Fly, You Fools! Stage Epic Lord of the Rings Begins in Toronto

News   Fly, You Fools! Stage Epic Lord of the Rings Begins in Toronto
The stage, proscenium and walls of The Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto have been taken over by the most unusual flora you may ever see growing indoors: A massive tree trunk and its twisting roots.
J.R.R. Tolkien's Black Riders are conjured in The Lord of the Rings.
J.R.R. Tolkien's Black Riders are conjured in The Lord of the Rings. Photo by Andy Whale

This earthbound yet expansive image, designed by Rob Howell, gives the world premiere theatrical epic, The Lord of the Rings its focus. Just as in the titular fantasy-novel trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, a natural world — be it forest, shire, mountain, swamp or volcano — becomes a playing area for characters who are magnetically pulled toward good and/or evil.

The $27 million (Canadian) production won't include members of the cast of 55 rushing out into the auditorium during what's expected to be 3-1/2 hours of action, but the scenic elements will spill out over the proscenium and onto the ceiling of the theatre.

"It creeps out, this root system," producer Kevin Wallace told in the days leading up to the Feb. 4 first preview, "over the boxes of theatre and out toward the circle and second balcony. That is the environment within which the story is told".

Lighting designer Paul Pyant is lighting it out to the extremities of that environment, as well, Wallace said.

"The focus of the story is in this fabulous 45-foot diameter, huge tree trunk, which is the conceit of the stage design, and which has within it, the revolves and the lifts which take us from one location to another," Wallace explained. There wasn't a major tearing-out of rows of the Princess of Wales' 2,000 seats to accommodate the action, Wallace said, although Rick Fox, the conductor of the 18-musician orchestra, will lead the band from what used to be row AA.

While The Lord of the Rings, directed and co-adapted by Matthew Warchus, is billed as an epic theatrical event with spectacular visual elements, producer Wallace said there is something paramount to the visuals of the experience: the clarity of the storytelling.

"The reassuring point right now is that the story is ringing true and clear and that the arcs of the acts are beautiful," Wallace said. "We feel that we've got the arcs of the acts right…"

The "arcs" are not to be confused with the orcs — or the elves, men, dwarfs, hobbits, wizards and undead who populate the plot-heavy three parts of the Rings fantasy epic (the three parts of the novel are "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King").

The précis of the tale is this: Great evil is taking over the world (called Middle Earth) and an innocent, child-size hobbit named Frodo can eliminate the evil by destroying its talisman — an ancient, cursed ring — by tossing it into a faraway volcano. Sounds easy, no? The path, of course, is fraught with obstacles — an evil wizard, a spider, a gorge or two.


Do the three acts of the stage version coincide with the books in the same way the three recent films followed the novels?

"They don't, strictly speaking, no," Wallace said. "The first act does culminate in the battle between the Balrog and Gandalf the Grey. And the second act finishes with Paths of the Dead."

Fans of the Tolkien epic who were disappointed with the films' excision of the chapter that includes the destruction of the shire by men will be pleased to know the furry-footed creatures Frodo, Sam, Pip and Merry do indeed lead a hobbit uprising against those who took over their world.

"We're true to the books, we do go back to the shire with Frodo and the hobbits," Wallace said. "The third act naturally culminates with Frodo's departure, [but] we deal with the fact that Sharkey has destroyed the natural beauty of the shire…and that men and Sharkey have imposed their rule on the shire. We deal with the hobbits' uprising and with them regaining control of the shire."

The character of nature lover Tom Bombadil, also axed in the recent films, is referenced (but is not seen) in the stage version.

"He gets an honorable mention in the show," Wallace said. "He has a wonderful reference from Treebeard, as Treebeard is saying farewell to the hobbits. That's the sort of touch we wanted in terms of our sensitivity to the story."

Wallace added, "There are little touches like that, I think the Tolkien fan will appreciate and they don't distract in terms of the core of the story for those people who don't understand the weight of the mention…"

Wallace said he's been "quietly confident" about the intelligence, clarity and faithfulness of Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus' adaptation since an April 2005 London workshop, attended by editors from the late Tolkien's publisher, HarperCollins U.K.

"We invited, among others, the two chief editors — Chris Smith being one of the eminent editors," Wallace said. "At the reception afterwards, he came up and said to me, 'It's a great adaptation.' We believe we're truly honoring Tolkien in the story that we're putting on the stage, and the principal themes that run through the books. To get that message from him was a very affirming one. I do feel confident the true Tolkien fans, who have come to Tolkien through the books, will respond to this piece and will see that we understand Tolkien."

Wallace said the collaborators and Laurie Battle, their Tolkien creative consultant, are "ensuring that the language as used by each character is not only appropriate to the drama and the story — and is interesting in terms of text, as used by an actor — but is also appropriate in terms of the examination by a dedicated Tolkien fan or indeed a Tolkien scholar. You really are dealing with a level of scholastic comment which is very detailed and very sophisticated."

As in the books, Wallace said, "the anchor of the emotional journey for the audience is the four hobbits."


The richness of the attempt at a successful stage experience is not only about the detail and arcana of the fantasy novels, but about the real, warm-blooded actors who bite into text, moment and situation.

Wallace said, "I'm thrilled by the fact that it is a unique take, an overwhelmingly inspired visual take on the book, and yet what rings true is the text and the use of language — that these wonderful actors have this language, which has the same economy classical theatre has."

Are whole pieces of dialogue lifted from the books, or do McKenna and Warchus put words in the mouths of the characters?

"There are some lines which are taken [from the books]," Wallace said. "'Fly, you fools!' — a famous line from the book, that Gandalf shouts to the fellowship. That is there. There's a wonderful phrase that Gandalf says to the hobbits: 'May the hairs on your toes never fall out' — that's from the book. But in essence, it is McKenna and Warchus' words — but always either true to Tolkien or in some places actually using Tolkien."

Wallace said that actors were encouraged to experiment and make discoveries about their characters, just as they would in any good rehearsal process for a classic (or modern) play. The reason to invite respected classical actors such as Brent Carver (who plays wizard Gandalf) or Michael Therriault (who plays poisoned Gollum) is because you know they will dive deeply into their characters.

In the cast of 55, you would be hard-pressed to find an actor who hasn't dipped into Shakespeare's pool. Carver and Therriault have played major roles at Ontario's Stratford Festival, two hours west of Toronto. Carver won a Tony Award for Kiss of the Spider Woman, the musical.


With a score penned by A.R. Rahman, the Finnish band Värttinä, and Christopher Nightingale (with lyrics by McKenna and Warchus), is The Lord of the Rings a musical?

"The books are absolutely full of characters who sing to express themselves," Wallace said, "but let's stick with calling it 'a theatrical event.' When the characters draw on music to express themselves, they draw on songs which are ancient to their culture or their species."

There is no big "I Want" song, as there usually is in traditional American musical theatre. But music will still pour out of the production. The writing credits, much like a musical, also include listings for "book and lyrics" (by McKenna and Warchus).

Calling the show a "musical" might be in the eye or ear of the theatregoer.


Frodo, the Hobbit ring-bearer, will be played by young British actor James Loye; Evan Buliung will play Aragorn, the king-in-waiting; wizard Saruman, the leader of the White Council corrupted by his lust for the Ring, will be played by Richard McMillan (Scar in the Canadian Premiere production of Disney's The Lion King); Peter Howe is Sam, Frodo's faithful friend (Howe was discovered by LOTR creative team in London after he wrote to the London production office requesting an audition; this marks his professional stage debut); Canadian Dylan Roberts is Merry and Irishman Owen Sharpe is Pippin; Gabriel Burrafato (of the recent Hal Prince-supervised Evita tour) is Legolas; Rebecca Jackson Mendoza is Galadriel, Lady of Lothlorien; Dion Johnstone is Boromir; Carly Street is Arwen; Ross Williams is Gimli, the dwarf warrior; Victor A. Young will play Elrond; Kerry Dorey is Théoden and Kristin Galer plays Rosie.

The ensemble consists of Greg Armstrong-Morris, Joel Benson, Alexandra Bonnet, Brent Buchanan, Matt Cassidy, Mike Cota, Susan Dunstan, Joe Eigo, Josh Epstein, Omar Forrest, Matthew Gagnon, Nicholas Gede-Lange, Don Gough, Graeme Guthrie, Colin Heath, Peter Huck, Chilina Kennedy, Krystal Kiran Garib, Bryce Kulak, Monique Lund, Shannon Lynch, Ayrin Mackie, Colin Maier, Patrick McManus, Tyler Murree, Philip Nero, Danny Pathan, Sean C. Robertson, Louise St. Cyr, Vincent Tong, Peter Van Gestel, Fraser Walters, Sanders Whiting and Shawn Wright.

Director Matthew Warchus previously said in production notes, "I am particularly proud of the huge diversity of skill in the company. Wonderful, experienced actors will be working alongside acrobats, stilt-walkers and outstanding singers, all pooling their talents to bring this magical story alive on the stage. Given the size of the show, this is bound to be the most grueling production process any of us has been through…"

The gala opening performance will be on March 23. By the first preview $15.5 million (Canadian) has been generated at the box office, Wallace said. He hopes to be "knocking on the door of $20 million by the opening night.

Producers Kevin Wallace and Saul Zaentz, in association with David & Ed Mirvish and Michael Kohl are behind the open-ended-run that employs hundreds of artists, technicians and support staffers.

Set and costume design is by Ron Howell; lighting design is by Paul Pyant; sound design is by Simon Baker for Autograph; music supervision is by Christopher Nightingale; moving image design is by The Gray Circle; "Tolkien creative consultation" is by Laurie Battle; special effects design is by Gregory Meeh; illusions and magic effects are by Paul Kieve; musical direction is by Rick Fox; orchestrations are by Christopher Nightingale, Rahman and Värttinä; and choreography is by Peter Darling.

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