Bold strategy, ego and an army of performers. Behind the scenes at a new made-in-Canada megamusical called... NAPOLEON

Outside the three great windows of the Elgin Theatre's rehearsal hall A, Toronto shudders and struggles through another January blizzard. But somehow, despite the heaps of coats and boots, the music stands and moulded plastic chairs, empty coffee cups, laptop computers and stopwatches-the flotsam of theatre-in-the-making-Paris in 1795 is coming to life.

The Arctic air outside whispers of another winter, long ago in Russia, when Napoleon Bonaparte met his Armageddon. The man who shaped modern Europe, who recast France and its institutions, who spent millions of francs and hundreds of thousands of lives, who loved passionately and lost bitterly the Emperess Joséphine, is the subject of a megamusical created by two Canadians, Andrew Sabiston and Timothy Williams. The Emperor, a discerning theatre patron himself, might well have seen the parallel to his style of doing battle-equal parts meticulous preparation, bold strategies and instinct. Napoleon, with 32 performers, 300 costumes, three hours of songs and $4.4 million of investors' money riding on a completely new and untried score and libretto, is as risky a campaign as the Emperor's Grande Armée ever undertook.

I am here for Day 3 of Napoleon's six-week rehearsal schedule-Day 40 will be the preview, the show's debut before an audience. In workshops and offices around the city, costume shops process hundreds of metres of fabric; scene painters and carpenters create the myriad sets; stagehands test the show's forestage hydraulic trap; box-office staff fret their sales strategies; and marketers pore over their promotional campaigns. But it is here, in this hangar of a room with a spray of jonquils atop the piano, that the future lies-a megamusical unformed and raw.

The first item in today's busy schedule is musical rehearsal. Arrayed like an orchestra in a semicircle around musical director and conductor Donald Chan, the Napoleon company tries out the new material-31 trained voices make a singular sound, even for the first time as an ensemble. Three dozen pages of rewrites and cuts to the songs are hot off the photocopier in the hall (the machine never rests). Stage manager Aileen Wilson threads her way through the thicket of music stands, handing out the modified scores. Director John Wood nurses a coffee, patroling the hall with a red-and-white fedayeen scarf around his neck, thoughtful and-outwardly-impassive.

Wood, 55, a Canadian director of international repute and former artistic director for English theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, directed the acclaimed 1989 Stratford Festival production of Henry V. He valures the length of time budgeted for Napoleon rehearsals. "In Canadian theatre", Wood says, "we have a history of shortchanging the rehearsal process-we want it done yesterday, the brilliant in impossible time. I'm afraid art doesn't happen that way. It's very difficult to do any history piece and this is technically huge. It's Henry V with music, an immense story told in three hours of songs."

Napoleon is, first, deliberately a world of people, of emotions. "Let's use the actors rather than the scenery," set and costume designer Patrick Clark says to describe Wood's early directions. "John and I come from the classical theatre tradition, an empty, bare stage as the starting point." Clark built set model after set model for the trapezoidal playing space and sketched dozens of costumes and props during the early work with Wood.

Clark's stage set is dead simple, with various panels lowered or wheeled in to evoke the royal courts, Joséphine's mansion at La Malmaison, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Tuileries, a burnt-out Russian church, all darkly toned and textured to maximize the effects of lighting designer John Munro's artistry. The stage also lifts hydraulically to become the French Alps and a hillside overlooking Waterloo, with a centre-stage elevator to move props on and off and "stash the secrets", as William Malmo, the assistant to the director, says.

"We're not doing Masterpiece Theater," Clark says, noting the show's intent to theatricalize the lives and times of Napoleon and Joséphine. "We're constantly asking ourselves: "What would theatre artists of the day have done?" Socially, too, we had to remember that this was the time after the Reign of Terror, when you could get away with virtually anything in fashion or manners or art -just as Napoleon himself stepped into a vacuum, a clean slate."

Like Clark, Aline Mowat -she plays Joséphine, Napoleon's wife and Empress- also assembled her thoughts about her character from extensive reading of period writers. "Joséphine played billiards before she met Napoleon - expertly," Mowat says. "She'd wager wealthy young officers a night with her if she lost, or payment of her greatest debt if she won. She never lost."

Mowat became a demon for Napoleonic research once she got the part. "Joséphine has more shoes than Imelda Marcos, loved to preen, ran up wild dress bills. She lusted after people looking at her," Mowat says, laughing. "They were both a bit naughty, but I still would have died to receive the love letters he wrote her -stunning things. In her own right she was completely charming, a real drama queen. She was a lover of opera, soirées, dinner parties, men. And iced melon every afternoon at three."

The actor playing the man who underwrote the shoes and melon is 29-year-old Parisian Jerome Pradon. This veteran of the Paris version of Les Miserables and of Miss Saigon in London speaks softly. "It was a very tough audition," says Pradon, recalling his two-day London tryout for the starring role. "We learned the duets the first day." The second day was a workshop videotaped for investors and producers in Toronto. "They were absolutely right", says director Wood. "Aline and Jerome were it." Today everyone present in the rehearsal hall can sense that the chemistry between Mowat and Pradon is magical, and the entire room applauds their first duet.

Tousle-haired, with a marked resemblance to a young Napoleon, Pradon is enigmatic and shy offstage but, once singing, a combative Napoleon with an electrifying voice. Describing himself as an actor who loves to sing, Pradon says, "To tell you the truth, I fell in love with musicals. It's an amazing sensation to act and sing at the same time."

After a coffee break -the big topics for these theatre gypsies from across Canada are apartments for rent, subway lines and bus routes to work- the rehearsal continues. Composer Williams and lyricist Sabiston sit at a trestle table, listening and rewriting at the same time. To their left sits production stage manager Janine Ralph, another Stratford Festival Veteran. She's a practical, bespectacled woman with traces of an English accent, taking notes and fretting about the timely appearance of props under construction. Ralph is Napoleon's foster mother. Efficient and sharp-witted, she concentrates on three things at once. "I move mountains of paper from one table to another," she says, while noting the running time of a song being rehearsed, grappling with how to hide a first-act prop offstage and keeping the whole process on schedule.

"The logistics of doing a show," observes producer Marlene Smith, "not a franchise like Cats or Phantom of the Opera, are staggering." She ought to know: she was one of three coproducers of the Toronto production of Cats, the first megamusical with and all-Canadian production team and cast. "Even though Cats broke the Canadian barrier, we were still handed everything. With Napoleon, we're starting from scratch -design, sound, lighting- all by Canadians at the crest of their careers. Not that I'm a great hero," Smith says, "but these people were ready for a world-class production and nobody was giving them the chance."

While director Woods and designer Clark -who have dedicated much of the past year to creating the scene work and design- have a working image of the show in their collaborative imagination, the show is still uncharted terrain for the cast. Ensemble member Allison Grant, a Cats and Stratford veteran, counts her blessings: "In the other big shows, the franchised imports, the bigwigs from New York come in, and the attitude to the performers recreating roles done 10 or 12 times before is entirely different. That's McTheatre."

Williams and Sabiston, in a story that is becoming a Canadian show-biz legend, have collaborated on Napoleon in one form or another for 12 years. They cowrote the "book" -the plot synopsis- with Sabiston writing the lyrics solo. It is a working partnership unmarred by duelling egos. "We have a lot of trust in each other's judgment," Williams, a student of film scores and opera, says. "That's the root of it. If Andrew has a problem, it's something I know I have to look at. This is a big project, not just a love story. Now that we've tackled it, we know why others haven't. There's so much: comedy, power, politics, war. That's a tall order. Not to mention raising $4.5 million in a recession."

Financing for Napoleon was managed by David Ekmekjian, a partner and director of Toronto investment firm Sanwa McCarthy Securities Ltd., in conjunction with Smith and her longtime partner, Ernie Rubenstein. "I wanted to do it, to be a part of it," says Ekmekjian. "I listened to the music, spent a lot of time with Sabiston and Williams. You've really got to know your product."

Ekmekjian and Smith have know each other for 24 years and knew where to look for investors even before the offering memorandum was structured. "Clientele, friends, theatre people, Cats investors. The investor mix is hard to pin down," Ekmekjian says. "We needed three-point-five to go with the project demanded. Or we didn't go. It was that simple." At a minimum of three $25,000 units per investor to a maximum of 25 investors (with all others investing at least $150,000), those funds were in place by the end of November 1993. "A lot of the investors had a good '93," Ekmekjian says. While each dollalr unit in the show is worth 50 cents in write-off, the project "isn't tax-driven per se. It's a deferment, a tax assist, not a shelter." The show itself belongs to the investors. All income, all properties -sets, costumes, props- belong to the limited partnership. After pay-back, the profits are shared out equally.

"It's a luxury to be able to afford to do things this way," says Sabiston of the long rehearsal period. A luxury he and Williams helped underwrite: they are coproducers of Napoleon as well as creators. "We felt we could bring some money to the table," Sabiston says modestly, and, unlike most creative types, they did. They are general partners in The First Napoleon Co., together with Smith and Rubenstein. "They have a lot of friends," Smith says. "Who else can you think of who actually talked people into backing their musical? But there was never any question it was going to happen. Those two are so bloody focused." From morning through to evening, they try to wear only their creative hats. After that -and until the wee hours- together with Smith, they worry through the money, not least their own finances, razor-thin after years of risking everything on Napoleon. "All my savings, a lot of debt," Williams admits. "We're on the run from Visa," Sabiston adds, laughing.

The hard numbers: an average ticket price of $65; a six-month run in the 1,500-seat Elgin; eight shows a week; payroll for 32 actors and 25 musicians, plus stage management and crew and hall rental -approximately $285,000 weekly. Just to break even, they need to average 60% houses. And the odds? Can they make all that money back to their investors? Only the audiences will tell, and, with a little more than a month to go, there's still no way to know. "Single-ticket patrons buy late," says Smith. "And the recession has made that worse." Not surprisingly she is upbeat. "After six months here, we go to London. I have the same feeling about Napoleon that I had with Cats. Group sales have been fabulous, with lots of buzz about the score," Smith says, perhaps trying to add to that buzz. (In an unusual development, Dan Hill and Stig Rosen have aleady recorded songs from Napoleon).

The Elgin Rehearsal Hall is now crisscrossed with sneaker tracks: the actors are back, lunch break is over. Wood blocks the actors for a complicated sequence designed to ambush the audience's expectations leading up to an execution. After Madame Guillotine's blade thuds off her victim's head the first time, Wood heightens the drama, demanding a longer pause before the blade rumbles downward.

As dramatized by Williams and Sabiston, the Emperor's downfall was his ambition, fuelled by a passion for increasingly higher risk and ever greater gain; an ambition thatoutweighed the civilizing instincts of the man. It cost him France... and Joséphine, the love of his life. Creating a stage production of this magnitude demands the same qualities, some say. Or, as the Emperor himself said, "La carrière est ouverte aux talents." The career is open to talent.


by Brendan Howley
En Route

Brendan Howley is a novelist and playwright