"Titanic" made a splash on Broadway in 1997, but full-scale productions of the musical are few and far between, despite that year’s Tony Award bonanza for the $10-million show: best musical, score, orchestrations, book and set design.
With 37 cast members — many playing multiple roles — a staggering number of costumes and wigs, nearly three dozen songs and the re-creation of the doomed ocean liner itself, an all-out “Titanic” is a budget buster that few theaters can afford. (According to the Los Angeles Times, the $750,000 tab for Civic Light Opera of South Bay’s 2001 production included $200,000 for the set alone.)
Enter the Musical Theatre Guild. Founded in 1995, winner of the Los Angeles Drama Critic Circle’s Margaret Harford Award for Sustained Excellence in the Theatre, MTG is an actor-driven professional theater company dedicated to American musicals, especially those that are seldom seen or are downright obscure.
Presented in a “semi-staged” or concert-staged reading format, MTG productions are performed by first-rate talent from the national, regional and Broadway stage. These productions often afford Los Angeles-area audiences their only opportunity to see works that for various reasons are infrequently produced.
“Titanic” — no relation to James Cameron’s blockbuster film — is next up for MTG, which will present the show Monday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and on Sept. 30 at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.
With score and lyrics by Maury Yeston and book by Peter Stone, “Titanic” takes place over three fateful days in April 1912. Based on historical accounts and characters, the musical about the ocean liner’s disastrous maiden voyage “manages to be grave and entertaining, somber and joyful,” said the New Yorker in reviewing the long-running Broadway production.
“It’s a gorgeous score, and this is an incredible opportunity to hear it,” said Calvin Remsberg, director of the MTG production. “For those who don’t know the musical, it’s a chance to see a great story and fall in love with some really wonderful music.” Apart from ballads, ragtime and other songs in the show that reflect the period, he said, “the music has a sweeping grandeur that carries one along.”
“Titanic” replaces MTG’s previously announced staging of Yeston’s “Death Takes a Holiday,” adapted by Thomas Meehan and Stone. That offering had to be scratched due to a last-minute issue with the performance rights, according to musical theater veteran Kim Huber, a member of MTG’s elected executive committee, which functions as the group’s communal artistic director.
Within the Actors’ Equity Assn. rules that govern the concert-reading format, MTG productions may vary somewhat in style, but the actors must perform dialogue with script in hand. Rehearsal time is limited to 25 hours.
Shows are chosen by a seven-member selection committee, “with a lot of input from the members throughout the year,” Huber said, “although there are some great shows that we haven’t done because we can’t quite figure out how they will work with our budget and our constraints.”
A tiny sampling from past MTG seasons: “Fade Out Fade In,” the 1964 Broadway show by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jule Styne that was an early career hit for Carol Burnett; the L.A. debut of Stephen Sondheim and Julius J. Epstein’s “Saturday Night”; “High Spirits” by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray, based on Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit”; Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella,” and the rock musical “High Fidelity,” by Tom Kitt, Amanda Green and David Lindsay-Abaire, based on Nick Hornby’s novel.
“As soon as we think we’ve done so many that we’re going to run out,” Huber said, “there’s always something more. We have not repeated a show yet.”
MTG shows and administrative costs are funded through grants, donations, ticket sales and the $15 in monthly membership dues that each actor pays to belong. The script and the director generally determine how each MTG show will be staged, said Remsberg, who is helming his seventh MTG production.
“Some shows are done concert-style, with people sitting in chairs and stepping up to music stands. Some are staged so much like a play that you would never know the difference, except that people carry scripts around,” he said. “As directors, we’re always concerned about the best way to tell the story.”
In trying to adapt the large-scale “Titanic” for MTG’s format, Remsberg faced an especially daunting challenge. The musical’s original 37 actors portrayed nearly 70 characters, requiring multiple costume and wig changes. With a smaller, 28-member cast, Remsberg had to “figure out a way to do that so the audience wasn’t confused as to who was who and when. And this isn’t like a traditional show where you have eight or nine principals and a chorus,” he added. “Here [many] people have solo lines and characters, and then sort of become the chorus when they’re not playing their parts.”
After spending some 50 or 60 hours going through the script and score, “plotting and planning” to make it all work, Remsberg said, “I’ve come up with a kind of hybrid way of doing it. Sort of a cross between a concert and a fully staged production that I think is going to be unique.”
“Titanic” will also feature a six-member orchestra, and while there is no choreographer, two of the actors will dance to the song “Doing the Latest Rag,” Remsberg said.
How will the massive ocean liner and its sinking be portrayed? Remsberg was cagey.
“I can’t give that away,” he said. “Obviously, we don’t have the money to do it the way it was done originally. They put the whole deck of the stage on a hydraulic lift so they could tilt it. We can’t do that, so I had to be creative.”
The show must also be tooled to easily fit the Glendale and Thousand Oaks venues, but “I’ve done a lot of shows in both theaters,” Remsberg said, “and I know the quirks of each of them. There are some unique things about the Alex that I’m going to employ this time that I haven’t before. The Alex has a balcony, so I’m going to use that to do something.”
Some two-thirds of “Titanic’s” performers are MTG members. They include such notable musical theater veterans as Teri Bibb, Dan Calloway, Doug Carfrae and Steven Hack. “Forever Plaid’s” Stan Chandler and 3-D Theatricals artistic director T.J. Dawson are among the guest artists joining them.
As working professionals, MTG members’ availability for any given show varies, “but we love it because it gives us a chance to meet and work with other artists,” Huber said. “And the best way to get new members is by doing shows with them. If someone is a guest artist and a member of Actors’ Equity, lots of times we get to bring them into the fold.” (All MTG members must belong to Actors’ Equity, the union that represents American theater actors and stage managers.)
MTG members also perform two touring shows in schools through the Music Center’s Education Division: “From the Page to the Stage,” with a focus on literature-inspired musicals, and “The History of Musical Theatre in 42 Minutes and 28 Seconds.”
It’s all a labor of love for this 16-year-old company of accomplished musical theater actors, Huber said.
“It’s about us coming together as a community of artists,” Huber said, “almost like the old Mickey and Judy movies where they get their friends together and put on a show in the barn. Our ‘barn’ is the Alex Theatre, and our friends are some of the most talented people in Los Angeles.”
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about stage and culture for Marquee.
What: “Titanic,” Musical Theatre Guild
Where: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday
More info: (818) 243-2539. www.alextheatre.org. Also playing at the Scherr Forum, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 East Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, 3 p.m. Sept. 30. $40. (805) 449-2787, firstname.lastname@example.org