RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
The Lord of the Rings is by any yardstick, an international, cultural phenomenon. J.R.R. Tolkien's epic trilogy of fantasy novels has sold 100 million copies around the world. Peter Jackson's film adaptations have grossed more than $3 billion. Now a splashy stage version is about to open in Toronto. Can this massive story really fit on a stage? Jeff Lunden has this report.
JEFF LUNDEN: Hobbits, elves, wizards, orcs. They're all on the enormous revolving stage of the Princess of Wales Theater in Toronto and some of them even sing. Just don't call The Lord of the Rings a musical says producer Kevin Wallace.
KEVIN WALLACE: We haven't set out to create a musical of The Lord of the Rings, a play of The Lord of the Lord of the Rings or a spectacle of The Lord of the Rings. It is a hybrid production because as this is not any of those things singularly, it is all of those things.
LUNDEN: Director and co-adapter Matthew Warchus describes it this way.
MATTHEW WARCHUS: This probably is for, in terms of the music, to think about what it would be like to see a Shakespeare play and a Cirque du Soleil show sort of woven together.
LUNDEN: And, says composer Christopher Nightengale:
CHRISTOPHER NIGHTENGALE: It was very, very hard to find a definition for us, actually and it's not fair to say that we are play with music and it's not fair to say that we are a musical in a traditional sense, but we're something in the middle. I don't know quite what it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LUNDEN: Whatever it is, at a cost of $28 million Canadian, $24.25 million American, the stage adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is the most expensive theater production ever. There's a cast of 55, an orchestra of 18, a set with a turntable and 17 elevators, tree roots from the proscenium arch enveloped the auditorium, actors fly and appear on stilts ten feet high, there's even a massive puppet spider. Producer Kevin Wallace says the show's gargantuan budget has allowed its creators to bring their fantasies to life.
WALLACE: That's exciting, of course, in terms of what you can do and in terms of the scale of the production and the thrill that you can give an audience with some of the extraordinary creatures that we've been able to create. But the fact is that ultimately it's got to do with the story and if you are emotionally engaged in the characters. That's where the heart of the experience lies.
LUNDEN: And the story, a tale of good versus evil laced with magic is, well, epic. When director Matthew Warchus was first approached about working on The Lord of the Rings, he wasn't convinced that Tolkien's 1000 pages of text could work on stage.
WARCHUS: Initially, I was extremely skeptical. It seemed problematic in almost every respect. The size of the story, the type of story it is, all those different locations, the scale of the events that happened, the fights, the landscapes, the different species...
LUNDEN: But, he says as he reread The Lord of the Rings, he began to see ways Middle Earth could come to life theatrically.
WARCHUS: I was very surprised to find first of all that the book is full of music. People keep bursting into song. There are anthems and prayers and old songs and traditional songs. So the idea of doing it with music on a stage seemed like that would be a good idea.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LUNDEN: The score, like the show itself, is a hybrid. It functions more like a movie soundtrack. Some of the music is by Varttina, a Finnish contemporary folk group. Some of it is by A.R. Rahman, the legendary Bollywood composer and some of it is by Christopher Nightengale, an English composer who serves as the production's musical supervisor.
NIGHTENGALE: I've described myself in the past as glue. I try to referee the different musical ideas and try and chair it, so my contribution is sort of threaded through the whole show.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LUNDEN: Producer Kevin Wallace initially wanted to open The Lord of the Rings in London but couldn't find a large enough theater available, so he looked across the Atlantic. Until recently Toronto had been a boom town for commercial theater with long-running hit shows like The Lion King and Mamma Mia!, but Toronto Star critic Richard Ouzounian says the landscape quickly changed.
RICHARD OUZOUNIAN: In the middle of that came 9/11, came SARS, came also a kind of a decline in tourism to Canada. A lot of things did it: the value of the dollar, the increased security at the borders after 9/11. This no longer became quite as friendly a place to visit.
LUNDEN: Hungry for a new hit, several Canadian producers convinced Kevin Wallace to present the show in Toronto and they even convinced the Ontario government to invest $3 million. Deputy Minister of Tourism Bill Allen, says the financial risk is worth it.
WILLIAM ALLEN: And even if we don't get our $3 million back, we see recouping more than that through the spin-off effects: the taxes from wages, from ticket sales, from restaurant sales and so on.
LUNDEN: The production is scheduled to open in London next fall and Broadway may not see The Lord of the Rings for years. Right now, the only place to see the three and half hour show is in Toronto. Critic Richard Ouzounian hasn't seen it yet but he's been following the buzz on the internet.
OUZOUNIAN: What I find fascinating is I've been going on blog sites and web sites to read what people think of it and it's always a two-part thing, it's hey, we love Toronto, what a cool city, I'd never been here before, I did this, I did this, I loved it and then we saw Lord of the Rings and depending on who you read, they either loved it or hated it. But the city's been getting very good notices (laughs) which is part of the idea.
LUNDEN: The Lord of the Rings officially opens on Thursday, March 23. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.