Regular readers of my articles will recall that I may have mentioned once or twice what a dedicated reader I am. My love affair with the written word led me to write for myself, but ultimately began when I discovered the joy of reading and I am subsequently often to be found with my nose buried in a book. I’ve walked through the worlds created by many of the literary greats, and some are so adept at what they do that their imagination captures mine completely.
One author whose sense of fantasy has raised him to an iconic status among readers is J. R. R. Tolkien, who is of course responsible for The Lord of the Rings trilogy and all its accompanying material in the series. He dreamt up the world of Middle Earth, a place populated by mythical beings and the setting for fantastical adventures and epic battles of good and evil.
Tolkien’s The Hobbit and his three-book LOTR series, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, are some of the most popular works of fiction in the history of literature, and as well as they’ve done for themselves, Peter Jackson’s film trilogy has taken The Lord of the Rings to even greater, dizzying heights. Each of the book’s were adapted into big screen versions to form a three-part film saga that was one of the most ambitious film projects ever undertaken, made over a period of eight years and with a budget of almost $300 million. The end result more than paid off though. The LOTR films have won awards left, right and centre and remain one of among the highest grossing film series of all time. They were beautifully stunning visually and received much praise for the special effects, particularly the performance capture technology that brought Andy Serkis’ Gollum to life. Both the books and the films are regarded as classics in their respective mediums, so if the story can be told to such effect through books and the big screen, surely it stands to reason that it would be just as successful on the stage – right?
Apparently not. Most musical theatre fans have heard about the Lord of the Rings musical, which is probably now best known as the most expensive flop in the history of the West End. Its world première was in Toronto in 2006, but only ran for six months. A revised and shortened production made its London début the following year at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, closing on 19th July 2008 after 492 performances.
The three-act musical was created by Matthew Warchus and Shaun McKenna, who wrote the book and lyrics, with music by A.R. Rahman, Värttinä and Christopher Nightingale. It also featured choreography by Peter Darling and set and costume design by Rob Howell. Warchus described the musical as ‘a Shakespeare play and a Cirque du Soleil show sort of woven together’, and that’s probably a fair representation of what Lord of the Rings gave audiences.
It started off in Toronto as producers were unable to find a London venue big enough to hold it. It then came to the West End when The Producers vacated the Theatre Royal Drury Lane after a two-year stay. Those who saw the show will understand why a large theatre was necessary. The £12.5 million production had a cast of around fifty performers and was an epic spectacle that included acrobats, pyrotechnics, special effects and a revolving stage that contained a series of hydraulic lifts. The lavishness of the production was probably both the best and worst thing about it though.
The Lord of the Rings musical received very mixed reviews from critics here in London (as well as in Toronto), but no-one could fault the mind-blowing effect of the spectacular sets and staging. It was visually one of the most impressive musicals staged in the West End, but when so much money is thrown at a production, it ultimately has to be able to justify that expense and make it back, which it was ultimately unable to do.
Would Lord of the Rings has been labelled such a colossal musical flop if it hadn’t had the kind of money attached to it that it did? It ran for thirteen months, which isn’t that bad when you look at other new musicals which have opened in the West End in the last few years. From Here to Eternity, Stephen Ward and The X Factor musical I Can’t Sing! are just some of the most recent examples which didn’t even make it to the one year mark. It certainly had it difficulties though.
Trouble began during its preview period when actor Adam Salter (who played a ranger) got his leg trapped in the floorboards during a preview performance, which led to the show being cancelled for two days. Quotes from critics such as The Sun’s ‘Flawed of the Rings’ didn’t help matters either, as the reviews were less than encouraging about the future of the show. Despite the praise for the visual staging and effects of the production, the critics had plenty of complaints, including not enough music for a musical, some poor performances from certain cast members, and most prominently, a book which was dubbed more ‘middle-of-the-road than Middle Earth.’
Producer Kevin Wallace had stated that: “We haven’t set out to create a musical of The Lord of the Rings, a play of The Lord of the Rings or a spectacle of The Lord of the Rings. It is a hybrid production, because this is not any of those things singularly – it is all of those things.” The challenge of adapting three books-worth of material into a three-hour stage production was one which was always going to be incredibly hard to do, and while there was disagreement about whether or not Warchus and McKenna had ultimately risen to that challenge, the overall verdict seemed to be that they had not.
It wasn’t universally condemned though, by any means. It received four star reviews from some and had a big fan following, including such celebrity endorsers as Kevin Spacey and Dame Judi Dench. It was even nominated for five Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical.
It’s been six years since The Lord of the Rings musical has been seen on stage, but it is set to make a return as Playbill announced in November 2013 that the show will embark on a brand new world tour in 2015. Details are still scarce, but it is expected to launch in New Zealand (where the films were shot) next year before travelling to further destinations which have yet to be announced. Retaining the ‘unique, thrilling and spectacular theatrical magic of the original production’, this new touring production is being designed to accommodate theatres around the globe.
Many people are excited about the return of The Lord of the Rings. As I said earlier, the original London production had plenty of fans and there are also many more theatre-goers and LOTR enthusiasts who missed seeing it the first time around and are keen to get the chance to now, regardless of the critical hand it was dealt. I know I’d go to see it.
The musical was labelled a flop primarily because of the expense involved. Yes, it certainly had other problems attached to it, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed, and it would benefit mostly from a re-write that really focused the story. Maybe this world tour will be the the making of the musical and the means of repairing its damaged reputation?
I really hope so as Tolkien’s creation has been so successful in the literary world and the movie industry; it’d be wonderful to see the trilogy complete the hat-trick by finally conquering the stage as well.
By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25
Tuesday 5th August 2014