What went wrong? #1: The Lord of the Rings Musical Retrospective
Hello and welcome to ‘What went wrong?’, a new series of retrospective ‘postmortems’ examining some of theatre’s most infamous flops. Join me as a take a look back at some of the biggest turkeys to ever grace the British stage and ask “What went wrong?”.
There and Back Again – A Hobbyist’s Tale
The Lord of the Rings Musical, hereafter known as LotRM had a troubled life on the stage. For those who have been living in Gollum’s cave all these years, LotRM is an adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic 1954 The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a collective work considered to be one of the finest fantasy tales ever written by critics – and millions of loyal fans alike. Millionaire producer Saul Zaentz owned the film and stage production rights and, after much legal wrangling with Tolkien’s estate, the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy was finally produced in the early 2000’s – going on to smash box office records and, in a clean sweep, winning all eleven of the Academy Awards for which it was nominated for the final movie, The Return of the King. Buoyed by this incredible success, Zaentz set to work with co-producer and partner Kevin Wallace to create a stage adaptation, envisioned here by Wallace, and by Director/Co-Adaptor Matthew Warchus;
“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” – Kevin Wallace
“(On Lord of the Rings) … a Shakespeare play and a Cirque du Soleil show sort of woven together” – Matthew Warchus
At a staggering cost of £19m, and with help from a generous donation from the Canada Council for the Arts, The Lord of the Rings Musical opened at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto in February 2006, with a view to transferring to a suitable West End theatre within twelve months. A Broadway sister production was tipped to run concurrently with the original, dependent on the success of the Toronto trial run and subsequent West End transfer. Despite playing to over 400,000 guests and being widely praised for the visual spectacle on show, LotRM took something of a walloping from the visiting press, with the Toronto Star’s Richard Ouzounian condemning the show as “Bored of the Rings” in one particularly damning review. It was considered by many that the hype surrounding the production, which boasted sixty-five performers and a record-breaking production cost, was simply too much to overcome – a cost that was scarcely recouped when the production closed ahead of schedule in September of that year.
Unperturbed, Wallace and Zaentz pushed ahead with the planned West End transfer and previews began at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane – the only West End theatre large enough to house the show – in May 2007. Despite being shorter at a shade over three hours long (a common criticism had been the Toronto production’s three and a half hour running time) and after a major reworking of the book, the show still only garnered mixed reviews from the underwhelmed media. The show eventually stumbled to a close in July 2008, after 492 performances including previews, and once again on an enormous financial deficit, with the running costs alone allegedly wiping out co-producer Wallace’s own personal savings.
Join me as I turn back the clock and examine exactly “What Went Wrong?”
Everything to Excess, Moderation is for Monks
A fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary was produced in 2007 by the National Geographic Channel, following the production from day one of rehearsals through to opening night; not only does the documentary (which is available on YouTube) offer an interesting insight into how such an enormous production is put together, it is also car crash television as we see the critical failings of the production being formed in front of our very eyes.
Whilst ‘smaller’ than the costly Toronto experiment, with a cast of only fifty, the excess and ambition of the producers and creative team hadn’t slackened. From watching the documentary, the production team’s belief in the project is unquestionable, the producers and creatives clearly wanted to create a theatrical legacy at any cost, in the belief that their production would be so epic it couldn’t help but become a box office smash for decades to follow. Such ambition is admirable, but it doesn’t show itself often for a reason; in their ambition, the producers and creative team lost financial and creative control – in short, the staging became the show.
Incredible stories began emanating from within the production; one rumour stuck in my mind in particular. It concerns a fabric curtain used in the first act to resemble Arwen summoning what I can only describe as water horses to defeat pursuing Nazgul on horseback – an iconic scene from The Fellowship of the Ring. Allegedly, Howell and members of the production team were unhappy with the finished look of the effect due to the curtain being the wrong shade of white. While rehearsals were ongoing, the producer authorised the curtain be redesigned and produced from scratch in a higher quality material than required, in a slightly different shade. Due to the deadlines and short notice involved, it was said this change alone cost upwards of £15,000. The irony is, Paul Pyant’s lighting design essentially made the colour of the curtain irrelevant; as the curtain was bathed in blue light. True or not, it was this type of lavish spending which caused the budget to spiral and for many to question exactly who these changes were for.
Break a Leg! …. “I broke my leg!”
Nothing, and I mean nothing will kill a show dead like the national press taking a personal loathing to it. Normally, moral indignation (The Full Monty, Victor/Victoria on Broadway spring to mind) is enough to put off a good percentage of potential advance bookings, but nothing rankles the press and public as much as a health and safety issue. Enter young ensemble member Adam Salter, who fell to the floor of the huge pie-like lower revolve screaming and clutching his leg, during an evening preview performance on 30th May 2007. The media gleefully cried foul and, despite Salter returning to the production soon after with no lasting injury, the PR damage had been done. LotRM had become a dead show walking.
Gandalf, Sets and Mordor
Clearly, a small fortune has been afforded to Rob Howell’s incredible sets; much like Cirque or many of the incredible Las Vegas resident shows, the experience begins the moment you enter the theatre. The once drab Theatre Royal, Drury Lane foyer has been given a lick of paint – and a large semi-permanent gift shop has been erected selling the LotRM logo on just about everything imaginable. The auditorium is simply mind-blowing; it is nigh-on impossible to tell where the proscenium – or even the seating – starts and Howell’s all-encompassing design begins. Halflings frolick in the stalls – actually on the seats – and downstage in front of the curtain; catching dragonflies in a net, having a bit of a dance – you know, Hobbity things. Embarrassing I imagine for the actors, but harmless amusement as the audience file into the auditorium – even the most cynical grump would fail to raise a smile. The sheer wonder at Howell’s work could only be seen to be believed:
Didn’t you say this show was a flop?
Absolutely, financially and critically. Visually, the show is possibly one of the finest ever staged; if the show stopped occasionally tableau vivant, you would sit in awe of the artistry created (albeit at enormous expense); the ‘good moments’ are epic and worth the ticket price alone. The set is a marvel of design and the use of it ingenious.
Whilst Howell’s sets and, to a lesser extent, costume work truly bring Middle Earth to life, Matthew Warchus and Shaun McKenna’s book was coma inducing. As a fan of The Lord of the Rings novels and Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, I was one of the ones who should’ve been easy to please. You see, I like The Lord of the Rings, but I am not precious about it; I just wanted a simple, interesting adaptation leaving out whatever is necessary in order to get the story told.
With the audience on a hobbit-induced high, the show begins in earnest and, frankly, it is all downhill from hereon.
Book to Basics
Matthew Warchus and Shaun McKenna are responsible for the book, with the former also directing. Movie writers Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, all experienced screenwriters, just about managed to squeeze Tolkien’s work into three movies, with a lot of cut and pasting and with a fair amount deemed unnecessary being ditched entirely. Warchus, whilst an acclaimed director by this point, had only limited writing experience and his partner Shaun McKenna had never tackled anything on this scale.
Stripping away the beautiful sets, lavish staging, seventeen lifts and three revolves, LotRM was at its base level a confused, plodding, dull selection of scenes from the books – with the occasional moment of brilliance, just as a reminder of how good the show could have been. The challenge of adapting all three books (over nine hours worth of film) into one three hour long stage show (incorporating songs and circus style staging) was simply too great – and the result was plain for all to see.
It is not as if the material is weak, far from it; Warchus and McKenna simply include far too much of it. Some cuts were made throughout the show’s initial run, but so much of what remained felt unnecessary; literally everybody makes the cut, which goes some way to explaining the enormous cast size. What did the Ent, Treebeard, for example, add to the story? In their desperation to please the fans of the books and movies, the writers failed to give the piece its own voice – its own story – instead the show watched like a second-rate homage to the films, as they wheel out character after character for a cameo. I am in no doubt that had I been seeing LotRM cold, that is, with no prior knowledge of the synopsis, I would have had absolutely no idea what was going on. Furthermore, I’m convinced that a good percentage of the audience each night would be in that very position, essentially alienating them from the evening they have just paid £60.00 for, because they hadn’t done their homework and watched the movies first.
Even as a fan of the material, it was hard to care; despite a couple of viewings, it was nigh-on impossible not to tune out during the lengthy ‘acting’ (and I use that term loosely, see below) scenes, partly thanks to woeful performances from many of the poorly chosen cast and the severe lack of dynamism in the book. A stunning visual effect or musical number wins the audience back momentarily, only to plunge into some more verbatim Tolkien ‘scripture’ that often leads nowhere worthwhile.
Old Men Shouting At Each Other
…is in many ways my enduring memory of LotRM - let me explain. In his stated ambition, director Warchus was determined to add some gravitas to the piece – to make the show “a Shakespeare play and a Cirque du Soleil show sort of woven together” . Following in the footsteps of Jackson’s film trilogy and the success of Sir. Ian McKellen in the role of Gandalf, he too turned to ‘serious actors’ to fill what he considered ‘Shakespearean’ roles. Enter RSC regulars Malcolm Storry, Andrew Jarvis and Brian Protheroe who played Gandalf, Elrond and Saruman respectively. Pointing and shouting was an actor’s strongest card in days gone by treading the boards, and it didn’t get much more pointy or shouty than these three. Hammy delivery, hammy make-up, hammy everything, the casting could not have been worse if Joe Pasquale had been the one mumbling his way through the iconic “You shall not pass” stand-off with the Balrog of Mothgog.
Some scenes seemed to last an eternity as the experienced thesps fought their own ‘battle of the ages'; in Storry’s case, he would speed-read every line as if he would rather be anywhere but Middle Earth, muttered his way through thick blocks of dialogue as if they were hindrances and that they didn’t matter a jot to the progression of the story. Incidentally largely they were, and they didn’t – but that is by the by, Storry’s underacting was as notable as the overacting of his colleagues; Andrew Jarvis rolls everrrrryy, singlllllle, rrrrrr and llllllll to ridiculous unintentional comic effect; as he greets Gandalf as Rivendell in the first act, he bellows “Welllllllllcome to the HOUSE of ELLLLLLLLLLRRRRRRRRROND”, as if he were delivering Cassius’s speech, in ‘hero position’, legs akimbo, to Brutus in a 1932 RSC production of Julius Caesar.
The casting was odd full stop; Jerome Pradon played Aragorn to the best of his ability, but is known as a singer more than an actor. Pradon, adopting a very strange gravelly timbre and odd stilted phrasing, is only required to sing once in the show, warbling in a simple love duet with the competent Rosalie Craig who played Arwen. James Loye gives his Frodo a distracting West Country drawl – and while we are on accents, bona-fide Scot Steven Miller manages to give a cod-Braveheart inspired speech at the Council of Elrond that Billy Connolly would’ve been proud of.
Some of the cast can walk away with their head held high; Peter Howe was charming and likeable as Samwise Gamgee, Michael Therriault/understudy Darren Carnall were terrifically theatrical as Gollum and there were some real gems in the ensemble too. Alexandra Bonnet was phenomenal in her track as Elránien and particularly as understudy for the role of Arwen – unfortunately, Bonnet appears to have left the acting scene post-LotRM. Laura Michelle Kelly and latterly Abbie Osmon were heavenly as Galadriel and James Byng made for a more three-dimensional Frodo, when he was eventually cast as replacement Frodo shortly before the show’s closure.
Of course, the buck ultimately stops with Warchus. The cast didn’t hire themselves, true, but the problems with LotRM were more deep-rooted than a few rotten performances from Warchus’s company. I don’t know if he too was effected by the beauty and scale of the show, but somewhere along the creative process Warchus lost grasp of what makes The Lord of the Rings the phenomenon it remains today. It is not the host of quirky, cool, violent, evil or just plain weird characters Tolkien created – it is the simple underlying narrative – one tiny hobbit saving the world. Peter Jackson in his film trilogy was very careful to keep the action rooted in Frodo and Sam’s journey; but in the musical, one beautiful second act moment aside, their story comes second to just about everything else the production shows at us.
I think the audience fundamentally failed to connect in the ways the creative team envisaged; one gorgeous and poignant moment comes in the first act, Gimli (Sévan Stephan) the dwarf arrives at his home, the Mines of Moria, to discover his entire kin have been slaughtered. He sings, almost verbatim from Tolkien, a beautiful lament for his kind; as he and Gandalf quietly mourn the ‘realm that once was there’. Warchus inexplicably finishes this wonderful moment of imagery and beauty by having Gimli wander off upstage, giving the audience neither the chance to clap or the actor to pause for dramatic effect and help build a connection with the audience. Yet, some fairly nice scenes such as ‘Star of Eärendil’ finish with a crescendo, almost begging the audience to show their appreciation of an otherwise pretty, but certainly average musical number.
Interestingly, no changes were made by either producer or director to the overall ‘vision’ of the piece after the Toronto failure. Essentially, with a few changes and a bit of surface work, the same production opened in the West End as had failed just months earlier in Canada. In 2011, we saw Julie Taymor very unceremoniously ousted from her perch as Director/Co-Creator of Spiderman: Turn off the Dark when it became clear that perhaps her vision wasn’t going to work. In reality, LotRM needed a ground-up re-write; but when you’re already £25m in, that isn’t exactly an attractive prospect. The producers, seemingly, never lost faith in Warchus and his team.
At this performance, a stack of little white sheets will be falling out of your programme…
The chances of seeing the entire company of LotRM together in one performance were slim to nil. It is unclear exactly why so many actors missed so many performances of LotRM; many have speculated that the technical aspects of the show induced a large number of strains and injuries, as actors clambered over moving revolves and up and down ladders backstage. Or it could be simply a numbers game, more cast = more absence, either way, LotRM gained a reputation during its run for being the home of the understudy. At one performance I attended, there were no fewer than eight changes to the principal cast billed.Four of these were due to the absence (scheduled or otherwise) of lead actors, the other four were due to swings/ensemble members filling the parts vacated by those promoted to cover the leads.
Pros and Cons
The show was split into three acts; with the first and second separated by an interval. The first two acts were essentially The Fellowship of the Ring and a few key scenes from The Two Towers, with the final portion covering aspects of The Return of the King. Some moments of LotRM were pure magic – mind-blowing visual effects, some wonderful musical numbers and a couple of outstanding performances belied the negativity surrounding the production.
The sheer beauty of the production; the scenes flow together seamlessly, the staging in many ways a wonder of modern theatre. The use of every single theatrical trick; magic, participation, puppetry, projections, aerial work – the list goes on – ensured that whilst the plot may feel slow or stale, there is always plenty to look at, especially in the big ‘production scenes’. In the third act interval, for which the audience stayed seated, Orcs prowl through the stalls and dress circle, scaring audience members half to death – including me when one jumped out of nowhere, behind my seat!
The special effects; the show was littered with them. Paul Kieve makes Bilbo Baggins vanish into thin air, centre stage, as he dons the ring for the first time, at his Eleventy-First birthday party – a truly breathtaking moment. The hobbit house is sparse but beautiful with a fire blazing upstage, lit by a fireball from the staff of Gandalf, a small but effective moment. The first sight of a Black Rider; a performer on stilts essentially riding an over-sized hobby horse, is a stark and brilliant one; the ensuing chase scene wonderfully executed. The first act finale is one of the most dramatic I have ever witnessed; the iconic “You shall not pass” standoff between Gandalf and the Balrog is simply unforgettable. The enormous Balrog puppet is a design triumph. The second act begins with Gollum – the actual actor, not a stunt double – climbing head first down the stunt curtain upstage; from the upper reaches of the theatre, this effect looked particularly stunning. The subsequent Lothlórien sequence is beautiful, themed in reds and golds; such effects and beauty are present throughout. Giant spider Shelob’s appearance is genuinely frightening and extremely memorable.
The music; one of the most common criticisms of LotRM was the music. Many, including much of the mainstream press, wanted more of it, and I have to agree. Whilst the producer and director were at pains to state LotrM is definitely not a ‘musical’, dispelling images of a dancing Gandalf and a chorus line of hairy footed hobbits, it seems that is what many audience members would’ve preferred;
In reality, the score is entirely suitable for the style of the piece and the pounding electro-orchestral sound works beautifully throughout. There are some out-and-out musical theatre numbers, but they are scarce; “The Cat and the Moon”, an all-singing, all-dancing folk-inspired song takes place at the aptly named Prancing Pony inn, and sees the hobbit companions dancing around what appeared to be wooden benches commonly seen in primary school halls. Despite being the cheesiest number of the evening (it comes about after the innkeeper states “How about a song? We haven’t had a song in these parts for years!”) it brought the house down each night. A R Rahman, Värttinä and Christopher Nightingale’s score is varied, interesting and beautiful in equal measure. The beautiful low-key second act reflective number “Now and For Always” sees Frodo and Sam reflecting on their journey, the land they left behind and, ultimately, their love for one another. The only issue I had with the score is that there is – on the soundtrack recording at least – only 44 minutes of content, including scoring for instrumental pieces and transitional scenes. This amounts to over 2 hours 15 minutes of painfully tedious, unscored dialogue. Despite using three composers from different backgrounds, LotRM simply needed a lot more material to be used in the show.
The book; the aforementioned failings with the book and overall direction of the piece are insurmountable and ultimately left the show doomed to fail. In attempting to include as much as possible, the attention is drawn to what is missing; Théoden/Denethor have been combined into one joint character, the Steward of Men; who serves little purpose, frankly. Éowyn is missing entirely, as is any mention of Rohan. But Helms Deep has been cut from the narrative entirely, thankfully. The scenes drag on forever and truly very few – if any – of the characters feel like living, breathing people.
The cast; some of the cast badly let down LotRM; maybe their hearts weren’t in it, or maybe they simply weren’t good enough for the job but either way, the result was disappointing – LotRM drew plenty of inappropriate laughter at the performances I attended – and not just from me!
The special effects; whilst the ones I mentioned above were mind-blowing, some were equally, memorably laughable. The video used to depict battle during the ‘Siege of the City of Kings’ sequence was embarrassing; the stunt actors faces were clearly visible throughout and, in one case, the actor in the video was a different ethnic group to the actor on stage, causing some confusion to those paying attention. The entire final sequence was underwhelming, Mount Doom was disappointing, essentially a trap door with dressing around it which Gollum appears to jump into of his own free will, followed immediately by a double falling from the ceiling to a backdrop of flames – supported by a very large and obvious looking support harness. We saw an unwelcome return of the classic ‘sword under the arm’ trick in the death of Boromir, something I never thought I’d see on stage again. Special criticism is reserved for ‘Sting’, the Orc-detecting blade, which shines blue when the enemy is nearby. The cheap plastic looking blade had four blue LED lights inside it, which were turned on by a switch on the handle by the actor. It looked cheap and nasty and begs the question; why spend a fortune on a fancy drape, when a sword which gets more direct audience attention looks like it was bought from the pound shop? I’ve seen replica lightsabres in Pound Stretcher look more impressive turned off.
With the show long since closed, the occasional rumour has surfaced from the internet or from the producers themselves, discussing a possible arena tour of America, Europe (with Germany mentioned specifically) and/or the Far East. Considering the show is rumoured to have closed at a £20m+ overall loss, including losses from the Toronto production, I think any future in the production looks unlikely.
Despite fan pressure and numerous online petitions, the producers have also been unwilling to discuss the possibility of releasing the production on DVD. The production was filmed on at least two occasions by full professional crews, but no release appears forthcoming, perhaps due to the huge financial losses incurred in the stage shows, it has been nigh-on impossible to secure a distributor.
LotrM proved a spectacular experiment which, sadly, got what it deserved. Not due to a lack of ambition or love, but a lack of overall direction and a book far too weak for the source material and scope of the project. It could be said LotRM‘s legacy lives on through another stage behemoth Spiderman: Turn off the Dark, which plays to sold out performances each night as of July 2012.
Warchus and his team have gone on to create Ghost: The Musical and the incredible Matilda in recent years.
– Harry Zing