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Keeping 'Titanic' Dynamic

By Robin Pogrebin

The New York Times
October 2, 1998

NY Times Photo of Titanic Cast

The Titanic cast sings the finale

NEW YORK -- It is 12:30 p.m. on a Wednesday on West 46th Street in Manhattan. Cars with suburban license plates pull into nearby garages. Charter buses unload streams of tourists who set out trolling for pre-theater lunch deals.

And inside the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, the strains of a lone clarinet float up from the orchestra pit, just one of a very different set of rituals under way in preparation for the matinee performance of Titanic.

Onstage, the gangplank -- emblazoned with "White Star Line" in black on blinding white canvas -- is lowered from where it hangs in the wings and pinned into place for the opening number. Ginger ale is poured into the wine bottles and stored on the prop shelf, next to the boarding passes, binoculars, stateroom towels and telegrams.

Cloth napkins are folded on the long first-class dining table. And the hydraulic elevator that lifts the lower portion of the stage to create two levels and tilts to simulate a sinking ship is tested to make sure that its computerized signals are cued up and functioning.

So begins a day in the life of a Broadway show. Audiences generally know a production by its stars, story, music. Rarely do they get a glimpse behind the scenes, where the set and costume changes can be as intricately choreographed as the dancing, where the relationships may be as intense as those the actors portray onstage, and where the unexpected crises can be even more suspenseful than the plot.

Titanic offers a particularly compelling example of the magnitude and the minutiae of this backstage drama. To begin with, the show is a beast of a production. There are 44 actors: 21 men and 15 women in the cast, plus 8 understudies who step into a variety of roles.

The production is technically elaborate, involving everything from smoking coal bins to a sliding piano to a precarious crow's nest from which the lookout spots the iceberg. Because there is so little storage space in the wings, about 40,000 pounds of scenery and lights are hung in the fly loft and move during the show.

The entire stage is raked at an angle, which makes high heels something of a challenge and has given several actors and stagehands chronic backaches. And handling all the technical elements, including rapid scene and costume changes, requires a substantial backstage crew that is both quick and calm, strong yet graceful.

There are 13 carpenters, 7 prop men, 3 sound engineers, 2 electricians, 1 light-board operator, 3 follow-spot operators, 2 men who run the automation computers and 3 flymen who pull the ropes that move the nonautomated pieces in and out.

Coordinating all of this are four stage managers led by Leigh Catlett, whose even temper and gentle manner somehow make the whole operation look effortless.

"I have a great team of stage managers, and the stagehands are a great, efficient bunch of people," Catlett said. "So they actually make my job really easy."

The upkeep of the show between performances is a formidable undertaking. It includes the maintenance of 71 wigs, all made of human hair; every one needs to be reset after each performance, constantly brushed and occasionally shampooed. To handle all of this, the show has five hair and wig dressers.

In the wig room on this day, Gary Martori, hair supervisor, and Chris Calabrese, his assistant, prepare the wigs for the afternoon performance: "Grecians" for the first-class passengers, "Gibsons" for second class, single braids for third.

The captain's beard comes in four sections -- chin, two chops and mustache -- and has to be replaced about every five months; the mustaches for other men in the cast wear out faster, particularly because they often have to be ripped off and reapplied at top speed during quick changes. Each actor has about 20 rapid costume changes during the show.

There are more than 180 costumes, every one of which was custom made for each actor. More than 275 hours are spent on costume maintenance a week, including the washing, starching and pressing of about 300 shirts. Juggling all this are 14 wardrobe people, 1 for every 3 actors.

By 1:30 p.m., the show is technically ready to go. The crew has run through every special effect, checked the lights and the sound. Backdrops that unfurl from the ground during the production have been loaded into the floor. The smoking room has been rolled out and the radio room rolled in. The porthole in the radio room has been switched to a day sky from a night sky.

Suitcases are lined up neatly underneath the stairwell. A wardrobe person walks by with an armful of life preservers, copies of the actual vests worn on the Titanic.

The cast arrives for the half-hour call. An actor who is late is obligated to call and alert one of the stage managers. If a cast member still has not shown up by the 15-minute mark, a swing, an actor who substitutes for several roles in the show, steps in.

That's what happens today. At 1:30, Christopher Wells, who plays Jim Farrell, the young Irishman on whom a steerage passenger, Kate McGowan, sets her sights, calls to say he is running late. By 1:45 p.m., he still has not shown up, and Jonathan Brody, a swing, is tapped to go on.

Brody has not played the role of Farrell in nine months, yet he seems surprisingly unperturbed. He hurriedly shaves, gets into his costume, looks over his lines and goes on.

The swing who shares his dressing room, Romain Fruge, blithely continues sewing a quilt he brought in to pass the time. He will not be stepping in for anyone today. After the scene known as "lifeboats" toward the end of Act 2, the swings are free to go.

Backstage, the first notes of the overture crackle through the dressing room speakers. Actors waiting in the wings as the opening number begins watch the conductor on a backstage monitor, so they can keep tempo during their offstage singing and make their entrances on cue.

There she is!
Tow'ring high
Broad and grand
Ship of dreams!

Kevin Stites, the musical director, said the show was one of the most difficult to conduct, in large part because the music was practically continuous. Stites, who recently left the show to work on the forthcoming revival of "On the Town," said he got only a two-minute break in Act I and a one-minute break in Act II. He said his favorite part was the opening sequence, when all the passengers are introduced.

"It keeps building," Stites said. "It doesn't let down."

After the lengthy opening sequence, the men dressed as the Titanic's crew members start stripping as soon as they hit the wings to change into their second-class passenger costumes, replacing their officers' caps with bowlers, pulling pin-stripe trousers on over their uniforms.

Meanwhile, the scene in the captain's bridge, flown down from the rafters, begins up above.

On the stage, carpenters attach the boiler room boxes for the next scene, and one of them fills each box with a puff from a smoke gun. Farther upstage, behind the scrim and out of sight of the audience, long tables are lowered from the wings covered with cloths, dishes and glasses, the salt shakers and silverware for the table with the production, having done it for a year and a half.

Everyone seems to know where he should and should not be. So do the cast members, none of whom are allowed onstage during scenery shifts. The quick scene and costume changes have to work like clockwork. And they do.

At one point, after the number "What a Remarkable Age This Is!" and before "Lady's Maid," with only one song in between, 27 men have to change from first-class into third-class passengers. All in one corridor. All at once.They charge offstage. A blur of black and white tuxedoes quickly degenerates into a locker room of underwear, and somehow the actors re-emerge four minutes later as working-class stiffs in wool trousers, jackets and boots.

Without the hyperconsciousness the stage managers demand, the set can be life-threatening. Actors often have to exit from high levels in the dark. When the elevator part of the stage rises to its full height during the lifeboat scene, there is a 20-foot drop to the basement. The actors have been instructed to hold onto two people at all times.

"If I'm really tired, I have to rest before the lifeboat scene," said Victoria Clark, who has played Alice Beane, the second-class passenger who aspires to first-class grandeur, since the beginning. "There is no railing up there. I have to say: 'Wake up. Pay attention.' You can never walk though the show. If you're feeling under, you have to find the energy from somewhere because it's dangerous."

The show's dance captain, Mindy Cooper, said a big part of her job was teaching new cast members how to fit into this harrowing backstage puzzle.

"The first day of rehearsal, I say to them, 'Backstage is more choreographed than onstage because this theater is not big enough for this show,' " she said. "I also say, 'This is a set that can kill you, and you can't be in the wrong place at the wrong time.'"

During this matinee, Brody does a commendable job as Farrell, although Jennifer Piech, who plays his love interest, Kate McGowan, later confides that she often has to nudge such replacements into position to keep them from colliding with other cast members.

During intermission, Brody practices the part in the second act when he has to hang out from the wings on a harness to simulate leaning over a stairway rail as the boat is filling up with water.

The day's next mini-crisis, after Wells missing his call, is a technical one: Several of the 38 wireless microphones worn by the actors are picking up interference. The stage managers say the problem might be the construction site next door, but there is no time to figure that out now.

Microphones with clear signals are taken away from actors with less singing and given to actors who have more. The production typically goes through more than 1,000 AA batteries each week.

The show is not frenetic for everyone all the time. There are periods, for example, when members of the female chorus lounge quietly in their dressing room. One studies lines for a different show. Another plays an electronic game of solitaire. Another does needlepoint.

The men tend to be a little more raucous. Joseph Kolinski, who plays the first-class passenger Benjamin Guggenheim, tells his dirty joke of the day. (It is unprintable.)

Like most theatrical productions, Titanic has its backstage rituals, which cast members tend to repeat at every performance. Rather than tire of these little traditions, the actors seem to treasure their familiarity.

At the beginning of each act, for example, all the cast members touch the fake pregnant belly of Christine Long, who plays Madeleine Astor, for good luck before they go on.

In Act II, actors cluster at the bottom of the stage-right stairs for what they call "tea time": paper cups of water from the water cooler. One of them brings a cup to the conductor in the orchestra pit. Stites, the musical director, saved every one of those cups. By the time he left the show, a tall stack of them teetered next to his music stand.

At the same point during every performance, Ms. Clark and Hal Davis, who play Alice and Edgar Beane, sit on the same backstage staircase talking, and Davis ties Ms. Clark's life vest just before they enter for the lifeboats scene.

Although the actors kid around backstage -- "Bye, time to die" -- onstage they seem to inhabit their characters and say they take their roles very seriously. For example, to prepare for her part as Ida Straus, the philanthropist who insists on going down with her husband, Isidor, Alma Cuervo said she read through Straus' personal papers and researched the character's Jewish roots.

Similarly, Martin Moran, who has played the role of Harold Bride, the radioman, since the musical's workshop production, steeped himself in the arcana of wireless machines so that what his character taps out in Morse code onstage is actually the Titanic's call letters and SOS.

At 4:20 p.m., cast members come onstage behind the curtain to take their places for the lifeboat scene, and the elevator underneath them begins to rise. But today, the elevator jams. There is a moment of confusion as the stage crew tries to figure out what has gone wrong and decides to stop the show.

Moments later, a voice comes over the loudspeaker to make an announcement to the audience: Because of technical difficulties, there will be a slight delay.

The stage managers try to lower the elevator into place, and it bangs into the stage. The cast is evacuated from elevated side ramps. The typically calm production stage manager, Catlett, is suddenly in high gear, darting around backstage, directing various crew members on his headset.

Heather Cousens, an assistant stage manager, remains up on the elevator, pacing. At one point, she holds her head in her hands; at another, she puts her palms together in prayer. It turns out that the computer that runs the automation had gotten out of sync with the actual apparatus. The last time something like this happened was December.

Though the delay lasts only 10 minutes, it feels like forever. Finally, the problem is corrected, the cast re-enters and the show resumes.

One would think such incidents would shake most actors, make it difficult to pick up where they left off. But this group has been through worse.

It is no secret that Titanic had one of the most difficult gestation periods in Broadway history. With a budget of $10 million, the show was too expensive and technically elaborate to try out on the road, so the director, Richard Jones, had to make his mistakes in New York, in front of preview audiences. Sometimes the show was even booed.

Members of the cast and crew laugh now when they recall those trying days, when the show was constantly changing, when they went through countless different endings -- people jumped overboard in one, the ship split into two parts in another -- when lines were cut and others added, when they wondered if the production would ever be finished, much less successful. "We did a different show every night," said Ms. Cooper, the dance captain.

Then there was the bad word of mouth, the tittering about how a musical about the Titanic was a contradiction in terms. The technical glitches. And the bad reviews. But then came the Tonys: five of them, including best musical of 1997. (The show also won for best book, score, orchestrations and set.)

And suddenly Titanic, with story and book by Peter Stone and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, was a hit. No original cast or crew member, many of whom are still with the show, will forget that night.

"We screamed for about 24 hours," Ms. Cooper said.

Although the musical opened well before James Cameron's film Titanic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the frenzy the movie created gave the Broadway show another welcome boost.

The depths and heights of the experience, people involved in the show say, make the cast and crew unusually cohesive. Every person interviewed marveled at the level of support and generosity that has pervaded the production from the beginning.

"We were so clobbered that we felt like we went through the wars together," Moran said. "The gratifying experience of coming out the other end and being accepted and being enjoyed and loved, that was very bonding."

Snapshots of the children of cast and crew members are taped up in the wings. One male dressing room features the first resume pictures of every member of the cast. People do things together when they are not working.

Aside from having weathered hard times, Titanic veterans say, their closeness has to do with the ensemble nature of the show itself; while there are principal parts, there are no stars. "The responsibility for telling the story is really distributed throughout the company," Moran said.

And because the musical strength of the show lies in its choral singing, Stites said, "there is no room for any diva attitude."

As the matinee lets out at about 4:45, a few autograph seekers hover expectantly at the stage door. The cast and crew disperse for their dinner break. Some of them rush home to say hello to their children or simply to grab a bite in the neighborhood. They have to be back at the theater by 7:30.

The evening show is considerably less eventful. Technicians worked on the elevator through the break, and this time it behaves. The microphone problem persists, so some actors are still singing without amplification. But Wells is back in his role as Jim Farrell, and the curtain comes down on a smooth performance.

The crew prepares the stage for the next day. The actors take off their makeup, change back into their street clothes and leave through the stage door. There are no admiring fans outside this evening. Just the post-theater traffic on West 46th Street and audience members trudging back to the parking lots or charter buses with Titanic Playbills tucked under their arms, bending their heads against an early-autumn wind.

The Broadway musical Titanic is performed at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, at 205 West 46th Street, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m.

Tickets are $50 to $75; $20 tickets for students and the elderly are available on the day of the show at the box office. Information: (212) 307-4100.