‘Titanic: The Musical’ surfaces at Milwaukee Theatre

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One of the early 20th century’s greatest tragedies may seem an unlikely subject for a musical, but that didn’t stop the producers of “Titanic: The Musical” from setting sail on Broadway in 1997. The show, which won five Tony Awards, docks at the Milwaukee Theatre Oct. 13-14 for two performances.

The current touring production of “Titanic” – only its second – celebrates the 100th anniversary of the ship’s doomed voyage. The October dates  mark the first time that the Maury Yeston-Peter Stone musical has ever surfaced in Milwaukee.

On board the current production is Port Washington native Geoffrey Karnish, who appears as First Officer William Murdoch, the man history credits for attempting the evasive action that wound up sinking the ship.

Murdoch was in command of the Titanic’s bridge on April 14, 1912, when a lookout sighted the iceberg in its path, says Karnish, 26, a musical theater graduate of UW-La Crosse who also studied at London Metropolitan University. Murdoch ordered a “hard a starboard,” a command that turned the ship to the left and sent it colliding sideways into the iceberg, sinking the mighty vessel in the early morning hours of April 15.

“If he had stayed on course, he would have struck the iceberg head on,” Karnish says. “This would have dented the front of the ship, but not caused the entire ship to sink.”

Despite that fatal maneuver, history also shows Murdoch to be a competent officer who realized his error. Murdoch took full blame for the tragedy and, like a good officer, helped load the lifeboats before going down with his ship.

Predictably, the ship plays a major role in the stage production, which is not based on the James Cameron film also released in 1997. First-, second- and third-class passengers, who booked passage from England to the U.S. for very different reasons, occupy the ship’s three decks.

“This is a story about heart and human emotion told through one of the most beautiful scores written for the stage in the last 20 years,” Karnish says of the music, which evokes Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughn Williams. “There aren't any Kate Winslet or Leonardo DiCaprio characters. Instead, it tells the story of the actual people that were aboard the Titanic.”

Those characters make a statement about the English class system of the time, author Maury Yeston has said. The third-class passengers, relegated to the ship’s hold, were largely immigrants seeking a better life in America. The second-class passengers had aspirations of upward mobility, and the first-class passengers sought to hold on to their affluence and authority at all costs.

The narrative explores the hopes and dreams of each group in very human terms, Karnish says.

“There are many messages in this show,” Karnish says. “A huge one is the idea of class and that when you die it doesn't matter what class you are and how much money you have. Everyone is the same.”

For more information on “Titanic: The Musical” go to www.milwaukeetheatre.com/categories/4-milwaukeetheatre.