In an adventurous production, Signature Theatre brings the musical Titanic to life in its Max theatre with a robust orchestra, new orchestrations, and exciting staging. Sarah Scafidi sat down with music director James Moore, orchestrator Joshua Clayton, and James Gardiner, Signature’s Deputy Director of Creative Content and Publicity for a chat:
Sarah: Could you each explain your role with the show?
James Moore: I am the music director and the conductor. I am in charge of all musical aspects of the show: teaching all of the music, maintaining it, and conducting the orchestra and the actors. When Signature contacted me about becoming involved, and [we talked about] the size of orchestra they wanted and finding an orchestration, I called Joshua who I’ve worked with before. So, that was also one of my big [roles] here – getting an orchestrator.
Joshua Clayton: I do the orchestrations. We have a 17 person orchestra, and I think on Broadway, it was originally 26 or 28. So, my job with James has been to reconceive the way the show sounds and make sure that the composer, Maury Yeston’s, intention is being fulfilled by the new 17-piece version of the show. James and I got to play a lot with which instruments would we have and how to use those instruments and how I would translate the piano score to sound what it sounds like.
What drew each of you to this show?
JM: I saw this show originally in 1997 or 1998 in New York and was drawn to the score immediately. As I’ve been telling the cast and the orchestra members who didn’t know the show very well, with each passing year, the score is becoming more and more revered and respected as a masterpiece. The show is not done a lot because it is a big story, and it takes large forces. It’s hard for really small theatres and schools to do. I never thought I’d get the chance to do Titanic. I was having a discussion with Eric Schaffer a couple of years ago, and he was telling me titles they were looking at for the future, and he said, “You know, we’re thinking of Titanic, and we’re going to get the rights.” And I said, “Um, well, if you ever doing Titanic, you’re letting me do it.” That was about two years ago, and here I am.
JC: It’s the score. It’s so magnificent. When would I ever get to do it with so many players? I don’t know when that would happen. Or with people that cared enough about the music to really give it its proper due.
One of the other things for me: the original orchestration was done by Jonathan Tunick – for which he won a Tony Award. He happens to be a dear friend of mine and also a mentor. [I get the opportunity] to take this and honor what he did and rethink it a little but also try to achieve even a close approximation of what he was able to do with it. It’s been a challenge, but it’s also been very rewarding. The challenge of it was also attractive to me.
One of the really exciting aspects of this production is that it has a large 17-piece orchestra.
JM: [Yes, and large] not just for DC theatres. Even on Broadway, 17 musicians is a very large number. But [it is certainly large for] the regional theatre circuit. That includes all of the theatres in DC and all of the major regional theatres in the country: the Goodman, La Jolla, etc. It’s a big commitment of resources to have an orchestra this big.
What’s exciting about Titanic is that the score is known as a masterpiece. One of the main reasons to do Titanic is to showcase the music. There is very little dialogue in the show. When Eric Schaeffer, the director [and Artistic Director of Signature Theatre], called me, he was very adamant that he did not want to do Titanic unless we had a very robust-sized orchestra. The way the score is composed, I agree with Eric. Titanic doesn’t work as well unless you are showcasing the score with the proper forces.
Also, an aside about how Josh got involved: there are a lot of shows where you can find a smaller orchestration that’s already been used somewhere that works well. This show did not have one. There’s the original, which was very large and would not be feasible at a theatre like Signature, and then, there is a very small orchestration that was done in London, I believe. It was very small – like six pieces. So, not only do we have this orchestra, [the score] is being created specifically for Signature for this production, custom made. It’s the first time this is going to be heard.
JC: Yeah, I think it’s like when you go see a play that should have more people in it than it does because of budget reasons or whatever. You have people doubling up and doing double or triple or quadruple duty. But when you have a smaller orchestra, it’s sort of the same thing. And I think with a bigger orchestra, because of the make-up of [the instruments] we have chosen: four woodwinds, four brass, six string players, and a real harp, and so on, we can have all of these colors. And what the colors do is help us to illustrate the story of the music in a way that we couldn’t necessarily if we only had a piano and one violin, or whatever it would be if there were fewer players. So, it gives us different voices that we can permutate and put together in an infinite number of ways. So, we can have very intimate moments where I can use a string quartet, or we can have the full 17 players playing very magnificently or triumphantly. I think Maury Yeston’s score needs all that color and the emotional spectrum that you get from having so many different colors.
For me, I’m lucky enough in my everyday life to work with bigger orchestras. I’m a little bit spoiled because I’m always working with 20 plus players. I work in New York for the New York City Center Encore! Series, and they strive to do the original orchestrations with the original number of players. And all of those golden age shows are right around 30 players. It gives me a peek into the world where there are so many different possibilities because of all of the combinations of instruments.
Titanic gives us a snapshot into a moment of history. The plot of Titanic is not a secret: the ship hits an iceberg, and it sinks. Because, again, of Maury’s score, and the way the show is written so beautifully, it gives us a chance to tell the story through those snapshots and moments. Which, I think, with an orchestra of this size, we are [better] able to do.
JM: When you have this large number of players, it eliminates the need for any sort of – and this is not a criticism, because many of the shows I do have to utilize these things – but we don’t have to utilize any sort of synthetic string sounds or any electronic synthesized moments. Often, you have to, and that can be very effective, but because of how this score is composed, and because we have 17 people, we have no synthesizers in the pit. All the string sound is live. So, that’s also a real luxury we have here on this specific project.
What is the average size orchestra for a musical? What would audiences be most used to hearing?
JM: In 2016? On Broadway? I’d say it’s about 17. This is a Broadway-sized orchestra. That was not the case twenty years ago. There are random exceptions, like when Lincoln Center did The King and I, or the recent production of On the Town on Broadway. Most orchestras are about 17 or maybe 18. So, what we’re pursuing now is what is considered a large-size musical theatre orchestra in 2016.
So twenty years ago, it would have been bigger?
JM: Yeah, around 24-ish. And that’s all based on economics. Casts used to be bigger, too.
JC: I think that’s one of the really cool things about what Signature has done. They could have said, “You know what? Let’s do 13 or 14.” They pushed for the 17 players, which, I think, is really awesome for the show. Because I’ve done shows where I had 14 players when I signed up to do it, and then they lost some funding, and then all of a sudden, there were 12 players or whatever. You still try to make it sound as good as you can, but it’s always a let down when that happens. And it’s just the state of things. But it’s really nice to have that kind of a support and a backing for the music which is really one of the beautiful parts of the show.
JM: What’s also really special [about this production]: I was fortunate enough to see the production here last holiday season of West Side Story, which had, I believe, the same size orchestra. And the space is such an intimate, interesting space. So, that adds to it, too: hearing 17 pieces in that very intimate space. Not to give too much away, but not only do we have 17 pieces, when you see the show, the orchestra is very visible and very much a part of the environment of the show. So, you’ll see all of the players, very visibly, and you’ll be getting a lot of natural sound spilling out. We’re not behind a wall or in the basement. So, that adds a whole other layer.
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What is the average size orchestra at Signature?
James Gardiner: It really depends on the show. When it comes to West Side Story or Titanic, shows that call for bigger orchestrations, we tend to go that route. A lot of newer musicals don’t have that. If it’s a rock musical, then it’s six or seven pieces.
JC: That brings up a really interesting point about musicals in general: whenever I work on a show, the first question I ask is, “what’s the story we’re telling?” The story we’re telling is about the grandiose Titanic – this beautiful ship that was the wonder of mankind – and the score sounds like that. Even when you just sit down at the piano to play it or hear it in rehearsal with the singers: these 20 fantastic voices. And when you hear that, you need to match it.
The story in this situation, much like the story in West Side Story, is told through the score. It’s a little bit different than a rock show like Little Shop of Horrors, where you could do it with five or six players, and it’s a rock band, and that’s appropriate. Whereas, I probably wouldn’t want to hear a 16 person Little Shop of Horrors. Just because it’s what’s appropriate.
Because the space is more intimate at Signature, are there any challenges with bringing in an orchestra this size? Or have you had any challenges with the re-orchestration?
JC: Personally, one of the challenges I’ve faced, is that every song is such a big number, and you want to balance it with smaller moments.
JM: In a small space especially.
JC: Yes. It’s almost wall-to-wall music. So, it feels like a film score in a way because about 97% of the show is underscored with music. If someone’s not singing there is something [musical] going on. Especially because the orchestra is right there and not hidden in a pit where, in a pit, the sound designer can turn it down if it’s too loud. So, here, it’s been exciting to think about, “how can I make this sound a little bit more intimate or smaller?”
Before I would score through the orchestration for a scene, I would read [the scene] and see what the dialogue was about to inform [the orchestration.] Of course, I wasn’t composing new music, but trying to hopefully balance it with what’s going on in the stage action. That’s a challenge, but a challenge that I always love, because it’s neat to be able to pull back. We know that the songs need to sound like songs, but you get a chance to have a different vocabulary for what you’re doing in the scene.
As we go on in tech, and once the orchestra is in the space, I imagine there will be things that we adjust and places where I need to maybe put the brass in mutes where they weren’t muted or something else to lessen the sound or rethink things. But that’s the exciting part – you’re never done in any aspect until opening night, and even then, there’s always things you wish you could redo.
So, that’s the work now. The work originally was to take this 360-page piano score and give everybody something to play and figure out how that works. I’d say it’s the most music I’ve ever done in a show just because it is wall-to-wall.
But you also want to think about the audience, and how they are experiencing the show. Because what happens, I think, if you are just bombarded with this beautiful orchestra the whole time, you’re going to be desensitized to it a little bit. So, when you get to use those more intimate moments, [for example,] a string quartet, or a solo woodwind with a cello playing or a harp or whatever, you get to give them a different experience. Which again, comes back to the story we’re telling. It’s always a challenge to me but a really exciting one.
Why this show now? What do you think makes this show relevant today?
JC: Particularly with what’s happening politically in the world today, a lot of the show is about people coming to America and wanting new and better lives. There is a beautiful song called “Ladies Maid,” where these three Irish women are singing about how they hope for all of these wonderful things when they come here.
JM: They are third class passengers.
JC: Yes, so it’s really interesting in this climate – whatever your beliefs are – to think of America in that way. Or to think of any sort of a journey that takes you to someplace new where you hope your life will be better. I think that’s what the Titanic was all about. The thing Maury Yeston does[well] in the score and in the book, is the juxtaposition of the different classes: the first, second, and third class passengers and their viewpoints – how people are stuck in the middle or at one end of the spectrum. I personally think that’s very relevant, especially in life today.
JM: More nuts and bolts of the score: [Yeston] achieves [those class differences] very well. The song of the first class passengers is early in the show where they are having dinner in the dining salon. It sounds like a proper Gilbert and Sullivan: very proper, very tight, precise, and persnickety. And ten minutes later, you get the song of the third class passengers, which is this wistful, Irish, lilting tune. So there are a lot of colors in the score that indicate where we are. Then Ida and Isador Strauss have their big duet at the end: a very old school operetta, putting you back in Europe. The colors of the score really take you where you want to be as a listener.
- View photos of the 20-person cast and their characters following the video below
Most of these characters are all based on true stories, correct?
JM: Yeah. Absolutely. There are a couple of characters who are fictional, but they are amalgamations of several real people. Most of the story is completely based in history. The few characters that were embellished were [done so] for dramatic reasons. It is by and large historically accurate.
Anything else audiences should know?
JM: Like I said, the show is so rarely done. People don’t know this show. Some audiences will, but I think they are going to be blown away, because it is musically so satisfying. And although it is artistic, it is incredibly accessible. It’s highbrow in a good way. It lands on the ear very easily. It’s like beautiful, warm comfort food. The cast is amazing, and has a lot of the DC and Signature audience favorites from the past. And the singing is spectacular.
You never to get to see this show, and they are using the space in a way I’ve never seen before – it’s pretty stunning. To hear this size orchestra and this cast, it’s pretty thrilling.
The Titanic‘s Crew
The crew members of the RMS Titanic will be played by Signature favorite Bobby Smith (Signature’s La Cage aux Folles) as designer Thomas Andrews, Lawrence Redmond (Signature’s The Fix) as owner J. Bruce Ismay, Christopher Bloch (Signature’s Kid Victory) as Captain E.J. Smith, Nick Lehan (Signature’s The Fix) as telegraph operator Harold Bride, Sam Ludwig (Signature’s The Hollow) as coal stoker Frederick Barrett, Matt Conner (Signature’s The Fix) as Charles Lightoller, Kevin McAllister (Signature’s Brother Russia) as William Murdoch, Christopher Mueller (Signature’s The Fix) as Henry Etches, and Sean Burns (Signature’s Elmer Gantry) as Bell Boy.
The Titanic Passengers
The passengers on board the Titanic will be played by Signature favorite Florence Lacey (Signature’s Sunset Boulevard) as the elegant Ida Straus, John Leslie Wolfe (Signature’s West Side Story) as Isidor Straus, Erin Driscoll (Signature’s Road Show) as Kate Murphey, Jamie Eacker (Signature’s The Fix) as Kate Mullins, Tracy Lynn Olivera (Signature’s The Fix) as social climber Alice Beane, Russell Sunday (Signature’s Elmer Gantry) as Edgar Beane, Chris Sizemore (Signature’s Miss Saigon) as Charles Clarke, Stephen Gregory Smith (Signature’s The Fix) as Frederick Fleet, Hasani Allen (1st Stage’s Floyd Collins) as Jim Farrell, Iyona Blake (Signature’s Jelly’s Last Jam) as Caroline Neville, and Katie McManus (Signature’s Chess) as Kate McGowan.
The Titanic’s Orchestra
Conductor: James Moore
Musical Coordinator: Jon Kalbfleisch
Flutes: Sergio Acosta
Clarinet: Patrick Plunk
Oboe: Lee Lachman
Bassoon: Kelsey Mire
Horns: Amy Smith; Amanda Collins
Trumpet: Chris Walker
Trombone: Adam McColley
Piano: Jenny Cartney
Harp: Cecile Schoon
Percussion: Lee Hinkle
Bass: Bill Hones
Violins: Jeff Thurston; Derek Smith; Harriet Vorona
Viola: Cathy Amoury
Cello: Suzanne Orban