Reviews: Biographical Books

Napoleon, The Musical

Napoleon, The Musical. By Andrew Sabiston and Timothy Williams. Perf. Uwe Kröger, Anastasia Barzee, Nigel Richards, David Burt, et al. Shaftesbury Theatre. London. 22 Nov. 2000.

Napoleon, The Musical

On 22 November 2000, Captain Juan Rios of the Spanish Armed Forces and I, members of the Napoleonic Wargaming Club, met in London for the express purpose of attending and evaluating this play from the perspective of seasoned Napoleonic enthusiasts. Herewith, then, are my impressions. Juan helped greatly with the brainstorming during the intermission and at "The Grenadier" pub afterward, but he should not be held responsible for any foolishness I may write!

First, a short synopsis of the plot:

Act I: 1795-1804

Having quelled the Revolution, the French Directors are fraternizing with aristocrats at a glittering ball. Young republican general Napoleon Bonaparte crashes the party to protest that his promised command has been sold to the aristocratic General Montenotte. Dazzled by the beauteous Rose de Beauharnais, in spite of her misgivings at the mismatch of their ages and backgrounds, he impetuously woos and wins her. After seven days together he leaves her to lead his army over the Alps to glory. The sinister ministers Talleyrand, Fouché, and Garrau plot to overthrow the Directory, ensnaring the naÏve but idealistic pamphleteer Lucien Bonaparte in order to exploit his brother's popularity and prowess. Napoleon returns from campaign to find Josephine in a compromising position with an old boyfriend, Hippolyte Charles. Shocked at her apparent infidelity, Napoleon loses trust in Josephine. He plunges into the conspiracy leading to the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire. The sovereigns of Europe, repeatedly bested by Napoleon on the field of battle, have their agents attempt his assassination by an "infernal machine." Napoleon, seeing himself as the indispensable leader, turns more and more to absolutism and an addiction to military glory. When Lucien tries to recall Napoleon to democracy, his brother has him imprisoned and exiled. Napoleon is crowned Emperor in a lavish ceremony at Notre-Dame.

Act II: 1809-1815

Napoleon, at the height of his power and pride, divorces the barren Josephine and marries Marie-Louise in order to found a dynasty. He invades Russia, dreaming of establishing a vast oriental empire like a new Alexander, while the sinister ministers enrich themselves at the expense of the people. The campaign turns to disaster and the Grande Armée perishes on the retreat from Moscow. Napoleon falls from power. A dying Josephine speaks with Lucien, who returns from exile to comfort her in her last hours. Upon Napoleon's return from Elba, too late to reunite with Josephine, he hears her last words of love and forgiveness transmitted by Lucien. He goes on to Waterloo, defeat, death, and legend.

John Julius Norwich, in his well-written program notes under the title, "History, Truth and the Stage" boldly addresses the need for the authors to be allowed "certain liberties," notably the telescoping of time, in translating such an extraordinary story into a musical. Many liberties were taken in telescoping and simplifying characters, as well. Paul Barras, such a key historical figure as Napoleon's sponsor and Josephine's ex-lover, is absent apart from a few qualities subsumed in the character of arch-conspirator Talleyrand. Josephine's children Eugène and Hortense are invisible. This allows Josephine to be plausibly played by an actress too young to have teenage children, at the cost of omitting the complex and potentially illuminating facets of Napoleon as stepfather and Josephine as mother. Mother Letizia and six of the seven Bonaparte siblings, with their famous hostility to Josephine, also do not appear. The Lucien character does reflect some of the actions and characteristics of his historical counterpart. However, he stands principally as a symbol of Napoleon's modest origin and republican conscience, plaintively calling the great man to turn from vainglory and power-lust and re-embrace what was best and simplest in his life, notably his love for Josephine.

Of the many compromises and distortions, or "liberties," employed by the authors, I was most pained by the use of the name "Montenotte" for the character of the arrogant aristocratic general. With all of the possible French and French-sounding names to choose from, why confuse the public by turning a battlefield into a person? I was less offended by the transposition of the crossing of the Great-St-Bernard from 1800 into the 1796 campaign. The Alps nicely symbolize the "mountain" of difficulties facing General Bonaparte, and allow for some clever stage effects.

Some things are done very well, indeed. In the number "The Dream Within" in Act I, which shows Napoleon fraternizing with and inspiring his weary troops, an essential element of his charisma and the genuine affection troops felt for "le petit caporal" is beautifully portrayed. The dual staging of the song "Waiting and Hoping" in Act II, in which brightly-lighted wives and sweethearts sing of their loved ones while the gray-lighted soldiers gradually collapse into the Russian snow, is a moving testimonial to the personal and communal tragedy of war. The portrayal of the stiff-necked, weak-minded monarchs of Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria in "The Royal Chorus of Disapproval" is hilarious and, from a Francophilic perspective, highly appropriate.

The casting of Anastasia Barzee as Josephine is brilliant; in her makeup and period gowns she truly resembles the portraits of Josephine, and she carries the role with a grace of movement and voice that makes Napoleon's passion for her quite believable. Uwe Kröger as Napoleon lacks nothing for intensity, but I was missing an element of humor and joie de vivre that should be part of the character. The music is fitting, adequate, even moving at times, but without any truly gripping number that remains in the mind long after leaving the theatre.

In all, Napoleon, the Musical is a noble effort, well worth seeing for all its flaws. Those who wish to enrich their lives with this theatrical experience would be well advised to book soon, however. The sparse attendance at the 22 November performance probably forebodes an early closing date and a very slim chance of another major production for years to come.

Further information can be found at

Reviewed by William Peterson
Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2000


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