Deep in the dank basement of a Chelsea Gristedes, behind a chintzy black curtain, a life-size cardboard cutout of Patti LuPone has been folded into quarters and stuffed beneath a plastic table. I watch as Hannah Frye-Ginsberg, a cheerful assistant stage manager, yanks Patti out from her hiding place and methodically unfolds her until both women are roughly the same height. Frye-Ginsberg props Patti up in front of her own body like a shield, preparing to take her onstage for a total of four seconds so that a throwaway joke can be made about Patti LuPone being in attendance for tonight’s performance. “So stupid,” Frye-Ginsberg mutters to herself, laughing.
We’re backstage at a Wednesday-night performance of Titanique, which, much like Angels in America, is a gay fantasia on national themes wherein a small number of actors play multiple roles at once, fall in love with the wrong people, grapple with the cruelty of fate, and ultimately transcend death itself. Unlike Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking work, however, Titanique is a Céline Dion jukebox musical that tells the story at the heart of the 1997 blockbuster sensation Titanic from the perspective of the Canadian singer, who in this adaptation claims she survived the sinking of the actual boat. The show has been running since late June at Asylum NYC, former home of the Upright Citizens Brigade. It’s 90 minutes of pure camp, powerhouse-ballad belting, and rapid-fire pop-culture references — a cross between a passionate high-school-theater performance and an extended bit from The Other Two.
Frye-Ginsberg is right: Titanique is so stupid. That is its inherent strength and the source of its absurd charm. Its own creators — erstwhile Broadway stars and best friends Marla Mindelle (who plays Dion) and Constantine Rousouli (who plays Jack) plus director Tye Blue — refer to it lovingly and with regularity as “janky” for its rangy spirit, but also for its crumbling setting (the aforementioned Gristedes is closed and set to be demolished) and props (many of which were cobbled together by Rousouli himself at Michaels craft store and include a Fisher-Price car and fuzzy leopard-print steering wheel). Titanique is so idiotically funny that it brought me to tears, and it features some of the best live vocal performances I’ve heard this side of Times Square thanks to a cast that includes Broadway’s current Phantom of the Opera (John Riddle, who took a three-month break from Broadway to do Titanique) as a closeted version of Rose’s fiance, Cal; Wicked vet Kathy Deitch as a raunchier Unsinkable Molly Brown; and Frankie Grande, half-brother of Ariana, as molly-addled Titanic captain Victor Garber, who rams the ship into the “Iceberg Bitch” while singing “I Drove All Night.” Much like the infamous ship itself, Titanique is a heady mix of high and low culture built by and for the gays but also — as Mindelle and Rousouli insist when we grab drinks after the show at the Chelsea Hotel — incidentally appealing to straight people.
Titanique is currently scheduled to wrap on November 6; it was extended this month after slowly accruing a devoted audience — primarily via word-of-mouth buzz. I first saw it shortly after it opened on June 24, and by the time I return in August, it has reached critical gay mass. Mindelle, Rousouli, and Alex Ellis (who plays Rose) had guest bartended on Watch What Happens Live one day prior, following a rave review from Las Culturistas (“Titanique is the funniest shit I’ve ever seen”). As another review put it, attending a show almost guaranteed you would run into “at least seven gay micro-celebrities,” and on the night I’m seeing it for the second time, I do indeed run into two of my own gay micro-celebrity friends, who say they heard about Titanique from “a Dear Evan Hansen writer’s Instagram.” The old-guard theater critics have been a bit more mixed on the show’s appeal: the New York Times admitted to being “clubbed into satisfied submission”; The New Yorker called it “high energy but one-note.”
This time around, I sit backstage to get a sense of the strange alchemy at work in Titanique, and members of the audience are so raucous, so patently thrilled by the prospect of the experience, and probably the accompanying buckets of White Claw, that I can hear them shrieking. “The gays are here!” says Blue as he walks past me, grinning — so is Broadway legend Carolee Carmello, who was invited by Grande and starred years ago in Broadway’s Sister Act with Mindelle. Members of the cast will eventually faux-solemnly chant her name in a circle as they ready for curtain time, after which they will bump into cardboard Patti LuPone multiple times on their way to change wigs, put on a pixelated-boob bra (for the infamous “draw me like one of your French girls” moment, of course), grab a plastic eggplant to help reenact Jack and Rose’s infamous sweaty-hand love scene as scored by Céline Dion and Barbra Streisand’s duet, “Tell Him,” and strap on a backpack attached to a fake cardboard door for Jack’s drowning.
The cast and crew have performed the show hundreds of times by now — they started doing Off–Off Broadway versions of the musical pre-pandemic — yet they seem no less than utterly delighted by one another’s performances. Frye-Ginsberg tells me she knows the script by heart but laughs helplessly at a joke about Jack and Rose meeting and bonding over a Crabtree & Evelyn scarf. “They do something stupider every night!” she says. As if to prove her point, mid-show, Mindelle launches into her nightly improvised monologue, the premise of which is that Dion, as narrator, has gotten drunk with her Beauty and the Beast duet partner “Peabo Bryson!” and can no longer remember what happened when Jack and Rose went to that below-deck party, so she makes it all up — and forces Rousouli and Ellis to act out her new story in real time. Tonight, Mindelle tells a winding tale about being unable to afford “physical therapy for my knee” at Equinox and feeling aghast at all of the younger, hotter people at the gym. Still in character as Dion, she explains that she felt better when “my best friend and social-media star Frankie James Grande” explained to her that, “If you’re under 21 at Equinox at 3 p.m., you’re probably a sex worker.” (Listening backstage, Grande shrieks in recognition. “It’s true!”) Rousouli and Ellis can’t help but break character as they attempt to pantomime the Equinox experience. Deitch runs by me shortly thereafter. “Did you tell them you’re here?!” she says of the thunderous audience response. “They won’t even let us say our lines!”
Not everything in Titanique works or feels as organically funny, which the cast not only admits but seems to take a perverse pleasure in. A few minutes before a bit about the Titanic dining room serving a piece of lettuce as an entrée, Grande runs up to me, giggling. “We are so excited for ‘lettuce’!” he says. “Best joke! Sometimes we get one chuckle!” Tonight, the line is met with total silence. And an extended, maximalist Streetcar Named Desire–meets–All About Eve monologue from Rose’s mother, Ruth (Ryan Duncan in incredible, rich-white-bitch drag that includes a hat topped with a dead bird), about the inherent horror of womanhood in the early 1900s seems to confuse the audience for a moment until Duncan peels himself off the floor, walks over to Rose, and wraps it up with a jaunty, “Lock it up, cunt. Love ya!”
Mindelle and Rousouli finish each other’s sentences in a way that feels both practiced and completely real. “We live together!” says Rousouli. “And we’re both gay. We are the modern-day … ” “Will and Grace!” finishes Mindelle. Mindelle launches into a story about how, when she and Rousouli “met Frankie Grande’s mother, Joan Grande, she was like, ‘Are Marla and Connie … together?’” Both turn to each other and laugh hysterically. “I was like, ‘Queen, we’re both gay,’” says Rousouli. “We’re the gayest. Have you seen her?” Mindelle doesn’t miss a beat: “Have you seen him?” (Joan Grande’s other scion, Ariana, has not yet seen Titanique in person, but she has “seen the livestream” and they “think she’s coming, I don’t know.”)
Rousouli and Mindelle met more than a decade ago, when both were Broadway regulars (Rousouli in Hairspray and Wicked; Mindelle in Sister Act and Cinderella). “He was 22. I’m 26. I was like, ‘Who’s that bitch?’ and he was like, ‘Who’s that c u next Tuesday?’ We did not really know each other or necessarily like each other,” explains Mindelle cheerfully. Rousouli picks up the thread: “I thought she was a cold-hearted snake. I was like, ‘She’s so stoic and wants nothing to do with anybody. What a fucking bitch.’” Back to Mindelle: “And I thought he was a basic, shallow gay. Only obsessed with ab pics and chicken and broccoli. Which he kind of is.”
Both were burnt out and bored to tears after ten years of a punishing, eight-shows-a-week, no-time-for-a-personal-life regimen and separately decided to quit New York and move to Los Angeles to, as Rousouli puts it, “be on fucking TV, win at life, and be so fucking rich, Broadway can suck a bag of dicks.” The exact opposite happened. Instead of becoming wildly famous, the two spent the next ten years doing “ratchet dinner theater,” putting on movie-to-musical adaptations like Cruel Intentions and The Devil Wears Prada, because, as Mindelle puts it, “Los Angeles is completely devoid of theater.” They were miserable but in a different, more California way: Mindelle was trying to break into screenwriting unsuccessfully, and Rousouli was kicking himself for turning down an opportunity to be on Vanderpump Rules. At least this time they had each other and the ability to go out and get drunk on a weekend night — which is what led to Titanique.
Rousouli says the idea came to him in a moment of divine, wasted inspiration: “I was like, ‘I think the next movie-to-musical parody we should do is Titanic. With all Céline Dion songs. I’ll be Jack; you’ll be Céline.’” Still drunk, Rousouli wrote the entire outline for the show. “It flowed through me like Jesus Christ himself.” He put the outline in a drawer for the next two years until Blue, who was directing shows at the same dinner theater, approached him after Trump’s election. “He was so down in the dumps that he wanted something to do. He said, ‘I keep thinking about this Céline Dion idea,’” says Mindelle.
The trio wrote the script for Titanique in a few months and, in 2017, began performing pop-up readings around Los Angeles, which, to their surprise, sold out. “People were cackling,” says Mindelle. “I was like, Is this actually funny or L.A. funny? Maybe we should take this to New York.” So on their own dime, the production picked up and flew to Manhattan to do what they describe as “cabaret pop-ups” — performing the show in costume and with props, taking advantage of cabaret venues’ blanket ASCAP license to avoid any copyright lawsuits. One night, Rousouli invited his Tony-winning producer friend, Eva Price, to the pop-up show; she insisted she was only coming as a pal and wouldn’t produce it. When the show ended, she walked up to Rousouli. “Fuck,” she said. “Now I have to produce this.”
The rest of the story is just as theater-kid-fairy-tale-esque. Rousouli went on vacation to Mykonos, where he accidentally befriended Dion songwriter David Foster’s manager, who heard about the show and told Rousouli that the cast should fly back to Los Angeles to perform the whole of Titanique for Foster: “He’s gonna be obsessed with this.” So they did, and he was; they got the licensing, lawyers, and producers in place in the span of a week and began plotting the stage show — until COVID hit and Mindelle moved back to Pennsylvania to live with her parents and save money. Rousouli stayed in Los Angeles, languishing and “literally twiddling my thumbs.” Then in May 2021, they performed a version of Titanique over livestream out of Le Poisson Rouge and ended up selling thousands of tickets. Seven years after Rousouli first haphazardly struck the iceberg of his inspiration, Titanique finally opened at Asylum; almost two months into its run, most of its performances are selling out.
In Titanique’s lunatic final moments, which I won’t spoil here, Mindelle implores members of the audience to pull out their phones and sing “My Heart Will Go On” alongside her. The tiny theater fills with the sounds of euphoric drunk people attempting their best Dion riff, but there’s hardly time to soak it in before the production packs up. Titanique shares the space with various comedy shows and, as Frye-Ginsberg explains, “We have to pack the entire thing into two dressing rooms in 15 minutes.”
Rousouli and Mindelle have aspirations of taking the show to a bigger stage — on a national tour, on a cruise ship, across various continents. They’ve received an official blessing from Dion’s publicist, who sat through a performance and exclaimed, “The queen is going to love this.” (Mindelle is on the lookout for Dion in the audience nightly. “I keep thinking she’ll be wearing a fake eye and a fake mustache, then be like, ‘It’s me!’”) But their not-so-secret wish is for the very same Broadway stage they left behind a decade ago. “It’s different this time, because it’s on our own terms,” explains Rousouli. Part of Broadway’s appeal, of course, is the paycheck that comes with it; they’re both “hemorrhaging money” and hope to eventually make some of it back.
“I hope we do a follow-up piece in five years when we’re rich as fuck,” says Rousouli. “You’ll come to our yacht, and we’ll be Lin-Manuel Miranda, just finished our Disney fuckin’ shit. But yeah. We are broke.” Mindelle chews on the thought: “But so was Lin-Manuel Miranda at some point!”
After the show, as the the two exit the theater’s only entrance alongside the audience, they’re politely mobbed by fans, including Carmello, who hugs each cast member before donning a motorcycle helmet and zooming off into the night. I suddenly find myself in a half-circle with Mindelle, Rousouli, Blue, a cast member from Drag Race, one from The Great British Bake-Off (“the gay season,” Mindelle says, referring to season ten), and one from The Book of Mormon. Mindelle stops and studies the Bake-Off alum, Michael Chakraverty. “Didn’t you have a showmance on your season?” she asks him. “We didn’t … ” he says, trailing off. The group exchanges good-byes. “Congratulations to all of you guys,” jokes Rousouli.
Before we head out into the night and into future piles of Disney money, I ask them both what they think it is about the movie Titanic that keeps pulling us back into its murky depths. They ponder the question. “Titanic is gay,” proclaims Rousouli. “Because it’s bougie! It’s fucking rich!” adds Mindelle. Rousouli nods vigorously. “It’s a period piece, then there’s death!” He pauses. “Bringing the past back to life is just gay,” he says. “It just is.”