As it turns out, the creators of the new theatrical stage version of the fantasy novels by J.R.R. Tolkien aren't calling their planned $27 million, three-hour epic "a musical" at all. Recent press and marketing materials from the producers refer to the show as a "theatrical event" and an "epic" — never a musical.
Nevertheless, media outlets, including Playbill.com, The Toronto Star, The New York Times and others, have characterized the show as a musical in recent months. As early as 2003, when The Lord of the Rings was announced as aiming for London in 2005, Playbill.com reported that the work was a "musical." (A separate production in London is now a late 2006 goal, following at least nine months at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre, where it world-premieres Feb. 2, 2006. Toronto is an open-ended run.)
"The creators of The Lord of the Rings feel that the show is technically a play with music," the show's U.S. press rep, Adrian Bryan-Brown told Playbill.com following a July 25 story about casting for the "musical" The Lord of the Rings.
It turns out that the show's earliest characterization as a musical came from the producer himself, Kevin Wallace, who got the musical dramatic stage rights in 2003. At that time, his pitch to Tolkien Enterprises was based on early script by Shaun McKenna that was more "traditional musical theatre," the producer told Playbill.com.
"The first adaptation by Shaun McKenna was undoubtedly and unquestionably a musical — he had lyrics, it was in a musical theatre tradition," Wallace told Playbill.com. The Lord of the Rings would grow over time into a hybrid theatre experience that draws from many sources and traditions. When announcing he had snagged the rights in 2003, and that London was the goal, Wallace was faced with the dilemma of how to sell it. "How are we going to communicate to a commercial audience this was not a play?" he said. "The closest thing this is going to be is a musical…"
Following the initial announcement of the musical (including an early website that billed it as such), and under the direction (and co-authorship) of Matthew Warchus (Broadway's recent True West, Follies and Life x 3), "the piece very quickly evolved into a piece of theatre that is flooded with music" rather than a traditional musical.
"The music comes out of the world and it's part of the world…it's a musical and more, it's a play and more, it's a spectacle and more," producer Wallace said, slightly agonized that the industry historically obligates producers to define work, thus discouraging an audience to make up its own mind.
Wallace clarifies the creative team's goals in extensive explanatory notes on www.lotr.com.
There is indeed a score and songs, but don't expect a soaring ballad of love, or comedy patter numbers from the Hobbits of Middle Earth — you will not hear "You're Getting to be a Hobbit With Me."
However, music might rise organically from situations. For example, Arwen sings a lullaby to ailing Frodo, or the Hobbits croon a folk-like traveling song to pass the time and raise their spirits.
Warchus explained in production notes, "We have not attempted to pull the novel towards the standard conventions of musical theatre, but rather to expand those conventions so that they will accommodate Tolkien's material. As a result, we will be presenting a hybrid of text, physical theatre, music and spectacle never previously seen on this scale."
Wallace said in notes, "There are songs in the show, and music virtually the whole way through, but there is also storytelling through action and the spoken word. Like in the books, the characters in the stage adaptation use songs that are already part of their culture to express themselves. They do not sing as in a traditional musical (for example, to the audience about their inner thoughts), but as in a culture with a strong singing tradition, they use music as part of their everyday life."
Wallace also indicated that "Gollum has a virtuoso solo number that is very unusual, Gimli sings a wonderful, haunting 'ancient' lament. And Galadriel has a magnificent musical number in Lothlòrien. One of the really exciting aspects of the score is how voices are used as part of the orchestration. This has been inspired by the three Värttinä singers' Finnish vocal tradition."
Looking for evidence of a musical, check out the title page: The Lord of the Rings has "book and lyrics" (by Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus), choreography (by Peter Darling), "musical supervision" (by Christopher Nightingale) and "music" (by Nightingale, A.R. Rahman and the Finnish group Värttinä, who all also wrote the show's orchestrations).
Producer Wallace said there will even be a cast album of the work, expected to be recorded after the show opens in March 2006. Yes, a live orchestra is part of the theatre experience, as well. Rick Fox will conduct.
What will the show sound like, musically?
Wallace explained in notes, "There is non-stop music. The action sequences are like mini-symphonies. Helm's Deep is a fantastic number with some great percussion inspired by Indian and mid-European musical traditions, and The Last Battle will be extraordinary. Our Hobbits have a distinctive musical tradition that is very catchy and a lot of fun."
There are 14 music numbers in the show "as well as other wonderful action sequences that are instrumental musical sequences in their own right — such as the Flight to the Ford and Gandalf's confrontation with The Balrog."
The Lord of the Rings cast includes Brent Carver (of the Broadway musicals Parade and Kiss of the Spider Woman) as Gandalf, Michael Therriault (who was Leo in Toronto's The Producers and is currently Motel the Tailor in Broadway's Fiddler on the Roof) as Gollum.
According to the producers, "Toronto will be the only North American production of LOTR for at least 18 months." One could speculate that Las Vegas or Broadway might be in the show's future. If it lands in Tony Awards territory, on Broadway, will it be positioned as a "musical" or "play" or a "special theatrical event"?
Whichever definition you choose, expect fans of the novels "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King" to throng to Toronto for a first look at how their precious fantasy epic gets reinvented for the stage.
The advance sale is already at $8 million (Canadian) as of July 26. Wallace expects a $20 million advance by the time the spectacle/event/epic — aw, heck, musical — opens.
For more information, visit www.lotr.com.