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'Lord of the Rings' Takes the Stage

J.R.R. Tolkien's epic trilogy of fantasy novels is, by any yardstick, an international cultural phenomenon. One hundred million copies of the books have been sold around the world, and Peter Jackson's film adaptations have grossed more than $3 billion. Now, a splashy stage version of The Lord of the Rings is about to open in Toronto.

Can all those Hobbits, elves, wizards and Orcs fit on a stage? The answer is yes, if it's the enormous, revolving stage of the Princess of Wales Theatre. And some of them even sing. Just don't call The Lord of the Rings a musical, says producer Kevin Wallace.

"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."

Director and co-adaptor Matthew Warchus describes it as "a Shakespeare play and a Cirque du Soleil show sort of woven together."

Whatever it is, at a cost of more than $24 million, 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, and a set with a turntable and 17 elevators. Tree roots from the proscenium arch envelop the auditorium. Actors fly and appear on stilts 10 feel high. There's even a massive spider puppet. Producer Kevin Wallace says the show's gargantuan budget has allowed the creators to bring their fantasies to life.

The story -- a tale of good versus evil, laced with magic -- is epic. When Warchus was first approached about working on The Lord of the Rings, he wasn't convinced that Tolkien's 1,000 pages of text could work onstage.

"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 happen, the fights, the landscape, the different species," Warchus says.

But, he says, as he reread The Lord of the Rings, he began to see ways Middle Earth could come to life on the stage. The book is "full of music: people keep on bursting into song. There are anthems and prayers and old songs and traditional songs," Warchus says. "So, the idea of doing it with music on a stage, seemed like that would be a good idea."

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 amid tighter border security after the Sept. 11 attacks and the SARS scare.

Hungry for a new hit, several Canadian producers persuaded Kevin Wallace to present the show in Toronto. And they even persuaded the Ontario government to invest $3 million.

The Lord of the Rings officially opens on March 23. A 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 3 1/2-hour show is in Toronto.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.