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VCU students help prepare "Napoleon: The Musical" for its London opening. 

In the Heat of Battle

Seven exhausted men and women trudge through the peaks and valleys of the snowy Alps, nearer to collapse with every step. A woman falls, her face contorting with surprise and fear. She has to be hauled up out of the whiteness by two weary comrades.

That was the scene inside the Raymond Hodges Theatre at Virginia Commonwealth University last week as 36 students worked on "Napoleon: The Musical." Writer Andrew Sabiston and composer Tim Williams came from London to spend the week with VCU theater department Chairman David Leong, who will choreograph the production's battle sequences. Together, the three directed VCU theater students through several key scenes. The show is scheduled to open at the Shaftsbury Theatre in London's West End in September of next year.

The crossing of the Alps takes place about 15 minutes into the show. The snow-covered hills are portrayed with a huge, circular piece of white fabric, kept billowing and cresting by stagehands. "The soldiers are fatigued, and they are questioning Napoleon," Leong explains about the sequence. "In this scene, they are first learning that he is a brilliant leader."

The play traces Napoleon's rise to power and his ultimate demise. "[Napoleon] starts out at 28, unknown," Williams says. "He is a young, idealistic guy."

"He has a dream of bettering the world for the common man," adds Sabiston, "but the dream becomes so obsessive, it brings him down."

The play is also a love story. As a commoner, Napoleon falls in love with Josephine, an aristocrat. Against her better judgment, Sabiston says, "she surrenders her heart to him — as France is doing the same thing." Ultimately, Napoleon's hubris blinds him to what is right, and he makes fatal mistakes that cost him his life and love.

The Battle of Waterloo is the show's climax, in which Napoleon fights both enemy troops and his own inner demons. To properly orchestrate the music for this crucial scene, Williams needed the timing of the battle sequences. Leong choreographed the section for the VCU workshop, and Williams will refer to the videotaped results when he returns to London to finish composing.

In groups of four and five, troops charge one another. Some fire muskets or stab with their bayonets; others fall to the ground cringing and rolling in agony. Wooden shields with beautiful gray horse heads painted on them suggest mounted cavalry in the background. Leong calls out instructions as 36 bodies speed through a complex set of battle moves. "I gotta hear that one!" he hollers to an actor. He marks the cannon fire, "Boom, boom, boom," and calls set changes for the actors: "Scrim goes down. Lights out."

Even when performed by student actors learning on the fly, with minimal lighting and staging, no costumes, and just a single piano instead of a full orchestra, "Napoleon" filled the VCU theater with magic last week. This soldier seems destined to stay on its
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