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How Titanique set sail to become an off-Broadway smash

How Titanique set sail to become an off-Broadway smash


How Titanique set sail to become an off-Broadway smash
EVAN ZIMMERMAN FOR MURPHYMADE

Titanique co-creator Tye Blue discusses the origins of his musical jukebox parody and ode to Céline Dion.

simbernardo

When Titanic was released in 1997, it wasn’t just a movie — it was a phenomenon. Titanic turned actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet into household names, established James Cameron as Hollywood’s top filmmaker, became the highest-grossing movie of all time, and was nominated for 14 Academy Awards. A major Oscars win was Best Original Song, for Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” which is still one of the most popular ballads in history.

Inspired by the Titanic story and legacy as well as Céline Dion’s phenomenal body of work, a queer-coded musical parody titled Titanique came to life from the minds of writer-director Tye Blue and book co-writers Marla Mindelle and Constantine Rousouli.

Titanique was sort of birthed in L.A.,” Blue says. “Marla, Constantine, and I were doing these musical parodies at a kind of lowbrow dinner theater called Rockwell Table & Stage, which doesn’t exist anymore. We did shows there for a few years. I distinctly remember the night when Connie came up to me and was like, ‘I know what we should do next. We should do a parody of Titanic, all Céline Dion songs, and Marla should play Céline.’ I pitched it to the people who were running the venue, and they were like, ‘Eh, we’ll do something else.’ So, their mistake. Here we are.”

Following the 2016 presidential election, Blue felt like audiences needed some laughter and joy. So he started meeting with Mindelle and Rousouli every Monday night in summer 2017 to brainstorm ideas for Titanique. This culminated with the first iteration of Titanique as a concert series at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. The show gained traction and moved to New York City in summer 2018.

“Constantine was in New York for something, and he was like, ‘Hey, we should do the show at Green Room 42. I know the guy who runs it.’ So they went and they toured it. Everyone literally bought their flights, put themselves up in a hotel, and we did six shows back-to-back that week. We had no idea how it was going to go, but it went really great, thank God.”

Tye BlueAaron Jay Young

Up until then, Titanique was only performed as a concert in cabaret clubs and music spaces. Those venues already paid for music licenses for concerts, which meant that Titanique could include whichever songs its creators wanted to have. When the opportunity came for Titanique to become an actual musical theater production, the inclusion of certain songs became wildly more challenging.

“Once we got attached to a commercial Broadway producer and started mounting it as a full production, we had to start getting the songs cleared. We hired a woman who does this for all the big shows, Janet Billig Rich. She’s a full diva queen,” Blue recalls of the Tony-nominated producer and music supervisor. “And she got to work, her and her team, but it took a while, and we did lose a few songs. There were some dark days in there. But the few songs that we lost, we managed to find other things as substitutes. Céline has a massive catalog full of hits, so we worked it out.”

The most devastating loss in the music-clearance process was “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” which was originally used for the opening number of Titanique. “That song was fucking perfect because it’s all about her remembering what really happened,” Blue recalls. “It’s also full of style and glamour and theatricality. It was a golden opening number.”

“We lost that one because it was in Bat Out of Hell: The Musical. We lost ‘The Power of Love,’ I think because the songwriter was just like, ‘Nah, I’m going to say no because I can.’ And another one was ‘That’s the Way It Is.’ We lost because it’s in & Juliet, which they knew was coming to Broadway.”

Titanique eventually got its off-Broadway debut in June 2022 at the Asylum Theatre. Then in November 2022, the show transferred to the Daryl Roth Theatre.

It’s hard to compete with Cameron, but Titanique’s run has its own milestones. Blue remembers the night that Andrew Lloyd Webber came to see the show. “Of course, I was panicking,” Blue says. “I had them put me in a seat where I could see him the whole night. I was literally watching the show with one eye and watching his every move with the other. But he had a great time. He was very complimentary and gave us some good business advice.”

Blue also fondly recalls the musical winning the coveted Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical in 2023. And the show remains popular with audiences, evidenced by its extension of performances through June 14. The current lead is Jackie Burns as Dion, with out cast members like Drew Droege as Ruth and RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Willam as Victor Garber also providing queer appeal.

“I think Titanique is a hit because it’s really, really funny. There’s a casual queerness to it, which people are living for,” Blue says. “And the comedy and the jokes set it apart from other jukebox musicals, like the ones on Broadway right now. We also have one of the best catalogs of songs on the planet mixed with one of the most beloved movies on the planet. It’s just a strong concept.”

Céline Dion wearing the Heart of the Ocean at the 70th Annual Academy AwardsJim Smeal/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Speaking of Dion —whose enduring popularity as a gay icon is the raison d’être of Titanique — the singer revealed in December 2022 that she had been diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder called stiff-person syndrome. The announcement came as a shock to her fans, including the Titanique team.

“It’s been pretty trippy,” Blue says. “We are mega fans. We saw her in Las Vegas while building this show, and it was the best night of my life. She’s like a special gift from an alien race sent here to heal us. To have her pulled out and unable to do what she was meant to do on this planet, you mourn it. When her producers came to the show, I was very nervous sitting next to them. I was worried that it was going to be too quirky, too sexy, too vulgar. She has a brand, an image, and all we ever wanted to do was lift her up in a fun way.”

Blue adds, “I took her producer, John Nelson, backstage to greet the actors. He’s a wonderful man. So he goes backstage and instantly gets emotional. He said, ‘We’re accustomed to hearing these songs every day, but we don’t get to hear them right now. It’s really special and important that you guys are out here keeping this going for us while she’s going through this.’ I could feel his pain.”

“We remain hopeful that she’s coming back, so we’re holding out hope that she’ll push through,” Blue concludes. “I always say we’re like her brand ambassadors while she’s offstage. We’re going to keep these songs on the radio. People are going to come to see this. And they’re going to keep loving Céline Dion.”

Titanique is now sailing at NYC's Daryl Roth Theatre through June 16.

This article is part of the Out January/February issue, which hits newsstands on February 6. Support queer media and subscribe — or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News on January 23.

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Bernardo Sim

Bernardo Sim is a writer, content creator, and the deputy editor of Out. Born in Brazil, he currently lives in South Florida.

Bernardo Sim is a writer, content creator, and the deputy editor of Out. Born in Brazil, he currently lives in South Florida.