There's a lot riding on latest mega-musical, created from scratch by unknown writers and with no big names in the cast

This much is certain: Napoleon will meet his Waterloo when a $4.5-million Canadian musical bearing his name makes its world premiere at a gala opening Wednesday in the elegant confines of the Elgin Theatre.

But what of Napoleon's creators and producers? Will they, like the ambitious 19th Corsican soldier turned French Emperor, also find that their reach has exceeded their grasp? Or will the show's unveiling more triumphantly resemble the Battle of Austerlitz, an early Napoleonic victory achieved against substantial odds?

Certainly, it is no exaggeration to say that a lot is riding on an ambitious, London, England-bound production that boasts a 32-member cast and a 26-piece orchestra. Much already has been made of its ground-breaking potential.

But for all its novelty, Napoleon is, in several important respects, a throwback.

At a time when even Broadway producers are inclined to proceed cautiously, preferring theatrical properties that have proved themselves elsewhere, Napoleon is a genuine risk. It is a completely unknow entity, created by entirely unknown writers, with no recognizable stars in the lead roles.

As such, it likely will succeed or fail the oldfashioned way -on the strength of its reviews and its ability to generate an enthusiastic word-of-mouth.

And that, in the recession-plagued 1990s, adds up to a considerable gamble.

"Everybody thinks I've lost my mind", allows Marlene Smith, 60, a seasoned Toronto mover and shaker who is producing the show with longtime partner, Ernie Rubenstein.

And the magnitude of the occasion is not lost on the musical's young creators and co-producers, Andrew Sabiston,29, and Timothy Williams, 28, for whom Wednesday's opening represents an almost fairytale culmination of more than a decade's work.

"For us, getting to the stage has been the most rewarding thing", says Williams. "Now that we're in previews, I have to pinch myself at the very fact of sitting there with a house full of people, all looking at the show and reacting, seeing them laugh when we wanted them to laugh and cry when we wanted them to cry.

"We've always written it out of enjoyment to provide an evening's entertainment to other people, but certainly we've become aware that a lot of people are seeing it as something that is very important for Canadian theatrical history. Which is a huge honor for us, but talk about adding the pressure. There's pressure for it to be really good and on a world-class scale.

"As co-producers, we have to constantly be aware of commercial pressures. Is the show too long? Is it boring the audience? Is it carrying them? Are they getting their money's worth? How are ticket sales doing? Will it appeal to a wide audience, rather than just a small group of people? We have to be aware of all these things, given the fact that we've got other people's money riding on it."

  By Vit Wagner
Theatre Critic
The Toronto Star, March 19, 1994