Thursday, March 23, 2006

On Stage: The Lord of the Rings

At $28 million (CDN) and with a running time of over three hours and thirty minutes, this is the biggest musical ever staged, and it opens tonight in Toronto. It has some Tolkien purists worried.

There was trepidation and excitement out there in fan land when it was announced The Lord of the Rings would become a stage play filled with music.

Witness these postings from discussion boards:

“Rrrg. I so want to see that, but I don’t live anywhere near Toronto. Waaah!”

“I enjoy musicals, but for some reason the idea of LOTR seems very silly.”

“I don’t know if I’m scared or happy.”

“Maybe it will be good, a lot of people didn’t think Peter (Jackson) could do the movies, but he did, so who knows?”

“I really hope they don’t blow it. I don’t live near Toronto, so it would be tough for me to make it there anyways, but in this kind of medium, they could botch things really easily, I think … I hope they know what they’re doing.”

Shaun McKenna, who has been working on the lyrics and the book for the Toronto production, aims to put to rest any fears fans may have. When asked whether he thinks die-hard Tolkien fans are going to be happy, he says, “I honestly think they are. Obviously we can’t do it all, but the bits of story that are left out are surprisingly few … I think that if you’re expecting to see the film on stage, you’ll be taken aback because it isn’t. But as an interpretation of the books, and an equally valid interpretation of the books, and equally rigorous, I think it will have that huge emotional impact that only theatre really does, because you’re there in the room. I hope the fans will be happy.”


The Tolkien Society’s North American representative, Mike Foster, is a recently retired Illinois English professor. He says musical shows aren’t usually “his cup of tea,” but that he would take a look, and that there would be one thing he’d hope for: “Staying as close as possible to the words of the original — (not doing that) is one of the ways I fault Jackson’s films, for all their virtues — but staying as close to the words and facts of the original would be much to their credit if they attempt to do that. But you know what? This is all for fun.” And if it becomes a gateway drug leading potential readers to Tolkien as Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy did, that’s all for the good as well.

“One of the old-line Tolkien society folks was arguing that people who came to the books after the movies would just never get it. I disagree. They may be saddled with the unfortunate image of Elijah Wood as Frodo — he looks like a combination of Michelangelo’s David and Michael Jackson five surgeries ago; he’s just too pretty for the role — but that’s just a consequence. I think there have been people who came to the books because of the movies.”

Fortunately, McKenna assures us that staying close to the original has been a priority from the outset.

“We have a Tolkien expert, we have Elvish language experts … even down to things like how there’s nonsense lyrics in one of the hobbit songs and we had to check the language roots of the nonsense lyrics. Did it come from the same body of language roots that Tolkien used to create his own languages? The differences between Qenya Elvish and Sindarin Elvish, we’ve been really careful not to muddle them up, to make sure the grammar is correct. We’ve approached it with, I hope, enormous respect and certainly massive attention to detail.

“I think Tolkien would be happy. I think he’s up there smiling somewhere, thinking this is a completely ludicrous, mad thing to do. But we’re doing it with passion and integrity and stretching the physical bounds of what’s been done in theatre before, while holding on to the kind of deep emotional impact theatre has, that no other medium does.”

How do you say “Break a leg” in Elvish?