You can’t get around that basic fact of the ill-fated Titanic, or of the set for the epic 1997 Broadway musical based on the nautical disaster. The issue for director Eric Schaeffer wasn’t how to fudge that grandeur in his intimate Signature Theatre. The question was how to bring it on board, with ample tonnage.
“It’s big,” Schaeffer said simply in November, with the show in rehearsals. (It’s now in preview performances, with official openings Dec. 21 and 22.)
Making large musicals sing in its comparatively small space has long been a Signature hallmark: “West Side Story,” “Les Miserables” and “Sunset Boulevard” have all been produced with as much scale as the company could muster. The “Sunset Boulevard” comparison may be especially apt: In 1995, the Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation of Billy Wilder’s film noir won Tony Awards for best musical, best score — and for John Napier’s astonishingly engineered set, an immense hydraulic contraption that levitated to create a Hollywood split screen effect.
In 1997, “Titanic” also hauled major Tonys, as the era of mega-musicals was winding down, nabbing prizes for best musical, best score (by Maury Yeston) — and for Stewart Laing’s astonishing, immense hydraulic set, which slowly tilted throughout the second act as the ship went down.
“I don’t know if we can do it,” Schaeffer recalls saying to managing director Maggie Boland when she asked more than a year ago what he’d like to direct, and he answered, “Titanic.”
Schaeffer did something he hasn’t done before: He sketched an idea for an in-the-round staging and handed it to designer Paul Tate dePoo III. Could dePoo think through some possible set ideas before the theater actually committed to do the show?
Turns out dePoo once took a course on the engineering of architecture . . . and he wrote a paper on the design of the Titanic.
“They didn’t even really treat it as a ship,” dePoo says of the vessel sung about almost operatically in the musical as a “floating city.”
These are some of the elements that dePoo and Schaeffer have settled on to suggest their own version of their “ship of dreams,” to quote another Yeston lyric. It will have a cast of 20, an orchestra of 17 and an audience of 350 — the flexible Max theater’s maximum — in only the second show ever staged fully in the round there. (The first? The four-character drama “Shakespeare’s R+J” in 2013.)
The linchpin of DePoo’s design is five ramps that the company calls “gangways” crisscrossing the room at a peak of 18 feet above the stage and creating a sense of endless height. Three steel gangways lead up and are rigged to the ceiling by aircraft cable. Two more ramps descend to the stage. Put together, they look like an Escher zigzag.
The image is abstract enough to suggest the exterior or interior of the ship, depending on the scene.
Yet the gangways, each made of steel and weighing 1,200 pounds, also aim to be physically imposing enough to match the power of the ship’s reputation and the music’s sweeping orchestrations, something Schaeffer and dePoo say is pivotal to the piece.
“Walking into the room, we should be on the Titanic,” dePoo says.
“Go slow,” Schaeffer says during a rehearsal. He’s talking to Lawrence Redmond, playing Titanic owner Bruce Ismay. “Enjoy your ship.”
Navigating the hamstring-taxing gangways, slow is the way to go. The ramps are long and, at 23 degrees, steep enough that Signature brought in a “rake consultant,” which is mandated by Actors’ Equity whenever a stage has a rake of more than five degrees. A small section of a properly angled ramp was placed in the rehearsal room so the actors could adjust before getting onto the much bigger real things.
The metal grid work of the ramps is not “decked over” or covered; Schaeffer and dePoo wanted to be able to see through and for light to penetrate. But that meant special care with even the most fashionable shoes. Soles that grip are in. Pointy heels are out.
Two of the gangways are attached to the ceiling, and a couple of actors will be, as well, as the disaster unfolds. Signature confirmed with its 2007 facility’s builders that the roof was designed to support the steel ramps, assorted set pieces and live humans. Steel aircraft cable has been rigged to “pick points,” or anchors, in the ceiling.
The stage is an irregular 20 by 40 feet, and it’s two feet above the theater’s floor — eight inches higher than Signature usually builds its stages. The stage deck has a slight overhang with lights underneath; during a technical rehearsal of an early scene, lights under that lip create a blue oceanic glow, and a sensation of floating.
On deck are three trap doors as holds for the coal stokers. The wooden lids are heavy, and the actors learn when they try dropping them in sync at the end of their song. The sound of the jagged three-part slam is tremendous.
“It’s a loud ship,” someone says.
Behind a small balcony that the company calls the crow’s nest is the ledge where the “Titanic” orchestra of 17 will nestle. Schaeffer wanted dePoo to incorporate the orchestra into the design, placing the musicians on board.
“That’s when Paul’s head exploded,” Schaeffer says.
Yet Yeston’s music apparently helped power the design. “The orchestra leads you,” dePoo says. “We have to have epic-ness.” In 1997, Yeston spoke of aiming for a symphonic sound, and Schaeffer contends that quality is fundamental to the entire piece: “We need the sound and the ferociousness of this boat.”
Titanic Through Jan. 29 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Tickets $40-$114, subject to change. Call 703-820-9771 or visit sigtheatre.org.