johnston. “Even if they are not a named character in the show, they have gone away and they have looked at their real person and they have had to find out for themselves if their real person survived.
“The whole company has been away researching this stuff, which gives us a lot more of an insight into what it was like at the time. Right across the board – you have your rich millionaires just there for the playtime, then your aspiring second classes that want to be first class and then the guys in steerage who are all heading to America for a better life. That is the tragedy of the whole piece.”
In keeping with modern traditions of the SLO, this Titanic is not a small chamber piece, like the the production which was at London’s Charing Cross Theatre last year, with a cast of 20 and an orchestra made up of keyboards and percussion. The SLO have a 90-strong cast, including a few children, while there will be a 27 piece orchestra in the pit.
“It’s the King’s Theatre, so you’ve got to, really,” says Johnston with a grin. And while the company is hiring in the standard set, they will be adding their own elements of projection to embellish it.
“We want to make it like you are actually part of what is going on,” says Johnson. “So you feel that you are in it yourself.”