Ever since it premiered at The Old Vic in London in 2016, the rumour mill has been rife with talk about if and when Tim Minchin’s musical...
Throwback Thursday - Napoleon The Musical
Now they say God loves a trier, and nowhere is that sentiment more true than in the arts. So many musicals get conceived, written, produced and then subsequently forgotten - but there are others that, like the proverbial bad penny, just refuse to go away. Many writers devote much of their lives to projects that they firmly believe in, investing and reinvesting time and money to keep trying to make a certain idea work.
All composers and writers have flops - that's the nature of the beast. How people handle failure is something that differs and defines us as humans. Many writers get used to the idea of 'letting something go' - an act that often leads on to them writing something much better, but sometimes writers can get too caught up in one creative bubble that it consumes their entire creative life.
Timothy Williams and Andrew Sabiston's 1994 musical Napoleon may certainly be a show that fits this criteria. According to the linear notes in the cast recording, the duo started work on the show in 1982 when they were in their teens, drawn to the sweeping themes and complex characters that Napoleon as a character deals with. Developing the show throughout the 1980s at the height of the epic 'mega-musical', it's clear where many of the contemporary influences have been drawn from.
The original Toronto production in 1994 was the largest ever Canadian-created musical at the time, and included an impressive cast and creative team. Following the success in Canada, the London production opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 17 October 2000 where it ran to 3 February 2001, closing after just four months. The venue had started to make a name for itself as the funeral home for new musicals, as a period of commercially unsuccessful shows began, leading many in the industry to label the house as 'cursed'. A brief look at productions that ran there throughout the early 2000s shows the struggle new musicals had:
Casper the Musical: opened 13 December 1999, closed on 26 February 2000 (11 Weeks)
Lautrec: opened 6 April 2000 and closed on 17 June 2000. (10 weeks)
Napoleon: opened on 17 October 2000 and closed on 3 February 2001. (16 weeks)
Peggy Sue Got Married: opened on 20 August 2001 and closed on 13 October 2001. (8 weeks)
125th Street: opened on 17 September 2002 and closed on 11 January 2003 (16 weeks)
Calamity Jane: opened on 26 June 2003 and closed on 20 September 2003 (12 weeks)
Thoroughly Modern Millie: opened on 21 October 2003 and closed on 26 June 2004. (26 weeks)
Bat Boy The Musical: opened on 8 September 2004 and closed on 15 January 2005. (16 weeks)
The Far Pavilions: opened on 14 April 2005 and closed on 17 September 2005 (20 weeks)
Whilst it's true to say that things started to get better towards the middle of the decade, the theatre's association with new flop musicals was hard to shake off, and was only forgotten thanks to the London premiere of Broadway hit Hairspray which ran from 30 October 2007 to 28 March 2010. But, I digress.
Whilst Napoleon didn't open to the worst set of reviews, it certainly struggled to find an audience. The sweeping musical 'epic' at this point seemed too derivative of work such as 'Les Miserables' which audiences were growing away from. New musicals, especially in America, were going back to the more traditional form, and the era of jukebox shows and musicals based on films was beginning to take hold. Napoleon in contrast seemed too old fashioned and operatic in style.
Benedict Nightingale for The Times was not impressed saying the show had "music that often went tum-tum, lyrics that regularly went plonk-plonk, and rhymes that sometimes left me wishing no such thing as rhyme had been invented".
Paul Taylor for The Independent said "Napoleon is severely deluded and in urgent need of counselling. Last night's opening presented us with two and three-quarter hours of hammy historical hokum, diversified by a couple of moments that served to indicate what might have been if anyone around had had any taste." He went on to describe the score as "Talentless" and the lyrics "Dire".
The Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer was quick to call the show a "shameless attempt to cash in on the vast box-office success of Les Miserables" , saying as a musical it pales in comparison. He was extremely critical of the score, describing it as a "non-stop parade of churning, ersatz-emotional anthems that go straight in one ear and out the other without troubling the brain, heart or memory, while the triteness of Sabiston's lyrics often beggars belief", a sentiment echoed by The Evening Standard who described the songs as "unmemorable and unhummable." Ouch.
Not to be deterred, the writers continued to work on the show, still believing there was something to be salvaged from the flop. A concert version in Canada sprung up in 2009 with the story narrated by the character Talleyrand, taking on board many of the reviews which cited him as the strongest character.
21 years later, Napoleon will live again at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, in a paired down production directed by Richard Ouzounian, which is said to include a new book and score. Whilst the subject matter remains fascinating, whether enough thinning and focusing will have been done to make the project worth a second look remains to be seen. With the recent Broadway flop of Doctor Zhivago proving that modern audiences have little interest in the sprawling epic 'mega-musical', it is hoped that a new style for the show will have been found, and one that works in either an artistic or commercial way.
Many musicals begin their life at the NYMT Festival, and it's certainly interesting to see how this musical has gone full circle, from a full West End production to an off-Broadway presentation. The cast recording doesn't give a full enough view of the show, but does include a couple of highlights, for example "Sweet Victory Divine", sung by the man himself. Other than that, Napoleon is one for the collector's shelf.
Did you see Napoleon? Let us know your comments below!
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