Two unknowns set out to conquer the musical stage.
There is something fittingly Napoleonic about the way Timothy Williams and Andrew Sabiston have burst onto the mega-musical scene. On March 23, the Canadian writing-composing team will launch their $4.5million production, Napoleon, at Toronto's Elgin Theatre. And like the diminutive Corsican artillery officer who went on to conquer Europe, the two have made their grab for renown while still in their 20s. Both have vaulted out of relative obscurity, Sabiston, 28, was an unemployed actor. Williams, 27, is a former researcher for BBC radio. Napoleon is the first show they have ever written. And yet if it succeeds in Toronto and in its scheduled London run next fall it could carry them to the kind of fame and fortune that only Andrew Lloyd Webber (Cats, Phantom of the Opera) and Claude-Michel Shönberg and Alain Boublil (Les Misérables, Miss Saigon) have achieved.
The going will be tough. Napoleon is entering one of the most competitive big-budget musical markets anywhere. Phantom, Miss Saigon, Crazy For You and Show Boat are currently enjoying successful runs in Toronto, now the third largest theatre centre in the English-speaking world after London and New York. But the city's success as a mega-musical capital has depended heavily on foreign talent: although Phantom and Miss Saigon are performed largely by Canadians, both shows were created elsewhere. And the current Canadian productions of Crazy for You and Show Boat were written by Americans and involve American creative teams and performers. But Napoleon is different. Except for its two lead actors, the three-hour show is entirely Canadian -a landmark production that could take this country to new heights as a player in the international musical scene.
Marlene Smith, who is co-producing the show with Williams, Sabiston and her partner, Ernie Rubenstein, believes that Napoleon has come along at just the right moment. People want something new, claims the 60-year-old producer. 'They're saying, 'God, do we have to see one more Andrew Lloyd Webber show?' I think our timing is exactly right." But some observers have raised a warning note, pointing out that the ability of Toronto, the surrounding region and neighboring American states to fill the city's large theatres is finite: at some point, there may simply not be enough audience to go around. David Mirvish, a co-producer of Miss Saigon and co-owner of the Princess of Wales Theatre, suggests that a new production like Napoleon may be a mixed blessing. "Yes, it creates more seats and another attraction for the city," he says. "But will it be one show too many? Nobody knows the answer to that question. But we're going to find out."
As opening night approached, such considerations seemed far from the minds of Williams and Sabiston as they put in 16-hour days smoothing the rough patches in Napoleon. For both, the final days represent the culmination of an astounding 12 years of work. They first met as teenage students at Victoria's St. Michael's University School in the early 1980s. Sabiston had won the lead in a film being made at the school, while Williams, an aspiring pianist and composer, had been asked to contribute to the score. The two discovered they could write songs together and soon dreamed of creating a musical. "The big shows of the day were Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar," the boyishly handsome Sabiston recalls. Looking for a similar epic subject, they considered Elizabeth I, Julius Caesar and Napoleon. "It was Napoleon that leapt out at us," Sabiston says. "We chose him because of his great love affair with Josephine, and because he was a tragic hero someone who starts off as flawed but essentially good. But he winds up going too far."
By the summer of 1982, Williams and Sabiston had written enough material to make a 75-minute demonstration tape. But then, the two friends separated to pursue their careers. Sabiston moved to Toronto to play the lead in the popular CBC TV series The Edison Twins, Williams, after dropping out of pre-med studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., returned to his native England, hoping to launch a composing career in film and television. He took work as a researcher for BBC radio, spending his free time trying to break into the music business. But after five years of rejection, the tall, fresh-faced composer felt he was at a dead end. "Living on a BBC wage in London, in a crowded basement flat, is pretty miserable," he says. Then, one day he listened to the old Napoleon tape he had made with Sabiston and found his enthusiasm rekindled. He wrote a letter to his friend suggesting they go back to work on the musical.
But Williams had not kept in touch with Sabiston and was unsure where he was living. He sent the letter to Sabiston's parents in Victoria but, not having the complete address, he sketched a picture of the house on the envelope. And so the future of the Napoleon project, which would involve millions of dollars and scores of people, rested on the hope some letter carrier would take the trouble to match the drawing with the right house.
Canada Post came through. The letter was delivered, and eventually forwarded to Sabiston in Los Angeles. It could hardly have reached him at a better time. Exhausted after six seasons of The Edison Twins, he had been trying unsuccessfully to find work in the United States. He plunged with renewed energy into Napoleon, enhancing song and story ideas with Williams by trans-Atlantic mail. It was an excruciatingly slow way to write a musical, but with the help of friends and an investment of their own savings, the two managed to assemble a new, 45-minute demonstration tape. Sabiston says, however, that when they sent it to producers, "a lot of them didn't even bother to open it."
Enter Mariene Smith, a mother of four who had been the Toronto co-producer of Cats, and the manager, until a short time earlier, of the city's Elgin and Winter' Garden theatres.
At first Smith, too, turned down Williams and Sabiston. She had just seen and intensely disliked the Shaw Festival's 1988 adaptation of Tolstoy's War and Peace. The last thing she wanted to look at was another European war epic. But "the boys," as the matronly Smith affectionately calls Williams and Sabiston, were persistent. "About six weeks later," recalls the producer, "they stuck their heads around the corner of my office and said, 'Are you over War and Peace yet?'" Charmed, Smith invited them in. Williams and Sabiston assured her that their show dealt as much with Napoleon's romance with Josephine, the older woman whom he married and then divorced because she was unable to provide him with heirs, as with his military adventures. Intrigued by the dramatic focus and captivated by the show's songs, Smith agreed to back the project. In the fall of 1988, Williams moved to Toronto, and he and Sabiston settled into working on Napoleon full time.
At first, Smith found it difficult to attract investors to a musical by two unknowns. "People would say to me, 'Lord! You're pushing two writers who don't even have a writing credit on their résumés. Are you crazy?' "And even after the money started to trickle in, Smith and Napoleon's director, Stratford Festival veteran John Wood, faced the daunting task of creating a production from scratch. Unlike such foreign-generated imports as Phantom and Miss Saigon, Napoleon is breaking completely new ground. Smith and her team have had to create everything from the show's logo (the young Napoleon's face and bold signature) to that its set designs (one scene depicts Napoleon and his army crossing the Alps) to the 250 costumes for the 32-member cast.
Compared with Miss Saigon's $12-million start-up costs, Napoleon's $4.5-million budget is modest. But Sabiston does not consider the financial limitations a drawback. Comments the writer: "Right from Day 1 we said, 'Let's write this thing so it can be performed in a void.' "Napoleon calls for few of the high-tech stage effects that made Miss Saigon so expensive. Instead, the available money has been used to hire the best talent that could be found. David Cullen, who orchestrated all of Lloyd Webber's hit musicals, created the score for Napoleon's 26 musicians. And for the lead role, the producers have found an electrifying young French performer, Jérôme Pradon, who played the American soldier Chris in the London version of Miss Saigon. British stage and television actor Aline Mowat portrays Josephine.
When Pradon strides onstage for the opening, enormous hopes and expectations will be riding on his shoulders. In the audience will be scores of critics and investors, as well as hundreds of well-wishers and friends. But none will be watching with quite the same fervor as Williams and Sabiston, who will doubtless be wondering if they were about to conquer the world or meet their Waterloo.
March 21, 1994