Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s Titanic features one of the best musical theatre scores of the 1990s – but so does Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Ragtime. Off the top of my head, I’d find it difficult to compare the two right now, merely because I haven’t spend an comparable amounts of time listening to both scores recently, so my ear is likely to favour Titanic because that’s the show I’ve listened to most, most recently. It’s also tough for me to look at the two musicals objectively, because I know that I have a personal preference for Titanic, because of its subject matter. But let’s try and get past that for now and see what’s cracking beneath the surface.
Both shows represent the best work of each respective creative team. The two shows are brilliantly evocative of period music and Ragtime has just as many musical highlights as Titanic: moving ballads like “Your Daddy’s Son” in the former and “In Every Age” in the latter; stirring character driven moments (“Coalhouse’s Soliloquy” and and “The Proposal/The Night was Alive”; a touching marriage of music and lyrics in songs (“New Music” and the “Autumn”/”No Moon” sequence); and at least one evocative love song each in “Sarah Brown Eyes” and “Still”.
At the same time, neither score is absolutely perfect in every way. Both have flaws, different kinds of flaws to be sure, but they’re there all the same. So I’m not sure that either edges out the other in the final analysis when it comes to the scores alone, but – if it were on the table – I’d happily agree that both of them have scores that are better than that of Parade, which is set during a similar time period in history and shares some musical vocabulary with Titanic and Ragtime. (Isn’t it interesting to note the overlapping timelines of these three prominent musical theatre scores from the 1990s, along with Assassins and Floyd Collins? I think that this kind of overlap is a natural phenomenon in musical theatre. Something about a particular show really appears to resonate with an audience and then a run of shows that are set in similar time periods appears. In the 1940s, there was a yen for “historic” Americana-styled musicals, like Oklahoma!, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, Bloomer Girl and so on. From the end of the 1970s into the 1980s, there began a run of musicals set in 19th Century Europe with their roots in operetta, like Sweeney Todd, Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera. In the 1990s, things converged around this turn of the century setting.)
Ultimately, I’d say Titanic and Ragtime probably on par with one another, although their styles and intentions are so divergent that it does become complicated to look at the two side by side, despite some of the similarities between the two. Still, such a comparison might make for interesting reading….