The last two times Don Stephenson visited St. Louis, he portrayed Leo Bloom, the timid half of the title team in The Producers. He was Leo when the brassy Mel Brooks musical debuted at the Fox in 2002; two summers ago he repeated his acclaimed performance when The Producers opened the Muny season. Now Stephenson is back at the Muny, this time as a director, and he is anything but timid. Fiercely energetic, Stephenson is directing next week's production of the 1997 Tony Award-winning Titanic, one of the most ambitious Broadway musicals in memory. As one of its original cast members — and a history buff to boot — Stephenson cherishes his Titanic experience.
"I would have done anything to be in it," he says, "and I practically did. Those auditions went on for months. Richard Jones was known primarily as a director of opera, and he kept saying, 'No, no, no, no,' to almost everyone he saw. When he eventually settled on a cast, in my opinion it was the finest ensemble of acting singers that has ever been assembled in New York. Titanic is the last great choral singing show written for the Broadway theater."
With so much singing, does the musical come close to being an opera? "I guess it's an opera, as much as Most Happy Fella is an opera," Stephenson replies, referencing the 1956 musical by Frank Loesser, who was Stephenson's father-in-law. [He is married to the composer's daughter, actress Emily Loesser.] "My father-in-law used to say that Most Happy Fella was a musical with a lot of music, and I think that Titanic is a musical with a lot of music. But it certainly has that operatic effect: 36 people turning and singing together. "
It was in fact the music that initially engaged Stephenson. "I fell in love with Titanic at the very first rehearsal," he says. "[Composer-lyricist] Maury Yeston played through the entire opening number, which introduces everyone in the cast and runs about twenty minutes. He played the piano himself and he sang every role. It was an amazing tour-de-force performance. We hadn't even learned the opening number yet, but he showed us what it could be. I knew right then that Titanic was a musical that strives for greatness, and at times throughout the evening I think it actually achieves greatness."
But that greatness didn't come easily. From the outset the show seemed almost as doomed as the ship itself. "What a bonding experience those rehearsals were for the company," Stephenson recalls. "They were unlike any that I've ever been through. The entire process was a combination of artistry and accident, happenstance and screwups. Titanic is the vision of three men: Richard Jones, Maury Yeston and Peter Stone, who wrote the script. But they reconceived and rewrote everything, and there were constant changes! A complete overhaul. Dropping numbers, rewriting numbers. Throwing out scenes, putting in new scenes.
"We took a bus trip to upstate New York to a factory that was building the hydraulic to tilt the ship. We all climbed up on it and rehearsed in the factory. Then once we got into previews, none of that stuff worked. Sometimes the technology would break down and we couldn't even finish a performance. If they couldn't get the set in place in time, they would cut the scene. Other scenes were added to cover lengthy scene changes. But throughout this unending craziness, we all believed in the show. I think that to a person we shared the conviction that it was important and groundbreaking and creative. We also felt like the odds were against our pulling it off. A lot of people in New York expected us to fail — and I think really wanted us to fail — which gave everyone in the cast even more motivation.
"We found ourselves in that cliché situation of performing one version of the show at night in previews while rehearsing a different version during the day. Our original ending involved Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck [in 1985]. A submersible came down onto the stage, where there were all these models of the decayed ship. We tried it in previews. I came in the next day and all those models were in the Dumpster behind the theater. They threw it all out. Finally late in previews, they put in a new ending before a matinee, and it completely turned the show around. It was like the sun coming out on a cloudy day, a breathtaking miracle for all of us."
But not for the critics. Titanic opened to reviews that mostly ranged from mediocre to negative. The show seemed destined to close. "Then Rosie O'Donnell saw it, and she loved it, and she came back and saw it again," Stephenson says. "Every day she raved about it on her talk show, and the audiences began to grow. She basically turned it around for us. Then we got nominated for five Tony Awards and won all five, including Best Musical. What a validation that was. We ran for more than 800 performances and became this success story that was snatched from the brink of total disaster."
And yet, among those five Tony nominations, not a single actor was nominated. "And you know what?" Stephenson suggests. "As much as I love all of them, no one should have been nominated, because Titanic is a collective effort. Everybody moves the show forward together. There's not a single character who's more important than anyone else."
What should next week's Muny audiences expect? Stephenson reverses the question. "They shouldn't expect Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet," he replies, referencing the 1997 blockbuster film that opened six months after the musical. "They also shouldn't expect to see My Fair Lady or The Pajama Game, because Titanic is not a conventional musical. But it's ideal for the Muny, because it's huge and grand. So what audiences should expect to see is something they can't see anywhere else.
"Titanic is rarely done in the United States, because it makes enormous demands on the people who stage it. I take my hat off to [executive producer] Paul Blake and to everybody at the Muny for having the guts and gumption to take it on. Paul has very wisely hired several of the original cast members. He also succeeded in signing up our musical director Kevin Stites, who conducted it on Broadway. Kevin is one of the most in-demand conductors in New York. He's never worked at the Muny before, so this is a huge coup. And it's a great relief for me. I won't have to be saying, 'That tempo is slow,' and, 'This doesn't sound right,' because Kevin knows Maury's score so well. It's some of the most haunting music you'll ever hear. I told my wife the other day, 'I want the song "Autumn" [which is sung near the end of Act One] to be played at my memorial,' which I fear might be at the end of the Muny rehearsals.
"All jokes aside, the reality is that we have thirteen days in which to stage this epic and extremely complicated show. In New York it took us thirteen days just to stage the opening number. But we'll do our best, and if we do it right, I hope that the Muny audiences will find Titanic to be inspirational. I hope that they will not be able to sit there unmoved, because the show compels you to think about the people who perished on that ship. To me, as an actor and now as a director, there is nothing more exciting than bringing history to life on the stage. Titanic is one of those rare musicals whose very ambition is to bring the past alive. If we can do that, then we will have done our jobs."