Engineering on Stage

A review of 'Titanic,' the 73rd annual Dolphin Show

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Hello HELIX readers, I hope some of you remember me from last summer. Since the start of fall quarter, I have regrettably not found time to blog with my time devoted to my chemical engineering coursework. Last weekend, however, I attended the musical “Titanic,” the 73rd annual Northwestern University Dolphin Show, which is the largest student-produced musical in the country, and the nexus of science and society explored in the show impelled me to once again put pen to paper.

In an age where Broadway producers seem eager to adapt any and every movie into a musical (“Heathers,” “Bring it On,” “Big Fish”), the first thing I’ve been telling people about this year’s Dolphin Show is that it’s not an adaptation of the James Cameron movie. This musical does not feature star-crossed lovers crossing classes. While there is indeed romance and class struggle developed among the ship’s passengers, the primary plot point for “Titanic” is the tension between conservative and aggressive approaches to new technology.

This is a musical about ethics in engineering, and the role people play in the fate of technology (spoiler alert: the ship sinks). J. Bruce Ismay (Sean Gundersen), CEO of the company operating the ship, gets cast as a villain. His passive inquiries quickly escalate to irate demands that the ship travel faster. Early in the show, he asks the chief naval architect Thomas Andrews (Max Rein) about the ship’s performance capabilities. Andrews answers as an engineer; he answers in a way that would satisfy intellectual curiosity about performance and divulges both the conservative target and an outer design limit. Ismay then cites the outer limit as evidence in his demands to the ship’s captain (Garrett Baer). The Captain resists but seems to have lost the fight of his youth. Seasoned crew members, from the first officer (Daniel Liu) down to the stoker (Alex Christ), raise concerns but respect the chain of command.

This interplay between designers, financiers and operators is captivating for all audiences, but especially thought provoking for engineers and scientists. Anyone developing technology must be very mindful of numbers that get presented to wider audiences. If money-makers hear a figure they can take to the bank, like a transatlantic crossing in six days flat, there’s a good chance they won’t remember the stipulations that accompanied it. The drama escalates as disaster strikes, and the fallout investigates which stakeholders feel culpable and which don’t. Andrews gets a remarkable scene with his blueprints after all the lifeboats have left.

Another gem in this show that technologists will appreciate is the role of Harold Bride (Alex Bird), the ship’s radioman. His scene translating love notes into Morse code conveys an appropriate tenderness for the communicative power of code and includes the line, “How could I send letters to one girl when I’ve got the whole world to talk to?” His sentiments should be poignant to computer coders and are a bit prescient from a musical that pre-dates the internet era.

All in all, I highly recommend this show to the scientific community at Northwestern. Expect the show’s pacing and the music to be somewhat operatic but expertly executed. Also, get tickets in advance as this production has been well publicized and is a longstanding tradition. “Titanic” continues January 30 and 31 at Cahn Auditorium, and tickets are available at www.nudolphinshow.org

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