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As 'Titanic The Musical' returns, Milwaukee Rep's managing director shares her personal connection

The Milwaukee Rep is bringing back its production of Titanic The Musical this fall after the final two weeks of its original production had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Managing director Melissa Vartanian’s family was supposed to come from all over the country to see it, and not just because she works at The Rep. She has a uniquely personal connection to the Titanic — her great-grandfather was a survivor.

Her great-grandfather, David Vartanian, fled the Ottoman Empire when young Armenian men were being drafted by the Turkish army and military.

When Melissa was growing up, she used to beg her grandparents to tell her the fantasy-like stories of their lives. At the time, she didn't understand the weight that accompanied those stories.

Some of the questions she would ask her grandmother were: “‘Tell us about the time that your dad was on the boat and ... how he jumped off, or tell us a story about the genocide and your mom and, you know, that time she had to hide in the pile of dead bodies."

"As a kid, it was a story. The gravity of the horrors that they went through did not hit us at the time,” Melissa shares.

Later, those horrors sank in. On the night the Titanic sunk, David had been playing card games and gone to bed. He was woken up in the middle of the night by a thud and was directed to the ship's back end. He watched women and children board lifeboats, but as the number of boats left dwindled, it became apparent it was every person for themselves.

David and a few others spotted a boat on one of the upper decks. They cut it down, and despite not speaking the same language, they released it into the water and, after, jumped into the water. However, after getting the boat into the water, David didn't immediately board the boat — he sank two times, and the third time he came up from underwater, he swam with all his might towards the boat. Other passengers pulled him up, paddling to get as far away. The ship sank when they got about 20 yards away from the Titanic.

"And he said that it made a horrible noise that he heard shrieking and moaning and horrible, horrible noises that were coming from the people and just everything around them,” Melissa shares.

Because the boat David had boarded was so close to the Titanic when it sank, the water from that washed him out of the boat he was in and he made his way to another boat. He recalled everyone being in a state of shock.

It was hours before the Carpathia found him and the others. David suffered from nerve damage in his legs for the rest of his life, walking with a limp, a cane and a blue hue along his calves. After his three-day stay at the hospital, David was given new clothes, $10 and a ticket to Branford.

“April 15th, which is when Titanic sank, is also my great-grandfather’s 22nd birthday. So he spent his birthday sort of fighting for his life, but thankfully survived it,” Melissa explains.

While David did not like to talk much about his harrowing experiences on the Titanic, Melissa says her grandmother says it is important. She says that everyone on that ship has a story and people who love and care about them. “And if we don't talk about those stories, and we don't honor the memory, we're doing a real disservice to those that came before us that went through so much," Melissa says.

With that sentiment in mind, Melissa looks forward to The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Titanic The Musical this fall. Melissa believes with the company’s stage direction and score, people will be taken to a new place.

“So it's not just about telling the story of the sinking, but it's about giving you a true glimpse as to who the humans were on the boat, and where they were coming from, and what their hopes and dreams were, and what everybody was trying to attain when they came here," she says.

The Milwaukee Rep's production of 'Titanic The Musical' is on stage September 20 through October 23, 2022.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Cait Flynn was an assistant producer for Lake Effect 2022 to 2023.
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