In eerie strobe light, a black rider rears its steed (a man and puppet on stilts), sending fearful hobbits scurrying. Dead men rise from the Marshes (a roiling silver sheet) to make war against Sauron's legions. In the Mountains of Moria, Gandalf battles the enormous Balrog (an Erector-set confection with steaming orange eyes) as the sound effects roar and a strong wind gusts from the stage, spraying the audience with a blizzard of black confetti. As for Frodo, he not only lives, he also sings in the new version of The Lord of the Rings, opening this week at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.
A stage musical of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy saga? Good Lord, why? Well, for starters, because the original three-volume story was filled with music--more than 50 songs that added levity and lyricism to the military drumbeat of its narrative. And also because: Why not? LOTR is certainly an alluring franchise; it's one of the most popular and beloved works in publishing history and (sorry, George Lucas) the all-time top-grossing movie trilogy. So producer Kevin Wallace raised about $24 million, from private and Canadian government sources, to mount a 3 1/2-hr. epic--the longest musical this side of Wagner--and the most expensive Broadway-style show ever, though it's at least two years from playing New York City.
The preparation for a typical musical has its familiar anxieties: cutting a favorite song, replacing a dialogue scene, finding some extra business for the star. That's nothing compared with the three-year ordeal of bringing Middle-earth to life. The mostly British creative team, beginning with playwright Shaun McKenna, had to figure out how to choreograph the complex battles Tolkien described; how to visualize the dozen realms in the saga and the dozens of characters of many species; how to blend narrative, drama and music in a three-act production--and do it all without retakes or post-production computer effects. Most daunting was the task of satisfying all those Tolkienites whose image of Middle-earth has been shaped by many readings of the sacred text and latterly by Peter Jackson's Oscar-laden film versions.
If it occurs to you that the idea is mad, you aren't the first. "I thought it was foolish," said director Matthew Warchus. He believed it would be "instantly plausible" to do the Ring as a spoof. "It's such an earnest story, and people are so protective of it." Still, he signed on. Then he and musical supervisor Christopher Nightingale chose to break with the Broadway songwriting style and go for an ethereal, world-music sound. Two sounds, in fact: one from A.R. Rahman, the best-selling composer of Indian musical films; the other from the Finnish group Värttinä.
That produced a fascinating musical fusion, but it didn't allay the doubts that most of the creators had, straight through rehearsals, about their quest and their sanity. Says set and costume designer Rob Howell: "Every other day one of us was wondering out loud, 'What. Are. We. Doing?'"
What they have done, as a visit to the show in its last week of previews revealed, is to create a robust summary and emotional evocation of the story--the one LOTR you can consume in a single evening and say, with a satisfied smile, "Yes. That's it."