For Pittsburgh Theatre
Titanic's Zach Herman
July 1, 2018
When Zach Herman climbs up the white staircase at center stage at the beginning of Titanic’s Act I finale, the mood in the audience changes. He plays Frederick Fleet, the lookout aboard the ill-fated ship. Herman’s Fleet, though the only lookout portrayed in the musical, was one of two lookouts in the crow’s nest the night the ship struck the iceberg. He’s dressed in a heavy overcoat with two columns of gold buttons, a navy-blue turtleneck, and a sailor’s hat. He blows on his hands and hunches his shoulders in to consolidate body heat. High above in the crow’s nest of the RMS Titanic it is freezing. Standing above the stage he surveys the couples and dancers below him and gazes into the audience.
He begins to sing, his crystal-clear voice cutting over the ominous but beautiful music from the orchestra. “No moon, no wind, nothing to spy things by. No wave, no swell, no line where sea meets sky.” As Herman continues singing, the nervousness he’s able to bring to Fleet unsettles the audience, who gears up for the inevitable moment. As he continues, the music grows darker still, large swells from the music punctuated by the swaying of the actors on stage. “Stillness, darkness. Can’t see a thing, says I. No reflection, not a shadow, not a glint of light meets the eye.”
Despite knowing that the ship sinks, audiences have been flocking to the show. For Herman, he’s keenly aware that he’s in a show where characters, and not the plot, are the priority and the reason that audiences come to the show. “Literally from the top of the show there’s a huge dramatic irony hanging over you. You have to play against it. Especially at the end of the show because all these people are dying, and you don’t want the audience to feel like it’s a downer, because it speaks for itself. At the end of the day, the sadness and melancholy and some of the facts of history come in handy. I looked up Fleet and tried to lean into as much about him as I could, learn a Liverpool accent since he was from Liverpool. Research is a
priority especially when doing an actual historical show.”
Herman’s Fleet is an interesting character. Fleet represents one of the three “natural” causes that sunk the Titanic: weather. The lookout was simply unable to see the iceberg which is described as “like the Rock of bloody Gibralter” in the show. Peter Stone, the book writer for Titanic, had a certain vision for the show. Each of the six main actors represents a certain cause for the Titanic’s sinking. From the elite first class, Captain Smith, Thomas Andrews, and Bruce Ismay, the ship’s Captain, designer, and owner respectively, represent the three human faults that sunk the Titanic: compliance/hubris, compromise, and greed. From the working class, Frederick Fleet, Frederick Barrett, and Harold Bride, the lookout, stoker, and telegrapher, represent the three natural forces that sunk the Titanic: poor visibility, speed, and ice/isolation. Throughout the show the six men are in communication but never truly communicate.
At the urging of White Star Line owner Ismay, played brilliantly villainously by Laird Mackintosh, Captain Smith pushes Barrett to speed up the ship. During the momentous Act I finale, Chris Peluso as Barrett begins to sing a reprise of his solo number “Barrett’s Song.” “The screws were turning at eighty-one,” Barrett sings, eighty-one being a speed which Barrett finds too fast for a maiden voyage.
Layered over Barrett is Bride, played beautifully by Kevin Massey, who sings, “The night was alive with a thousand voices” over and over, an eerie premonition of what is to come. Still atop the staircase, Herman stands tall, singing with most of the company, “No moon” on repeat. The rest of the cast sways below him to the calm rocking of the ship. The audience’s eyes are trained on him, waiting for the moment that the Titanic’s fate is sealed. Still singing, the cast moves to new positions. Suddenly Fleet points dead ahead, dread filling the audience, and he cries out. “Dear mother of God!” A brass bell rings three times. “Iceberg, right ahead!”
Up on the bridge, Lightoller, played by Luke Halferty, and 1st Officer Murdoch, played by Allan Snyder, race to redirect the epic ship. Fleet calls out that the iceberg is only a quarter of a mile away and Murdoch says, “Yes, it’s all right. I think we’re going to miss it.”
There’s a large scraping sound, nails on a chalkboard blown up to an epic proportion, the lighting changes, and across the stage the actors freeze in varying haphazard positions, shielding themselves and their loved ones. Herman’s head ducks, his arms go up to shield his body, and the stage goes black.
Herman grew up in Sarasota, Florida, a place south of Tampa where, as he puts it, the average age was somewhere between 65-70, which left him with nothing to do. He was painfully shy as a child. At eight years old, Herman wasn’t looking to perform on stage. It just happened that a girl that he liked went to a drama club on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Herman decided to join as well and ending up falling in love with performing and coming out of his shell. He knew he was destined to be an actor when his mother asked him, “Would you be okay starving and doing theater?” He didn’t need to think twice. “Yes.” After that he began taking voice lessons and went to a high school theater magnet program. Carnegie Mellon University was his dream school and he got in.
This fall Herman will be a senior, and he’s spending the fall semester abroad at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Once he’s back from his semester abroad, Herman will be gearing up for CMU’s production of Cabaret, in which he plays the iconic Emcee, a role made famous by Joel Grey and Alan Cummings.
He says, “I’m thrilled. It’s something that I haven’t ever really done before – that kind of sexually ambiguous character who’s got a lot of energy, and I think especially with what’s going on around us, it’s a story that we really have to remember. Not only is it a huge personal challenge to play something like that, I think the show itself is really important. It really feels amazing to be able to put all my energy into that at the end of the year, and I get this beautiful class of people around me to do it with. I’m beyond excited.”
On the opposite end of the “racy” spectrum sits Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s Titanic. For Herman, it too has been a challenge, but in a different way.
“Titanic has been a big learning experience for me because I’ve done school shows, but this is the first professional, Equity production I’ve done. Walking into that room on the first day, I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve walked out with so much learned, how quickly I am able now to work, and what a professional room is like. To be off book [lines memorized] the first day, it was a little bit of catch up the first few days. I was really nervous, but I was happy after the first week because, I found that, okay, I can keep up.”
Herman does more than keep up; he holds his own on the stage no matter the role he’s in. While Fleet is the big role he plays, Titanic has every actor, with the exception of Christopher Gurr (Captain Smith), Laird Mackintosh (Ismay), and Bradley Dean (Andrews), double up on roles. This means that Herman, while also playing Fleet, is playing: one of Barrett’s fellow stokers, Frank Carlson who is upset about, ironically, missing the Titanic because his car breaks down, a first-class passenger with a grand mustache, and a 3rd class Italian passenger. With all his quick changes and the different accents for each character, it’s hard to recognize Herman in every character he portrays. To keep his characters clear in his own mind, Herman tries to keep his mind “quiet” and relies on the costumes, he says.
“The costumes help. When I look at myself in the clothes it’s like, okay, now I know who I am. It’s a real mental challenge to keep all that straight. Backstage I like to keep my mind quiet. Anyone in the cast can tell you that I’ve gone through three 600-page fantasy novels throughout this rehearsal process. I’ve torn through them because when I’m not on stage I need to stay calm and cool and focused. I love fantasy novels, but it’s really easy to just bookmark somewhere, jump away, and then get into whatever’s happening. It keeps my brain from wandering. Right now, I’m on the second in the Game of Thrones series, A Song of Ice and Fire. I’ll be sitting backstage, my nose buried in my book, hear my cue, slam the book closed, and run off.”
Performing in Titanic has been an interesting circle for Herman. He went to go see a community production when he was twelve years old. “I actually hated it when I first saw it. I saw it at a community theater, and the music is incredibly challenging especially for someone who isn’t trained, and they were all volunteers. They weren’t bad, but it was above the level of what they could do then, so I thought it was awful. But now that I’m doing it, I’ve fallen in love with it a little bit. The music is really pretty, and some of the songs in there are especially gorgeous.”
On top of it all, Herman is performing on the Benedum Center stage, a venue that most actors can only dream about. The Benedum seats 2,800 people, making it one of the three largest theaters in the country. He also gets to work with CMU alums. There are four CMU alums in Titanic with Herman: Bradley Dean, Erika Strasburg, Olivia Vadnais, and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka.
“Bradley is incredible. I love watching him onstage. He’s one of the most committed I’ve ever seen. I love talking to Olivia and Erika about their time at CMU, and they’re wonderful performers. Hunter’s been really great. We do “bigs” and “littles” in the CMU Drama program. My “big” was abroad, so it’s been like having a new “big.” He’s a little bit of a mentor figure for me.”
Despite the tragedy of the show, Herman doesn’t think it’s depressing. “I personally just don’t find this show incredibly sad. Maybe I’m desensitized to all the death from Game of Thrones,” he jokes. “But I think ultimately this show toes that line between being a very real tragedy and an entertaining musical.”
While many people might be expecting the musical Titanic to be a live version of the movie, the two are distinctly different. (Interestingly, they both premiered in 1997 with the musical beating the movie by eight months.) While James Cameron’s movie centered on the love affair between the fictional Jack and Rose, the musical gives a voice to some twenty people, all of whom were real people aboard the RMS Titanic. The musical also is more abstract than the movie. The actors’ movements and the orchestra are used to convey the enormity of the ship rather than having actual footage or CGI. However, the one similarity between the movie and the musical is the emphasis on class difference.
Watching the musical, it is startling to see how the third class was treated compared to the first class. The first class is served champagne and their favorite dishes, Quinn Patrick Shannon as Mr. Etches singing a list of their preferences, while the third class is told coldly not to bring food back to their rooms because it will attract the rats. As the gravity of the situation becomes apparent during the beginning of the second act, the first class is given lifejackets and gathered near the lifeboats, but the third class is locked down in the lower levels of the ship.
About the class difference in the show Herman says, “I think the show itself has some beautiful messages especially about how the Titanic is a mini world of its own and that’s what I was thinking about. There are some great metaphors in there for today about the class struggle and how at the end of the show the rich forsake everyone else to save themselves.” As he talks he grows more passionate, talking faster and more heatedly. “They’re constantly pushing the ship faster and faster at the expense of the people below deck, and all these immigrants get screwed over. There are some really poignant metaphors for some of the stuff we are dealing with right now. Regardless of where anybody stands, I do think it’s a part of our history worth looking at.”
Unlike most of the actors in Titanic, Herman won’t be performing in the rest of the CLO’s summer season. After this he is going to Europe to perform in a show he and seven of his fellow CMU classmates devised, called Divided, We Stand. The show presents America as it is today, “flawed, beautiful, and deeply divided.” The show will be performed at a five-day theatre festival in Florence, Italy, called The Meeting of the European Theatre Academies Festival, called META. CMU was honored to be invited as the first American conservatory program to attend and participate in META. Herman and the rest of Divided, We Stand created the piece to convey the difficulties and confusion of being young artists. In today’s political and economic climate these struggles have been on Herman’s mind. “It’s not always easy to talk about,” he says, “but it’s important.”
Titanic can be the launching of that conversation. For Herman, theatre is a way for people to express themselves which in turn creates empathy between people. Creating empathy then will create social change, he believes, because understanding another person’s struggles and fully empathizing with them will lead to people fighting for each other. He says, “I had a director who used to joke, “You haven’t really made a show unless you offend someone in the audience.” I think great art starts deeper conversations about specific human experiences that translate to the broader experience that we all have.”
Titanic finishes its run this weekend, and Herman hopes even those who are apprehensive will come and see the show. Not only is the score breathtaking and the cast talented, the messages of the show are important and still relevant today. “There’s a beautiful selflessness shown by those on the crew and Ida and Isador Strauss in making room for the passengers on the lifeboats, when they absolutely could have forsaken some of them to going down with the ship,” he adds.
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