PICTURE an eccentric, philanthropic-minded millionaire watching a late night talk show on which a director-choreographer and a composer are guests. The millionaire decides, on the basis of that show, that the three of them should create and produce a world-class musical. This will happen in a country with no history of musical theater outside of cabaret - never mind a history of commercial theater in half a century. And, only a handful of performers have ever seen a Broadway musical, never mind performed in one. In a small theater in the ugliest building in Warsaw, the grim, gothic Palace of Culture ``given'' to the Polish people by Stalin, precisely such a musical is being born.
``METRO,'' a Polish attempt to compete with the big British megamusicals like ``Cats'' and ``Les Mis'erables,'' seems at a Westerner's first glance a supremely Polish gesture - romantic, gallant, perhaps a little mad. But, paradoxically, the story of METRO's creation is as American as ``Fame,'' the 1980 film about students at the New York School for the Performing Arts.
The man who started everything, Wiktor Kubiak, left Poland in 1968, settled in Sweden, and went on to make a sizeable fortune as a financier. Mr. Kubiak, a passionate man who talks like an impresario from Broadway's golden era of the '30s and '40s, has underwritten METRO, entirely out of his own pocket, to the tune of more than $1.2 million, according the METRO's New York lawyer, entertainment attorney Don Farber.
METRO's plotline is simple: Two choreographers, one a shallow, commercial success, vies with his idealistic alter ego for the allegiance of a company of out-of-work performers who survive by singing and dancing for passing strangers in the Metro station.
Kubiak's 18th-floor office is above the Marriott Hotel in downtown Warsaw. The building has only one competitor on the Polish capital's skyline, the wedding-cake Palace of Culture, where, on the most tradition-laden stage in the country - the Dramatic - a company of 37 young singer-dancer-actors rehearses all night long.
On New Year's Eve when I visited, METRO was three months late for its premiere. Kubiak, tired of paying exorbitant rent to the Warsaw authorities who run the Dramatic theater, has tried to buy the space - but, typically, in this Socialist country, no one seems to know who owns the theater. Add to the difficulties a libretto that director-choreographer Janusz Josefowicz is still unhappy with, and the project seems ripe for disaster.
A VISIT to the rehearsal changes that judgment. Mr. Josefowicz dances and stars in METRO as well as directing it. He's a taskmaster that New York hit-maker Hal Prince [Stephen Sondheim's producer of ``Company,'' ``Follies,'' and ``A Little Night Music''] described as ``dynamic and undoubtedly a fellow with a future,'' when he visited the aspiring company last summer.
Josefowicz's choreography reflects the circus roots of central European theater. He uses a springboard in the orchestra pit, a spinning trapeze, and tumbling and leaps to punctuate the breakdancing. He incorporates salsa. A delicate pas de deux becomes a startling tap number - Josefowicz' imagination is almost too full for the stage at times.
Josefowicz, a successful film actor, was Andrej Wajda's choreographer for the great Polish filmmaker's theater in Krakow, and Josefowicz' production of ``Ain't Misbehavin''' toured Europe to rave reviews in the '80s.
Producer Kubiak brought together Josefowicz and composer Janusz Stoklosa after seeing them on Polish television two years ago. Stoklosa, who, like Josefowicz is in his 30s, left a comfortable job as music director of Warsaw's respected Ateneum Theatre to write the score for METRO, which Jerome Robbins' Broadway producer Leonard Solloway has called ``the best original score I've heard in years.''
The show's technology is groundbreaking for any production east of Berlin since the Wall came down. Computer-controlled light cues, radio microphones, mobile lighting racks, and a laser system co-designed by the same company that produces the light shows for British rock group Pink Floyd.
All this equipment would count for nothing if not for the cast, who are surprisingly young, a company Hal Prince termed ``extraordinary.'' Few directors, as Prince told Josefowicz, have had such a willing cast; these performers seemingly have no inhibitions in Josefowicz' hands. In fact, there is a white hole worn in the black painted plaster of the proscenium, where dancers do running flips off the theater wall.
There is something identifiably Polish about it all; not simply the romantic spirit of the enterprise, but also the sense that this is an entirely unique attempt, a chance to prove Poland can compete with the rest of Europe. What composer Stoklosa said of Poland applies to METRO: ``For us,'' he said, ``the door is open, just a little. Maybe we can step through.''
METRO premiered at Warsaw's Dramatic Theatre Jan. 30. A Broadway production, budgeted at some $7 million, is slated for a fall 1991 opening.