Known for taking grandiose musicals and reinventing them to fit within the walls of a black box theater, Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer climbs aboard the unsinkable ship and steers it straight for Arlington. As the captain of the S.S. Signature Theatre, Schaeffer has quite a production to create, not only because of its familiarity, but because of the expectations that accompany a musical of such grandeur. As a matter of fact, Schaeffer and Signature’s production team designed the set to ensure it would fit their space and vision before deciding to produce the musical.
Despite popular belief, Titanic: The Musical is not based off of the film starring heartthrob Leo DiCaprio and should-be wife Kate Winslet (I’m obviously still bitter about this), despite both premiering in 1997. But that doesn’t make Titanic: The Musical any less daunting to produce.
When asked why Signature Theatre chose to tackle Titanic, Schaeffer replied, “It’s a show I’ve always loved. It’s underproduced. Titanic has the best opening number in the history of musical theatre.”
With a cast and crew comprised of over 50 members, it’s easy for one to feel overwhelmed.
“Sometimes I ask myself how I’m going to do this,” Schaeffer added. “But theatre is about collaboration, and everyone here is ready to make this show happen.”
When people think of big musicals, most imagine them taking place on a proscenium stage in a theater that seats thousands. As if Signature Theatre wasn’t making a big enough statement by producing this musical to begin with, the way they’re staging it makes an entirely new statement in and of itself.
Upon walking into the theater, which is a traditional black box but will be set as a theater in the round (meaning audience members will be sitting on all sides of the stage while the action takes place in the center), you can expect to see a set that’s built vertically instead of horizontally. There will not be a ship onstage, and said ship will not sink, but instead you will feel as if you’re inside of the ship itself. Actors will be exhibiting multistory blocking, including utilizing the catwalk as part of the stage, which is typically reserved for crew members to work and not be seen.
“Audiences will have an experience hopefully like none other. It’s not all bells and whistles. It’s an unexpected emotional connection to the show. What you’ll have as an audience member is a night of intimate theatre. You’ll be, at most, seven rows back from the stage, so you’re in the world of it. Who else in their right mind is doing Titanic in a small black box, not to mention in the round?”
Though Schaeffer never claimed to be in his right mind (what creative is?), he did claim to be ambitious, and this show is just that.
Apart from the spectacle of it all, Titanic: The Musical is also comprised of a wonderful cast of actors portraying both fictional and historical characters alike.
Captain Edward John Smith, played by Christopher Bloch, and Frederick Barrett, played by Sam Ludwig, are just two of many historical figures associated with the infamous 1912 sinking of the unsinkable ship.
Bloch, who has been an important figure in DC theatre for the past 15 years, said he associates himself with Captain Smith because of their similarity in age (early 60s) and their mutual affinity for sailing and operating big ships. His initial connection with the captain lead him to purchase Smith’s biography in an effort to learn to play the role more authentically, noting that he’s even dabbling with various dialects to accompany his portrayal.
“When creating a character, you have to find something that makes sense within the context of the story, even if they don’t seem to make sense,” Bloch said. “Are they illogical? A villain? Why do they do what they do? Find the truth for your character. The words give you that information.”
Ludwig, who plays the lead stoker in the boiling room (Barrett is the first to notice the iceberg’s impact on the ship), is reprising his role after playing the character at 19.
“I love playing roles I’ve done before, because you have a baseline understanding of your character,” he said. “I can think more holistically and be as natural as possible.”
If you’re a fan of engaging, ambitious theatre, Titanic: The Musical is not to be missed. With a lush score and a thrilling set, you’re sure to be transported back in time. Titanic opens December 13 and runs through January 29. Tickets are $40-$79. Check Signature Theatre’s website for details about specialty nights and discounts.
Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703-820-9771; www.sigtheatre.org