IN the final hour of April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic, on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, collided with an iceberg and slowly sank. A total of 1,517 men, women and children lost their lives in what was one of the most infamous disasters of the 20th Century.

It’s not an obvious choice for a musical, but Titanic the Musical has left audiences spellbound. Based on real people aboard the legendary ship, it focuses on their hopes and aspirations. It has music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and a book by Peter Stone, who have won an Oscar, an Emmy, an Olivier and three Tony awards for their work in film and theatre.The original Broadway production of Titanic The Musical won five Tonys.

Was it brave to tell such a dark story with music? “You’d have thought so, but by 1986 musical theatre was tackling subjects like French revolutionaries in Les Miserables,” says Maury. “It was early fall 1985 when news hit that Robert Ballard had discovered the wreck of the Titanic. I began to think the story encapsulated major themes of the 20th century. It was the greatest maritime disaster in history but the story was really about our dreams. At the end of the greatest industrial revolution in the UK there was a mindset that dared to think: ‘We might be able to build a ship that could not sink’. Mankind has big dreams, and every once in a while the dream fails, but that doesn’t make us stop dreaming. The ship carried everybody’s dreams.

“It was the dream of science and the architect, of the shipbuilders in Belfast, the ship-fitters in Liverpool and the engine manufacturers in Lincoln. But it also carried the dreams of third class passengers, at the cutting edge of a huge wave of migration from Europe to America, seeking a better life,” says Maury. “For second class passengers it was a dream that wouldn’t have been possible without the industrial revolution which gave the middle-class enough income to take a trip and rub elbows with the rich and famous. Then you had first class passengers, the iron, railroad, shipbuilding magnates, dreaming that their legacy would last forever.”

Why does the Titanic story continue to fascinate us? “It’s about bravery, cowardice, humanity, how we deal with emergency, how the human spirit is indomitable under the worst circumstances,” says Maury. “I think it’s more resonant than ever. We still have to learn lessons about class structure. The story is also inspirational because, despite the tragedy, it shows that we dare. When we see examples of self-sacrifice on the ship, with some people willingly not getting into lifeboats because they feel others should, there’s inspiration. There’s also the hoping against hope that things will somehow be okay. When women and children have left the ship and everyone left knows they’re not going to survive, they sing to each other: ‘Across the chasm we’ll meet tomorrow’, that somehow some will survive and see each other again. That’s the human spirit in the face of hopelessness.”

* Titanic the Musical is at the Alhambra, July 24-28. Call (01274) 432000.