If you see the film of the Tony-winning TITANIC at your local multiplex on November 4 or 8, you may soon be asking yourself a question.
Has there ever been a musical that offers more dramatic irony than the Broadway hit of the same title that opened only a few months before the film?
Just in case you don’t know what that is, dramatic irony occurs when audience members know in advance what the characters haven’t yet learned.
Safe to say, everyone who attends this film of a 2013 British production of the musical from the Southwark Playhouse will already be quite aware that RMS Titanic confidently set sail but never made it to shore.
Even those who’ve never seen THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN know that.
What may be a surprise is that TITANIC’s songwriter Maury Yeston and bookwriter Peter Stone didn’t include Molly. Did they figure that she’d already had her own musical? A better guess is that they feared that she’d pull focus from the other passengers on whom they wanted to concentrate: the 2,240 who embarked on that maiden voyage would have never imagined their fate that we’ve known for a while.
The dramatic irony kicks in only 44 lines into the show. In “There She Is,” Barrett, one of the ship’s stokers, tells his girlfriend, “I’ll be back before a fortnight has passed.”
Maybe yes, maybe no.
“There She Is” also says that the “Ship of Dreams” has “size and speed unexplored.”
After you read the word “dreams,” did the antonym “nightmare” immediately pop into your head?
As for “exploring” that speed, it would be one reason why the ship didn’t stay afloat. What we hear in the song “Loading Inventory” couldn’t have helped, either: “122,000 pounds of meat, poultry and fish” must have made the ship sink faster.
Titanic was gone in a mere two hours and 20 minutes.
Before that happens, though, we meet J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line that financed the ship; the ship’s Captain Edward J. Smith; and naval architect Thomas Andrews, who designed it. In unison, they sing of “The Largest Moving Object in the World.”
But not for long …
Ismay says that the Titanic is “safer than any ship in history.”
Probably, but “safest” is not the same as “invulnerable.”
“It’s the maiden voyage that creates news,” Ismay says.
It certainly will be in this case.
“Titanic” is also an adjective that could describe the hubris that Ismay displays. He’s infuriated that that the ship is sailing at “only” 19 knots. He urges Smith to up it to 22 or even 23, all to brag that Titanic made even better time reaching New York.
A knot is 1.151 equal to one mile per hour, so by our standards, those speeds seem rather poky. Nineteen knots translates to fewer than 22 miles per hour, while 23 knots rings in at slightly more than 26.
Ismay insists that they get to New York ahead of schedule for “Titanic must be known as a six-day ship.”
In fact, it will become known as a five-day ship …
He adds, “I intend for this one to create a legend.”
It will, it will …
Smith is irked by Ismay’s demands. He’s been sailing in one capacity or another for 43 years and says he’ll retire after this trip. He wants to go out on top.
But he’ll sink to the bottom. He too, though, is a victim of his own hubris. Smith had been warned hours in advance that a substantial iceberg was ahead, but he shrugged it off.
As for that speed, you’re thinking, “Hey, it was 1912. Today a ship undoubtedly goes much faster.” Surprise! The average speed for an ocean liner today is 30 knots — fewer than 35 mph.
No wonder that Sondheim wrote “But who has the time to take a boat?” in DO I HEAR A WALTZ?
You do hear many waltzes in TITANIC. A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC may always hold the record for the musical with the most songs in 3/4 time (or variations thereof), but TITANIC isn’t far behind. Many of those waltzes include dramatic irony, too: “No Moon” reminds us that although all is calm, all is dark, too. “Autumn” asks “Shall we all meet in the autumn?”
Some will, some won’t.
Both Sondheim and Yeston knew to replicate the sound of the times when waltzes were the rage. (NIGHT MUSIC is set only a few years before TITANIC.) However, Yeston offers new music, too: “Doing the Latest Rag” suggests that the state-of-the-art Titanic would have state-of-the-art music, too.
Yeston wisely gave Harold Bride, Titanic’s Radioman, some added characterization, making him an inherently lonely man who finds some consolation in communicating to the human race through telegrams.
Songs have long sported plenty of “La-La-La” and “Da-Da-Da” nonsense syllables. Here we have “Dit dot-dah-dot dah-dit” but they’re not filler from a lazy or stymied lyricist; they’re the sounds that Bride echoes as he sends out Morse code.
Yeston even provides a hymn which starts with “God lift me up in the mighty waters.” As Sondheim ungrammatically told us, “God don’t answer prayers a lot.” Dragged down by the mighty waters will be what many experience.
Earlier, Yeston had pointed out that the third-class passengers “prayed to make this trip.” That, apparently, is the prayer that God did answer …
One third-class passenger is Kate McGowan, who tells her two new friends that all she wants is to be “a lady’s maid in America.” After they leave her, she reveals to us that she’s pregnant. Once she meets Jim Farrell, who’s so smitten with her that he agrees to be the child’s stepfather, Kate believes that all her problems are solved.
No. Something’s coming; something bad.
Doing better is second-class passenger Charles Clarke. He does modestly admit that his forebears didn’t have “a corner on the market” but “a market on the corner.”
The feet-on-the-ground Edgar Beane tells his social climbing wife Alice to stop envying those in first class and “enjoy what we have.”
Alice should, for she won’t have it for long.
But for the entire voyage, Alice has wanted to rub elbows with her supposed betters. Her dream comes true once she hears the announcement, “Second class passengers proceed to the first class salon.”
Although she should be suspicious, she can’t think that far ahead, for she’s so thrilled at the prospect of meeting the Astors, Guggenheims and Strauses.
“Dressed in Your Pyjamas in the Grand Salon” has Henry Eches, the ever-cool first-class steward, telling everyone to “wear your life-belts” while adding that what they’re facing is “a minor delay” and that soon “we’ll be on our way.”
Yes, on the way down for all but 711 passengers …
Although the in-denial Ismay isn’t yet convinced of that: “Possibly she won’t go down.”
She – and he – will. And yet, are you surprised to learn that this rich and powerful man will be one of the survivors?
Passengers rich and poor will now share space. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no class differentiations in lifeboats.
As for Yeston’s music, it’s majestic from the start. “Farewell, Titanic” is a stirring anthem. He smartly wrote his female first-class characters as sopranos, for high notes do suggest loftiness.
In the most moving song, “Still,” Ida Straus proves that she didn’t just marry Isidor because he was co-owner of Macy’s Department Store. Here’s true love beautifully dispensed by them and Yeston.
Human nature is on display in “Mr. Andrews’ Vision,” in which the architect tries to correct on paper what has gone wrong. Although he inherently knows that arriving now at any solutions are pointless — Titanic is well on its way to sinking – he’s a professional who needs to know the facts.
In addition to TITANIC having dramatic irony, in one respect it displays good old-fashioned ordinary irony as well. The number of days that the RMS Titanic was at sea – five – is the same number of 1996-97 Tony Awards for which the musical was nominated and won in a clean sweep: Book, Score, Scenic Design, Orchestrations, and, best of all, Best Musical. Theatrically albeit not nautically, TITANIC has since 1997 been meeting many a happier fate, which will continue on November 4 and 8.
True, there’s nothing quite as exciting as live theater, but the glorious close-ups make you a first-class passenger – without having to pay premium prices that Broadway musicals now demand.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.