There is grave concern about leaving the basement of the shutdown Gristedes in Chelsea. It is a sacred space: the sanctuary of ecclesiastical camp, belting to the heavens, and utter and complete silliness.
Since the summer, the theater space Asylum NYC—which is, really, located underneath an abandoned grocery store—has been home to Titanique. A fever-dream miracle created to manifest pure joy, Titanique is a musical in which Céline Dion swears she was on the Titanic herself. She then narrates the events, as in the fictional tale of Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater from the 1997 film, as she remembers them—all while everyone sings the Grammy-winner’s most famous songs.
As the New York theater scene struggles to recover from the pandemic, Titanique has been a sold-out smash. At its Asylum NYC location, where, in lieu of a splashy Broadway marquee, there is a sandwich board on the sidewalk that advertises it as “the greatest piece of theater I have ever seen”—an endorsement made by yours truly—audience members line up outside the (truly haunted) former Gristedes. That line has gotten steadily longer and more rambunctious as the show extended twice, due to popular demand.
Now, in the biggest leap of faith and sign of its success since its official New York premiere, Titanique is transferring to the Daryl Roth Theater, an off-Broadway venue that will be able to accommodate about 100 more audience members a night. In other words, Tianique is coming out of the basement.
“It’s one of my biggest concerns,” says Marla Mindelle, who portrays Dion. She also co-wrote the show with Constantine Rousouli (who plays Jack) and Tye Blue, who directs. The goal is to keep the scrappiness intact; this is a production whose original props included a “Heart of the Ocean” that Rousouli fashioned out of Christmas tinsel and glitter he bought at Michael’s and a Fisher-Price car for toddlers as a stand-in for the Coupe de Ville that Jack and Rose first make love in.
But, channeling Céline herself, they pounded their fists and bellowed, “Shall we go for it?!”
That’s how Mindelle, Blue, and Rousouli found themselves at a Manhattan rehearsal space, where Blue is starting to map out new staging for the upgraded set, talking to The Daily Beast’s Obsessed about the show’s humble origins, its unexpected success, and everything “kooky-crazy” (as Dion would say) that has happened in between.
Illustrating just how challenging it is to keep a show running while a pandemic rages on, it’s only Rousouli’s (very handsome) face that’s joining us, over Zoom as he’s quarantining after getting COVID for the fourth time.
“I know a couple of people who have had it four times,” Rousouli says. “I’m not that special.”
“Only the gays!” Mindelle quips, as the trio erupts into laughter.
The three of them have been friends for years. Rousouli and Mindelle met as young performers treading the boards on Broadway. They both moved to Los Angeles to strike rich with TV work, but found themselves starring in movie musical parodies like Cruel Intentions and doing dinner theater instead. That’s where they met Blue, who was a director and producer.
The legend is that the idea for Titanique came to Rousouli while drunk one night, and the outline flowed through him like vodka sodas at a West Hollywood bar. He pitched the idea to Mindelle, who thought he had lost his mind, and also mentioned it to Blue. After about two years, with Trump’s election in 2016 sinking their spirits like a…well, you get it…Blue approached them and said they were doing it. They began writing.
Rousouli and Mindelle have been roommates, and all three are gay and share a unique comedic sensibility—one that, it turns out, plays rapturously to a specific audience demographic. (A brilliant anecdotes in Vulture’s write-up of Titanique ended up being the story’s headline: Blue excitedly notifying everyone backstage at the Asylum one night that, “The gays are here!”)
In the Aslyum version of Titanique, there is a “lipsynch for your lifeboat,” inspired by RuPaul’s Drag Race; Jack references Julia Fox’s viral pronunciation of “Uncut Gems;” Frankie Grande (Ariana Grande’s brother) plays “Victor Garber,” rather than the character that actor Garber portrayed in the film; and the iceberg comes to life as Tina Turner, who proclaims herself the “Iceberg Bitch” and then burns the house down with a rendition of “River Deep, Mountain High.”
It is gloriously, beautifully stupid.
“When we were writing it, we were just telling each other things to see if we could make each other laugh,” Mindelle says. “And then we did it for audiences, and they were losing their minds. We were like, ‘Wait. We’re, like, actually funny.’ It has a very, very distinctive, niche sensibility that you don’t see in other shows.”
With Titanique having its reopening Sunday night in its upgraded digs, we talked with the trio about the origins of the show, the pressure on them to get it right, the silliness of it all, the Céline Dion of it all, and how it feels to be leaving the basement. (Plus, what might be next…)
You’ve all been with this show for so many years at this point, between the readings, the run at Asylum, and now the transfer. I imagine it’s something you want to keep doing for a while…
Mindelle: It’s weird because it keeps going, and the other day I said to myself that, at some point, I’m going to have to let go of this and just like send it on its way like a bottle in the ocean. I was thinking about how Lin-Manuel Miranda feels. Not that I think that we’re that. I mean we’re the gay campy version of that, for sure.
Blue: The Upside Down version.
Mindelle: I’m hoping that if this continues to go on and on and on, that Connie and myself and Tye can just dip out and dip back in. But as of right now, we don’t have any plans of leaving. We just want to keep building the momentum of the hype, the word of mouth, the ticket sales. It’s our baby.
Do you clock when you say Célineisms? Like you just said, “Go on and on…” like the song.
Mindelle: I sure do. I’m always like [in Dion’s accent], “Is that OK with everybody? Shall I go for it?!”
When did you start working on this?
Blue: We’re going on our seventh year working on this.
Mindelle: If the pandemic had not happened, it would have been a much shorter timeline. We started right after Trump was elected. We were doing all these little readings and concerts, and we were going to debut off-Broadway in 2020. Then the pandemic happened and it delayed us about two years.
I imagine that’s frustrating. What did it feel like when you finally opened for real?
Rousouli: I think it’s a silver lining. Truly, I think the universe works in mysterious ways. Honestly, if I think opening in 2020 would have ruined us, because of the world and where everything was at that time. Now that we waited, people need this laughter in their lives, and to heal and to just have a good time. I think that’s why the show is doing so well. It’s perfect timing.
This isn’t just a Céline Dion homage and a Titanic parody. There are so many modern references and pop-culture jokes. Where did that comedic sensibility come from?
Mindelle: We were all unemployed in Los Angeles, and we just wanted to make each other laugh. We all have the same kind of batshit crazy, gay sense of humor. And I think that, while this is a parody, it doesn’t feel like a parody to me. It doesn’t even feel like a straight retelling of the movie. It turns the genre of movie parody on its head.
Was there ever a time when anyone was like, “I don’t know if we should be putting in these modern references?” Like, “I don’t know if Titanic and Drag Race should go together.”
Blue: The beauty of it is that we were unencumbered by a producer or an entity being like, “That’s not right for our audience.” We weren’t writing for an audience. We were writing it to write it. There was no one being like, “Oh, that’s a little too gay.”
Mindelle: We had the magic of not having people giving us notes. It was just the three of us literally being like, “Why not? Sure. Let’s try that! Why shouldn’t they lipsynch for their lifeboats? Wouldn’t that be hilarious?”
Who came up with the Iceberg Bitch?
Blue: I remember when we first sat down, Connie was like, “They’re gonna do ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ when they crash into the iceberg.” I think I was one who said the iceberg should actually be personified and should be a character. So that’s fun and campy. And then Marla came up with it being a lipsynch for your life, and began referring to the iceberg casually as the “Iceberg Bitch.” So then it became the Iceberg Bitch. A lot of the really weird, absurd, totally batshit, off-the-wall things are just her brain.
Were you all on similar levels of Céline Dion expertise or fandom?
Mindelle: Connie the most.
Rousouli: I’m a huge Céline fan.
Mindelle: When I was a teenager, I listened to her everyday in my bedroom. I tried to sing like her growing up. I definitely loved her a lot, but now she’s the first thing I see on my Instagram. It’s like I’m in a relationship with her. She literally pops up on my feed all the time. It’s like my daily inspiration. Now I know her inside and out.
“What I tell to people who are coming to the show, is that this character is an alien who has been gifted to this planet with supersonic powers coming out of her throat, which is what machinates this entire experience into existence. ”
Beyond her singing, fans love her for her kookiness and her open-hearted, that signature Céline personality. How much was that part of your vocabulary?
Blue: It’s huge. What I tell to people who are coming to the show, is that this character is an alien who has been gifted to this planet with supersonic powers coming out of her throat, which is what machinates this entire experience into existence. She’s so kind. She’s so humble and has the biggest heart. We’ve leaned on that in how we present this, because we want it to be a love letter to her and how she behaves. I feel like we’re like brand ambassadors. I want it to feel like it would feel if she was in the show. No cruelty.
Did it surprise you how involved and intense the audience gets? They really do go wild.
Rousouli: Our first reading in that little, tiny-ass Burbank studio room, for our friends and some other people who were producers to come see it. To see them, seven years ago, lose their minds in front of us in a 104-degree room—because there was no A/C in the dead of summer—I was like, “There’s something special here.” When people now see it live, we freak out. It’s a mutual energy that everybody’s just bouncing off of each other.
Blue: There are certain things and certain lines that always get a thunder of applause or laughter. Sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes it’s not.
I imagine finding out that Jack’s famous sketch is of a cat always gets a laugh.
Rousouli: Always kills. That was just me being a complete idiot. Like, “I’m gonna draw this.” I used to do all the props back in the day, like physically making all of the props and gluing them in my mother’s house or at my apartment in LA. Just carrying around these fucking crazy props all over the place. People are like, “Wow, that Heart of the Ocean is so fun.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s because I went to Michael’s and was like, what looks like a heart that I can glue rhinestones to?”
Are there things you’re excited to do in the bigger theater that are less…basement?
Blue: The big heart of the ocean that hangs on a coat hanger during the pre-show will now be properly hung from the ceiling, and we’ll be able to spin it and travel it up and away. So it’s still junk, but it can be elegant, too. Rather than everybody dancing on top of each other on four square feet, we have more space and multiple entrances. We now have the grand staircase. We have a cove for the background singers. We have an elevated bandstand. It’s always about reaching higher, but not forgetting like where you came from.
“The gays are here!” is such a fun line. Honestly, one of the most enjoyable things about the show is sitting amongst a very gay audience who are all loving it. You’re not going to be in Chelsea anymore. Will the “gays are here” vibe still be in the new space?
Rousouli: We have had matinees that are predominantly people aged 65 and up. They might not get all of the references, but, at the end of the show, they are still losing their minds—and they probably don’t know why. It’s just happening. I feel like we might just be sprinkling a little gay on them. And I think it’s wonderful.
Mindelle: That’s our intention. We want to turn everyone in the audience gay. I will say that there are more older people. There are more tourists. There’s already been a little bit of a shift. However, it has not taken away from how hard people are laughing.
Constantine, have you always had that perfect Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Dawson hair?
Rousouli: No! I haven’t had my hair long like this since I was in eighth grade. My hair was dark and short, the super-fun, Hot Gay Fade. Then the pandemic happened. I was filming a show in Palm Springs during the pandemic, and they asked if I would grow my hair and dye it blonde. I thought, let’s kill two birds with one stone because, in the interim of growing this mop out, it’s going to look like complete shit. Nobody can see me for two years. Then it miraculously grew into something that’s somewhat presentable. I was like, “Oh my god, I actually kind of love this.” I look like Lisa Rinna, but, honestly, it’s become a part of me.
Any gay boy who grew up in the ’90s wishes they could have that hair style.
Rousouli: As a kid, my aunt was a hairstylist and I would always beg her to dye my hair blonde? She was like, “Absolutely not.” Now they’ve come to see the show, and they’re like, “You finally got your blonde.” I put that shit out in the universe when I was 10.
Marla, is not just singing Céline Dion songs, but also playing her a fantasy fulfillment for you?
Mindelle: She feels like my alter ego. Also, I’m a neurotic, too. That’s based in fear. So there’s part of this where I’m like, “I don’t deserve to be her. She’s the greatest singer on earth. How on earth can I ever impersonate somebody who is the kindest, most wonderful, best-singing diva on the face of the planet?” So I feel unworthy, honestly.
Is the French-Canadian accent something you had in your arsenal before?
Mindelle: No. Connie was like, “You’re going to do Céline Dion,” and I was like, “No I’m not. I can’t do that! It’s Céline Dion!” I watched an early reading back the other day and I sounded terrible. I sounded like a weird Southern Spanish person, like the accent was all over the place. But then when this became more serious, I was like, I really need to do my research. I sat down in the way that I’m sure an SNL performer does, who watches every single video and looks in the mirror and starts doing mannerisms. I would start watching YouTube videos of any person speaking in a French-Canadian accent. Sometimes I slip. I start talking like me, but I get it back.
At this transition point with the transfer, have you all had a chance to reflect on this whole experience and what it’s meant to you?
Mindelle: We’re so tired we haven’t had a chance to sit and realize what’s happening. But walking into the theater yesterday and seeing the space, I got emotional because I just realized that this thing is becoming bigger. This little tiny show is blossoming. We’re on this train and we’re doing eight shows a week, and it’s hard sometimes to stop and realize what we’ve accomplished. In a world reckoning, when Broadway shows around us are closing every single second, somehow we managed to survive and thrive.
It’s legitimately a hit.
Mindelle: It is truly one of the most humbling and surreal experiences. I cannot believe that we have been sold out and that we’re moving to another theater. And that’s only the beginning for us. There’s going to be more. There’s going to be tours and international productions and maybe hopefully to Broadway. And then we’ll hopefully be done more times regionally than The Drowsy Chaperone or Spelling Bee. And we will be the next Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Rousouli: Just gay. Connie-Manuel Miranda. Since I’ve had COVID 87 times, I really do have time to just be by myself and think. It really hits me when you take yourself out of it for a second and you’re on the train or I’m in a completely different city and people are coming up to you being like, “Oh my god, I just saw you in Titanique, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.” And I’m like, “This has reached Pittsburgh?”
Pittsburgh loves Titanique.
Rousouli: An 87-year-old man on the subway with an oxygen mask came up to me, and he was like, “I was in one of the original productions of the tour of A Chorus Line. I just saw Titanique. One of the greatest things of my life.” Those moments really smack you in the face. You’re just like, holy shit, we are reaching so many people. As cheesy as it is, we’re touching people’s lives and it’s amazing. That, to me, is all I ever wanted from this.
Blue: I left New York a long time ago, and did a lot of other things professionally. I always said I would only go back to New York if I had a good gig. Like a corporate gig, some big, six-figure thing so I can actually afford New York. But now I’m actually living every single day, because I woke up one day, and I texted these two and I said, “I’m taking out a credit card. We’re starting to write this. We’re going to make this.” I just had a knowing.
You had faith this could work.
Blue: I just get emotional sometimes. I don’t stop working. It never stops. I will never complain. I just want this to go everywhere. I want to go set 18 companies. This garnered us another opportunity that we’re gonna start writing soon. So we’re propagating further opportunities for ourselves from this, which I think is a big part of the equation. We created our own thing and showed people, “This is who we are. This is what we make.” And people like it. This ripple effect is happening, which is humbling and gratifying and really encouraging.
The best thing I’ve ever heard is that you’re all working on something else.
Blue: It’s coming. It’s sort of the same, but different.