In the early morning of April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic—otherwise known as the “Unsinkable Ship”—sank below the icy Atlantic Ocean, taking with it 1,500 people. In remembrance of this event, which turned out to be one of the most significant tragedies of the early 20th century, Maury Yeston and Peter Stone produced the Broadway musical Titanic.
BJU will be presenting an adaptation of Titanic for three performances March 14–16.
“I’ve always had an interest in the Titanic,” said Dr. Darren Lawson. He inclines his head toward the space on the bookshelf occupied proudly by a replica of the infamous ship. Not only is Lawson the dean of Fine Arts and Communication at BJU, he’s the producer for all programs in Founder’s Memorial Amphitorium and Rodeheaver Auditorium, including Titanic.
“My undergraduate communication recital here was on the Titanic. It was right after they discovered it in the mid-80s. That prompted my teacher and me to make a trip up to New York in 1998 to see the new Broadway production of Titanic, the musical. I was just blown over by how amazing it was.”
When BJU started doing musicals, Lawson saw the perfect opportunity. “I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but I’ve loved the production itself so much. I’ve seen a lot of productions out there … but I never get tired of (Titanic) because I think it’s such a great script.”
The next step was finding someone to bring Lawson’s vision to life. Ultimately, Lawson chose Jeff Stegall to be his production designer. Stegall, who will also be playing the role of Henry Etches, the first-class steward, said, “Everything is a bit more stylized, in the sense that everything’s not there, but it’s a space where the story can be told. It’s more than just a blank stage. … The script is where I got the clues, and I did research.”
However, as scenic artist Jason Waggoner pointed out, “People probably don’t think about the fact that we start about a year in advance for the set.” And longer than that, at least for the producer and production designer. It’s a long process before an idea can turn into a full-fledged production.
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A peek inside Rodeheaver Auditorium will reveal a stage currently being transformed into the most famous ship of all time. There are suitcases of first-class passengers stacked in corners, grand posters awaiting their last few touch-ups, and dozens of people spread throughout it all. They laugh and talk and sometimes sing as they recreate what people had once thought to be the most luxurious cruise ship in the world.
“Students are really a big part of it. (They) do a lot of the construction and painting and stuff like that,” Waggoner said. And whether they’re painting the set or practicing lines, Titanic is in large part comprised of students.
Stegall added, “They’ve done a really great, beautiful job. It doesn’t seem to me amateur at all the way they’ve constructed things. Of course, I was able to come up with the ideas for the set, how it works, but then the ideas in production are only as good as the people who are realizing them, building them.”
“This is more sort of a metaphor; it’s not really the ship. We wanted something sort of big and hull-shaped,” said Stegall.
He gestures to what is the pride of the set: the large wooden structure curling around the stage. And he’s right. Anyone who looks at it would see a glorious but daunting Titanic steaming on the ocean. Stegall shared, “One of the themes we point out is that God is in control, (and) it sort of feels like the whole story is being cradled in the ribs of the ship.”
“At the time,” Lawson said, “the technological advances were such that they thought they’d created the ‘unsinkable ship.’ They bragged that God himself couldn’t sink it. And you realize that as soon as man gets caught up in thinking, ‘This is about me,’ and God’s out of the picture, you’re almost doomed to fail. So, it’s another reminder, over a hundred years later, that we can get so wrapped up in the technology around us that we forget. I want that to come through as we tell the story.”
Stegall also discusses the great dynamic among the cast and crew.
“It’s a very fun group to work with,” he said. “Plays don’t really have any comparison to the time when we’re all practicing a song together. There’s a unity and sort of camaraderie you get that you don’t really get when you’re in a play. … We’re all working together for that one common goal. You feel a sense of accomplishment that you don’t feel if you accomplish something on your own.”
Lawson agrees that the cast has been one of the best parts of the whole process. “(I’ve enjoyed) seeing how the cast has really gelled together. They’re having fun with this, they’re bringing fun ideas to the stage and making it interesting. I can watch it 15 times, and there’s something different each time,” he said.
There will also be six professionals joining the company to occupy the main roles. “When they come in, and I mix them in with a cast that’s already excited, I think it’s going to be one of the best productions we’ve ever done,” Lawson said.
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One of the most anticipated performances of the musical is that of Nicky—the Pekingese dog who even has his own headshot.
“One of the characters, Charlotte Cardoza, in first class. She booked the most expensive suite, she travels with all these trunks, and has four little Pekingese dogs. So, we found someone who had one, and he has a brief appearance. We hope,” said Lawson, chuckling. “We hope he does what he’s supposed to do.”
BJU will also be partnering with the Titanic Museum Attractions, which is loaning artifacts for display in Rodeheaver Auditorium.
“One of the real unique ones is the music portfolio of the band director,” Lawson disclosed. “(The band) stayed on the deck and kept playing that night, and they all died. As (the director) died, his violin case and his portfolio sank to the bottom of the ocean, and was there for 75 years. They recovered those and the Titanic museum is going to loan that to us for a couple of weeks. When you see this portfolio and you know in 1912 it was under the arm of the band member and it was preserved at the bottom of the Atlantic for all that time, it’s pretty special.
“The owners of the Titanic museum are coming down for the event. One of them actually went down to the Titanic in the submersibles in the mid-80s.”
And for those who will inevitably ask: No, Jack and Rose will not be the stars of this musical.
“Some people said, ‘Is this based on the movie?’ No, it’s based on the 1912 tragic sinking of the Titanic in which over 1,500 people died,” Lawson said. “They can’t separate the story from the event, so I just keep reminding people that this is real. We can never forget history. We can never forget that we can get wrapped up in our own rational thinking and what we can do with technology that we forget we are flawed human beings.
“Today, it’s different. It’s Internet and phones, different technology. But in all of that, you can’t forget the humans behind the technology. I think that’s what the musical portrays so well. These were real people and they faced tragedy that evening. And in the end, it didn’t matter if you were first class, second class or third class. You all drowned together.”