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Dogged by disaster.

A confession: I am a disaster aficionado. Not only natural disasters, but shows about disasters, so many of which themselves become natural disasters.

Hence, while in New York last week, I didn't so much choose to see the new musical "Titanic," but was sucked into its vortex. Though still in previews, "Titanic," Broadway's most expensive show of the season, already is creating its own mythology, just like James Cameron's megamovie of the same name, which had been shooting for five months in Baja. Surely the cost of the movie and play vastly exceeds that of the original supervessel, which was heralded as unsinkable. Will the stage and movie "Titanics" prove unsinkable?

Now, I'm not going to pre-review the musical, which won't open until April 23, but suffice it to say that no one in the audience leaves until the end. The reason is simple: They want to know whether the super-expensive set will actually sink on cue, which it hasn't of late. Now that's suspense.

Even more suspense surrounds the movie, but it's the studio execs who are biting their nails. Originally budgeted at $110 million, the megafilm will ultimately cost between $180 million and $200 million, depending on whom you ask. Since Leonardo DiCaprio is the biggest name in the movie, one can only assume that the 250 special effects shots are the true stars, at least, the ones taking up all the shooting time.

Sumner Redstone, the Viacom chief who owns Paramount, has been boasting to bankers that his investment in "Titanic" is capped (Paramount reportedly owns domestic rights for $65 million), which, if correct, means that 20th Century Fox is expecting spectacular overseas business to rationalize its latest adventure in disasterville.

Lots of other people have been betting on the Titanic as well. CBS devoted a miniseries to the disaster not long ago, and the Discovery Channel has another show scheduled for April 12 Next month will see publication of "Last Dinner on the Titanic," the world's first disaster cookbook, which lovingly evokes the final gastronomic treats ranging from oysters a la russe to Calvados-glazed duckling. While 100 books and a dozen movies have been devoted to the Titanic, surely this is the first to truly focus on the things that count.

Which is not to suggest that the musical is frivolous. Even as I made my way into the peeling old Lunt-Fontanne Theater, I wondered whether Peter Stone, who wrote the book, would go for pathos or perhaps try for a few mordant laughs. In the past, Stone had taken on some tough projects, like "1776" and "My One and Only"--what would be his take on the sinking Grand Hotel?

The answer should please disaster devotees, because Stone and his collaborator, Maury Yeston, who did the music and lyrics, clearly opted to play it straight, with occasionally bizarre results. This is the first show that ever gave me a crick in the neck, the result of watching virtually an entire act played on a 45-degree sloping set (at any minute I expected the actors to tumble offstage in a heap).

In what other musical would you see an aged couple, identified as the owners of Macy's, singing farewell as the water level rises around them? (I kept expecting an elevator door to open and a voice to call out, "Fifth floor, men's furnishings.")

There's even a three-way singing argument involving the ship's captain, its designer and its owner over how to assign responsibility for the debacle. There's something intrinsically ludicrous about three men exchanging nautical esoterica as they descend into Davy Jones' locker, but, again, this one's for disaster devotees and it's all played straight.

All of which brings us back to the question: Why doesn't the damn boat sink? I tried to elicit this information from the techies gathered around the cluster of computers at the rear of the theater, but none seemed eager to respond.

"No object has ever moved in any show I've ever written, and clearly this ship doesn't want to set a precedent," volunteered the ever-optimistic Stone. Had he asked Cameron to fly in for a quick consultation? Stone said he didn't think Cameron would have the time.

He has a point. After toiling endlessly with his massive, 775-foot-long replica, perched in a 17 million-gallon seawater tank that covers 8.5 acres, Cameron probably doesn't want to mess around with a puny model on Broadway.

Still, Cameron and Stone are both fighting the same battle, toiling feverishly to re-create for us disaster-lovers the most gut-wrenching, stomach-turning act of God imaginable. If I were Jim Cameron, I'd at least send my comrade in arms some oysters a la russe and Calvados-glazed duckling to lift his spirits.
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Title Annotation:misfortunes hounding the set of Titanic, the play and the movie
Author:Bart, Peter
Publication:Variety
Date:Apr 14, 1997
Words:785
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