Titanic – Southwark Playhouse – Carole Woddis.

Anything and everything these days seems ripe for musicalisation.  After all, didn’t Stephen Sondheim turn the serial killer that was Sweeney Todd into arguably his finest musical? So now we have Titanic.

Or rather, 16 years ago, Maury Yeston and Peter Stone turned their attentions to one of the nautical stories that still, and possibly in any future generation, will continue to capture the imagination: the sinking of the most luxurious ocean-going ostensibly unsinkable liner the world had ever seen.

A huge subject.  An emotional subject.  And musicals, like operas are made for big emotions.  The music starts where words can no longer contain the emotion.

In Titanic, the musical was fortunate in finding two terrific midwives.  Maury Yeston (music and lyrics) and Peter Stone (book).  Stone had a sheaf of Hollywood credits behind him including the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn film, Charade.  He also won Tony awards for Women Of The Year and 1776.  Yeston could point to award-winning music and lyrics for the musical Nine (based on Fellini’s film, 8 1/2), the score for Phantom as well as music for opera and ballet.

Titanic on Broadway scooped up an armful of awards.  Now Southwark Playhouse who have developed an enviable reputation for small-scale musical revivals in the past couple of years have come up with a wonderfully vibrant production under the direction of Thom Southerland.

Stone’s book swings from ecstasy to tragedy with characters ranging from the ship’s owner, Ismay (taking a critical pasting as the culprit in pressurising the Captain to go too fast in order to break the record for the trans-atlantic crossing) through the Captain and his various crew members to three classes of passengers sailing with hope and dreams of a better life in a new world.

Blissfully free of sentimentality yet always moving, Yeston’s music and lyrics, heavily reminiscent of Sondheim at his best, brim with intelligence and soar with tunefulness whilst Southerland’s staging exploits a simple set of railings and ropes to maximum advantage.  An outstanding cast (with one or two exceptions) and a superb six-piece orchestra deliver an experience of high emotion and extraordinary skill in modest surroundings.

At the end, the audience rose as one – and on the floor rolled a steady stream of names – the 1500 who were lost on that terrible night in April 1912.  A marvellous, touching and fitting tribute.

Titanic runs at Southwark Playhouse to Aug 31.  See www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Carole Woddis © 2013.