Posts Tagged ‘ Titanic the musical ’

Back to Titanic


On Thursday, this being the centenary week of the sinking of RMS Titanic, I travelled up to Bromley after work to watch West Wickham Operatic Society’s great production of Titanic the musical.

Titanic the Musical.  Sounds crass, doesn’t it?  Those three words conjure images of flying icebergs, substandard cover versions of Celine Dion and the horrifying possibility of a tap dance to the strains of Wallace Hartley’s band.

Thankfully, none of these things form part of this show, and strangely it is not just a show I enjoyed watching, it’s one of the shows I’m proudest of having appeared in.  First performed on Broadway in 1997, Titanic has music by Maury Yeston and a script by Peter Stone.  It features dozens of named characters – all bar one of them actually sailed  on the great ship’s fateful voyage.  The ‘star’ is the entire company, and nobody’s heart goes on.  At least, not in so many words.

I had the great fortune to perform in Titanic during November 2008, playing the character of Harold Bride, one of the telegraph operators on the ship.  I was one of a privileged few members of the cast who only played one character (some, even with well over 50 people on stage, were obliged to take on 3 or more roles), and he was a character I came to love.  We were encouraged to research the people we were playing, which made the rehearsal process more educational than for your standard show!  We all knew where the authors had deviated from a totally accurate portrayal of events in service of dramatic effectiveness, and as we truly appreciated the reality of the people we were portraying, more than a few tears were shed in rehearsal.

The scale of the show is huge, following characters from all three classes on the ship as well as a number of crewmen from captain to stoker, chief steward to bellboy.  Each has their hopes and dreams, each has their own way of speaking.  Despite the parade of characters, the audience is somehow never lost and the wide focus makes it clear that this show is not about one or two passengers, but about the ship and all who sailed on her.  Although much of the dialogue is laden with irony due to the audience knowing what’s coming, it never descends into spoof and instead of being crass it serves as a memorial to the great ship and all who sailed on her.  Their hopes and dreams, their strengths and weaknesses, their failures, their heroism and above all their humanity.

The voyage of RMS Titanic is a legend.  This year, there will be many productions of the musical around the world.  Don’t be put off.  Go.  The music is majestic, the ensemble singing is amazing and the show pays homage to those who were lost without being over-sentimental.  There simply is no better dramatisation of these events.

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My posts from the time of the show :

Quick changes


One of the most important skills to learn in theatre, whether as a performer or a member of the backstage team, is the art of doing things quickly and quietly, often in the dark.  The set has to be shifted, microphones need to be switched from person to person, props need to be put in place, complicated traffic systems negotiated so that the right people are on the stage at the right time, and most entertaining of all, costumes need to be changed, often faster than you would think possible.

I have written before about the excitements that costume changes brought to a production of Dido and Aeneas, and I think it’s fair to say that I’ll never experience anything quite so manic again.  Most shows, though, offer their moments of fun and games with costume – so much so that it’s almost a shame when a show comes along which involves the same set of clothes throughout.

One of the most exciting costume changes I’ve ever had a hand in was not my own.  This was during Titanic.  The actor playing Charles, a second class passenger, had not been attending rehearsals and eventually dropped out of the production, leaving us with a bit of a problem.  Frantic phone calls were made to practically every man who could act and sing in the area, but with no joy – given the size of the cast, we already had more men on stage than you would normally expect, and those who weren’t involved had already decided not to do the show for their own various reasons.  So the man playing Wallace Hartley, the Titanic’s bandleader, was asked to step in, as there were no scenes where both Charles and Hartley absolutely *had* to appear on stage at the same time.  He was cunningly disguised to aid the illusion of Charles and Hartley being different people (Charles now had glasses and a beautiful moustache), but we were left with one moment which was going to be very hard to pull off.  Shortly before the end of the first act, before anyone starting worrying about icebergs, Charles and his fiancée (Caroline) had a scene and walked off stage – this was immediately followed by a scene in the first class smoking lounge, where Hartley was supposed to be playing the piano.  The piano was dispensed with, as it was considered too heavy to shift about, and Hartley’s violin substituted – still, how did the same actor appear at the end of one scene and the beginning of the next when there was no break between them, only a change in the lighting state on stage?

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Excess fire alarms


In the past week, I have been involved in evacuating two large buildings after fire alarms went off.  Oddly enough, those buildings were a theatre and a library, given that it often seems as though I barely spend any time anywhere else.

First, the theatre.  The cast had bravely battled through our second performance – a Thursday matinee – and had breathed that strange sigh of mixed joy, relief, grief and emptiness which came at the end of Titanic.  Then, a mere second or two after the curtain hit the floor, we could hear a muffled announcement being made in the auditorium.  Puzzled glances were exchanged among the cast before a member of the crew told us to get out by the nearest exit, which was (for added drama) one that none of us had ever used before.  So, in our many and varied costumes, we trooped out into the car park.  The surviving female characters were mostly wearing their husbands’ coats, uniforms were half on/half off, one lady was barefoot, and we were accompanied by a gaggle of children and a very large dog.  As we gathered to have our names checked off, the men of the cast who were still in jackets gradually gave them over to the ladies, since it was rather cold outside and their dresses were not the warmest items of clothing known to man.  The audience washed past us, out into the darkness, calling congratulations and good wishes, thanking us for an excellent show.  The roll call seemed to last for hours as the large cast, orchestra and crew were all accounted for one by one.  Then, huddling together, trying to keep out of the way of the fire engine, we began to sing.  Mr Guggenheim (or rather the actor playing him) started us off on ‘Godspeed Titanic’ and we gradually all joined in, fairly quietly, but in harmony, conducted by our musical director who stood on the other side of the road.  The sopranos and tenors chickened out of our final screechy C above the staff, but it was nevertheless a rather lovely moment of togetherness among the company.  A few minutes later, we were allowed back in, and not a moment too soon.  It was beginning to rain, and the microphones we were still wearing would not have been very pleased.

Back at work the next week, trying to catch up with the backlog of queries that clearly nobody except me could answer, I was sitting offering “User Services Support at the Issue Desk” when I heard a familiar sound.  “That’s odd”, I thought, “they normally test the fire alarms much earlier than this…”  The ringing persisted, and a few seconds later, we leaped into action.  Announcing in a loud voice that those in the foyer should leave, I made my way over to the help desk, where I was issued with one of the evacuation routes and set about dislodging the students.  As I headed through the periodicals, I discovered that most of the students were still sitting at their desks, happily ignoring the rather loud alarm bells.  Thankfully, it is much harder to ignore a librarian with theatrical experience bellowing “Can you please leave!” at top volume, which is, believe me, very loud indeed.  After a few minutes of pointing people in the direction of their nearest fire exit (because the big green signs obviously aren’t clear enough), my designated areas of the Library of Doom were cleared, and I was able to leave by my allotted exit and make my way to the car park with my colleagues.  Sadly there was a distinct lack of singing this time and also a distinct lack of people telling us how good a job we were doing (even though the library has an excellent fire evacuation plan).  The all clear was soon given and we filed back inside, somewhat irritated to see that the students had been allowed back in before the library staff.

Neither of these evacuations was a planned drill as far as I could ascertain (I don’t think fire fighters normally turn up to drills), and I am still in the dark about their cause.  I have a taste for them now, though.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I am evacuated from, or help to evacuate, another building next week.  They do say that things come in threes, don’t they?

Titanic Memories


The Singing Librarian as Harold Bride, Wireless Operator...

The Singing Librarian as Harold Bride, Wireless Operator...

So another show has come to an end, and it must be time for another blog post about many months of rehearsals and a few days of performances. This was a very special show for a number of reasons, and certainly one that cast, crew and audiences will remember for quite some time. Herne Bay Operatic Society should be justly proud of this production, even if audience numbers were not quite as high as had been hoped for – feedback from those who attended was amazing. In no particular order, here are some of the memories I shall take away with me:

Happy Birthday. It was my 30th birthday on the day of our dress rehearsal. Having had a lovely day in company with lovely people, I arrived at the theatre ready to get on with the business of hair, make-up, microphone, costume, photo shoot and all the rest of it. This was interrupted by the appearance of a delicious chocolate cake, and later by a rendition of the obligatory song by cast and crew, accompanied by our fantastic 19-piece orchestra which was lovely, but blew away any hope I foolishly had of keeping quiet about it! I was later presented with a card signed by the company and a lovely warm ‘Titanic the Musical’ sweatshirt.

Band Call. Our orchestra, as mentioned above, was large and absolutely fantastic.  The sound they made from the very beginning of the band call, the first time they ever rehearsed together, absolutely blew us away.  Titanic‘s score is not at all easy (more on that in future posts) and they navigated it with ease, creating both beautiful and exhilarating moments.  Our musical director, brought in at the last minute due to various issues we’d been having, was amazing as well, pulling out all the stops to create a beautiful, rich sound.  We had been quite worried about the whole show coming together, but the band call was an immense encouragement as the wonderful orchestrations, played by an equally wonderful orchestra, washed over us.

Kit Bag. I fashioned my own luggage for the show, as the props team were struggling to find enough kit bags to go around the number of characters who needed them.  Six hours in company with a cheap bed sheet, much thread, a couple of needles and three needle-threaders produced a work of something vaguely resembling art, which made it on to stage for all of three or four minutes, mostly hidden by being slung over my shoulder (as shown in the photo above).  I was pleasantly surprised that it made it through the week intact, though it did sometimes have an argument with the black tabs in the wings, making progress on to stage a tad more difficult than it should have been.

A solo-type duet. My key scene took place in the radio room, where I (or rather, wireless operator Harold Bride), sent a telegram for one of the stokers.  This telegram was dramatised in the form of a song, where he sang his proposal to his sweetheart, and Bride then sang about his own feelings, the way in which the telegraph enables him to connect to the world around him in a quite amazing way.  As the two of them join together in song, weaving their tunes around one another, neither one pays any attention to the other, utterly lost in their own worlds.  It is the most beautiful duet I have ever sung, and will surely be the only one I ever sing where each of us act as though we’re singing a solo, given the lack of interaction.  This number, ‘The Proposal/The Night Is Alive’ is also possibly the best bit of Titanic‘s score.  It’s always nice to nab one of the best songs!  It was even nicer to be paired with a fellow singer of such great talent (and a nice guy to boot!), which made singing it an even greater pleasure.

Crewing. As part of a campaign to keep myself busy, I volunteered to help with scene changes where possible.  This seemed sensible because I was often off stage, I was wearing a very dark costume and I have done backstage work at the theatre before.  Sorting out the first class dining saloon, the third-class quarters, the radio room and the grand salon was good fun (even if I did apparently nearly get hit on the head by part of the ship during one performance), livened up by minor panics caused by missing champagne glasses, recalcitrant lifebelts and a light that simply refused to fade.  I also helped with a quick change for one of the other performances and sang lustily into the offstage mic. to boost the chorus numbers I was not involved with, which eventually led to me conducting the first class passengers in the wings for one number, as they could not see either the conductor or the monitor.

Swinging. As has become traditional (again, perhaps more on this in a later post), I filled in for sundry missing people in rehearsals, covering first and second class passengers and various members of the crew from the bellboy to the lookout and the quartermaster to the captain.  The rehearsal where I drifted through the final scene of act one playing two characters in addition to  my own was a particularly memorable one for me.

New people. With a cast of sixty plus crew and orchestra, there were inevitably quite a number of people involved who I had never met before.  It took a long time to get to know everyone, but by the end a great sense of family developed among the company and I met some great new people including several that I really very much hope to work with again in the very near future.

Moments. The whole production, from the roller-coaster ride of the rehearsals to the excitement and emotion of the performances, will stay with me for some time, but some moments will live on longer than other.  Second Officer Lightoller taking “the liberty of arousing the passengers” in one rehearsal; Benjamin Guggenheim asking the chief steward “why have the injuns stopped?”; Mr Astor’s beautifully well-behaved dog patiently waiting in the wings during the scene where the ladies boarded the lifeboats; getting my wireless equipment tangled up with my uniform; battling with my collar’s constant bids for freedom; colliding noisily with a parcan lantern in the wings; the night that the survivors played an accidental game of hot potato with a model of the sunken ship; Caroline Neville’s scream of anguish as she was parted from her husband-to-be; the unpredictable path of an out-of-control tea trolley…

So many moments shared with around 100 people intimately involved, plus however many sat, watched and applauded.  A special show and a special production.

Rehearsals are odd: Cowpats, jugs and potential RSI


It occurred to me, while rehearsing for Titanic this week, that companies in rehearsal develop their own language to one extent or other, whether verbal or visual, such that strange sayings or actions go completely unremarked by all concerned, when an outsides would find them seriously bizarre.  Dance steps acquire strange names which surely aren’t in the standard choreographic dictionary, scenes get named after a small piece of business which happens in them, characters have their names shortened in quite disturbing ways and certain phrases will inspire fits of giggles for no easily discernible reason.  Just as a group of professionals will share their jargon and close friends will adopt the vocal tics of others in their circles, so the cast and crew of a show, who spend a lot of time in close proximity with a clear focus, develop their own forms of expression.

The reason this occurred to me was due to Titanic‘s cowpat.  Not, perhaps, as famous as the iceberg or the grand staircase, but a key element in our production nonetheless.  Readers will be relieved to learn that there are no animals in the show (unless one of the dogs that have occasionally turned up to rehearsals decides to play Kitty, Mr Astor’s airedale), and the cowpat is simply a piece of the set.  It is a ‘truck’ (movable bit of set on wheels) consisting of a raised platform shaped like half an octagon, but none of us have actually seen it yet, for the set doesn’t arrive until tomorrow.  This piece of set is right in the middle of the stage and gets used for all sorts of interesting things – the captain’s table in the first class dining saloon, the radio room, the place where the lifeboat will be lowered from and so forth – but at one point, the director found it to be frustrating and oddly-shaped, so it gained its name, which promptly stuck.  Anyone told that they are ‘up on the cowpat’ for a particular scene knows exactly what is meant.  It will be quite a letdown if it doesn’t actually resemble a cowpat in any way.

Another oddity is the use of a jug on stage.  Not as a jug, but as a megaphone, used when boarding the passengers and declaring the ship lost.  It goes utterly unremarked, and the shared visual language of the cast equates jug with megaphone.  I’m hoping that when we start the show proper, there will be a megaphone – audiences are less willing to enter into the shared world of the cast to quite that extent.

Finally, for me, the potential for repetitive strain injury is a little worrying.  During the second act, there is an extended musical scene between the Captain, the owner and the architect of the ship, which takes place in the radioman, with Harold Bride as a mostly silent witness to the proceedings.  During their arguments, the radioman is continually sending the distress call, alternating between the old CQD and the new SOS.  This is a lot of rapid wrist movement which quickly becomes tiring and painful – and this after just five or so minutes.  It is no wonder that typists and telegraphists frequently suffered from RSI.  In context, the least of Bride’s worries, but it is somewhat frustrating not to be able to stop and shake the joint out, as this would apparently be rather distracting!

In which the Singing Librarian is very busy


I had thought that my weeks would be quiet and peaceful now that the librarianship course is truly in the past, but this was clearly foolishness on my part.  The life of the Singing Librarian is rarely quiet, and I’m not sure that I’d like it very much if it was, which is a rather good thing.  Aside from the usual work and church life, I have managed to pile rehearsal upon rehearsal in a glorious mixture of different ways to fill my evenings and weekends as I work towards four different projects.

First, a series of concerts with Canterbury Operatic Society, to be performed from 12th to 19th July.  These include a mix of old and new tunes from George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ to pop hit ‘You Raise Me Up’ and numbers from Spamalot and Wicked.  In addition to the choral work, some of which I love, some of which I’m really not enjoying, I’m wheeling out old faithful ‘Mister Cellophane’ as a solo.

The next project is West Side Story, to be performed in August at the Marlowe Theatre.  I have managed to get myself drafted in as a replacement for an adult cast member who disappeared somehow, possibly lost down the back of the sofa, and am in the slightly bizarre position of rehearsing the role of Doc, who owns the store which the Jets hang out in.  It’s a nice part, appearing in only three scenes but going quite an emotional journey.  However, Doc is usually played by someone about twice my age, so I don’t yet know (having only had one rehearsal so far) whether I will be aging up or whether Doc will just be unusually young in this production.  I’m working with Phoenix Performing Arts, a local performing arts school, so I have the privilege of working with a whole host of enthusiastic, talented young people.  This role is very different to anything I’ve done recently, as Doc does not sing a single word – I haven’t been in a show where I have ‘just’ acted since I left school eleven years ago.

Once the whirlwind of learning and performing West Side Story is over, my main focus will return toTitanic, which is to be performed in November, also at the Marlowe.  We are currently learning the music at super-speed, which is great fun but somewhat scary, trying to remember everything, particularly as very little of it is easy.  But, as is also true with West Side Story, I do enjoy a challenge when I’m performing.

Last, but certainly not least, is a Christmas oratorio written by a very talented friend of mine.  This will be performed in Dover in December.  At present, I’m laying down some vocal tracks for his demo CD of it, which is intended as an aid to members of the choir, and also attending some early rehearsals.  It’s wonderful stuff, great fun to sing, in a variety of different styles.

Most days see me attend at least one rehearsal or performance, with some days involving more than one of my projects.  Thus far everything has stayed straight in my head, but before long I expect things will start to leak over.  I shall communicate with students in Morse code, or arrange the Jets according to a strange interpretation of Dewey Decimal System.  Harold Bride will tell people to “call him Jesus, the Messiah and the king” or the ‘Quintet’ in West Side Story will unexpectedly gain Bride’s refrain of “the night was alive with a thousand voices”, which appears at least 18 times in the Titanic score.  Or perhaps my brain is handily compartmentalised.  We can but hope.  The Singing Librarian is very busy, and he’s loving it.

Becoming Harold Bride


Faithful readers, it seems my audition-related fears were ungrounded, or at the very least, my great virtues of being young, male and alive won through for me. I will be joining the cast of Titanic in the role of Harold Bride, a young radioman. 22 years of age, he is greatly enthused by his career in telegraphy and takes his job very seriously. He has human warmth as well, and in the musical theatre one other fact is very important – he has a wonderful song to sing. Before I heard it, I would not have believed that there could be a wonderful song about the telegraph, but Maury Yeston managed it somehow.

No doubt I will also be, at some point ‘Third 2nd class passenger from the right’ as most of the cast is required to do double or triple duty to help create the impression of there being a whole ship full of people on the stage. Even if not physically required, many of us will be singing lustily in the wings between our own scenes, given that the music often takes it upon itself to divide into eight part harmony. Glorious!

Rehearsals begin on Monday, when everything will start to become clearer. However, there are various aspects of preparation I can begin at once. There is a great wealth of material about the RMS Titanic, its crew and its passengers. I have already begun exploring some web sites where research is available, including the Encyclopedia Titanica and the records of the Inquiries which were held after the disaster. Journal articles and books can also be delved into, and I suppose I might have to get around to watching James Cameron’s Titanic, which I have hitherto avoided. Although the general information is interesting, it is the details of Harold Bride’s life, and particularly his actions and feelings during April 1912, that I am looking for. What sort of a young man was he? How did he speak and act? What did he really do on the night of the sinking and why? Of course, the musical is fictionalised to a degree, but even if I have to deviate from the truth, I would like to know that I am doing so, and why.

I’m also intending to learn Morse code. There are several points when Bride is supposed to be sending messages by tapping on the key of his equipment. When this happens, particularly in the sequence where the distress signal CQD is sent, I would like to be tapping the right rhythms. It will help my performance to be able to ‘send’ messages almost without thought, and it would please me if the messages make sense. I can also imagine that audience members who are fluent in Morse code would find it very annoying if the supposed radioman is actually tapping out a message like r7mgebe4t. I know that very few audience members would have the required knowledge to notice, let alone be paying sufficient attention, but I think it’s important.

This is a wonderful part, which gives an opportunity to create (or recreate) an intriguing character and includes some interesting solo/duet singing as well as the magnificent choral music.  Though I do not mean it in a strange luvvie sort of way, I look forward to becoming Harold Bride.

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