Long ago when I had first heard of plans to make LOTR into a musical, it scared me. Howard Shore had just done such an amazing job with the film scores, and now someone was going to make it all sound like Broadway? Please don’t…. Then as time went on and the production was to be in Toronto (half an hour from where I live), there began to be articles in the papers, interviews with the director – I read them and I began to feel less afraid that someone was going to ruin my favourite story. I liked that they wanted it to be very different from the films (which I love but which are a different medium, and trying to copy them would NOT work) – a real theatre experience, focusing on the heart of the story. Also the ethnic flavour of the composers (A.R. Rahman from India and the group Varttina from Finland) seemed promising in that the result was unlikely to be typical Broadway OR a Shore derivative.
I knew I had to see and hear this for myself. So I got tickets as soon as they came on sale. They were saying then that it would open on February 2nd, and no one was calling the performances before March 23rd “previews” then. My two daughters and I got tickets for February 5th because we wanted to go to a Sunday matinee. Needless to say, when the Feb. 2nd and 3rd performances were “postponed”, we were grateful that ours wasn’t. After reading that yesterday’s first performance took 4 ˝ hours because of some “technical difficulties”, we were ready to spend most of the day at the theatre. (Now -- did that include the two intermissions of about 20 minutes each?)
We settled into our red velvet seats at the back of the balcony (but with an excellent view, nonetheless) and looked out at the stage. There was a large golden “ring” suspended in the centre, a circular “window” (or should that be hobbit door?) through which we were about to see many things. The inside was in darkness. Raying out from it were interweaving branches, of the kind now so familiar from the advertising logo of this production. They continued out past the edges of the stage as if into the audience – at least past the first two pillars at the sides of the theatre. The branches were lit with green, orange, and brown lights -- you felt like you were part of Middle Earth.
The show began about 1:10 p.m. There were two intermissions, the first occurring after the Balrog from 2:30 to about 2:50, the second after the Paths of the Dead from 4:10 to about 4:30. The performance ended about 5:20 p.m.
It was wonderful. I loved it. And I was so HAPPY that it was wonderful. I had been hoping it would be wonderful! It was different from the beloved films. In some ways it was closer to the beloved books – and every time there was a detail or a phrase that WAS included from the books that had NOT been in the films, it was such a delight to see it and hear it. It was done with imagination, creativity, professionalism, flair, beauty, and most of all, love. You could tell. And that’s what made it wonderful.
(There will be some spoilers in what follows. I am assuming the story is not a secret, but if you don’t want to know ahead of time which parts of the book are included or how some of them are staged, don’t read on. I don’t want to give away everything, but I’d like to talk about some of it.)
At the beginning there was a narrator who gave some background about the history of the ring – and in the circular “frame” you could see silhouettes of Bilbo and Gollum at the end of their “riddles in the dark”. This moved on to a set of Bag End – open and airy and “branch-like”, adorned by a few roses, but having a very solid round green wooden door with the doorknob exactly in the middle.
A word about the stage. There was a revolving stage which had 17 independently movable segments. The central piece was circular, and around it the others were arranged in a double circle, with 8 segments in each circle, having irregular and often curved shapes. These could be easily moved up and down in various configurations, and the whole stage could also revolve. This was really effective and provided a lot of variety in the staging. (This same theatre had been used for the production of The Lion King in past years.)
The setting was often created by the use of light – quite often dappled light, in various colour combinations or shifting colours. Shadows were also used to great effect – for example Isengard had a stunning “black and white” look as white light cast the shadows of all the interweaving branches on the floor.
The lighting was marvelous – from lights streaming onto the stage to lights streaming FROM the stage into the audience. Spotlights were also used beautifully. As Saruman captured Gandalf, the spotlight on Gandalf became narrower and narrower. At the Council of Elrond, an orange light spread from the centre to become a large circle, almost giving the appearance of a round table, around which the participants gathered. And when Frodo placed the ring into the centre, there was a very tight spotlight right on it. At the same time, there were hooded elves standing around the council, holding burning torches – so the dancing firelight was added to the other lighting of the scene.
During Helm’s Deep, the Paths of the Dead, and the final battle, strobe lights were used. Yes, there was a warning about it on the doors into the theatre before you went in. Of course there were numerous opportunities for mist and fog and smoke – eerily blending with the light effects.
The “traveling scenery”, which was needed often as this story is so much about a journey, was often done with the changing stage levels and lighting. At other times it was done with people dressed in grey and holding long sticks or branches (again illuminated by coloured light), moving around in quite intricate choreography. The hobbits, or the Fellowship, then wove their way through this changing “landscape” – it was a great effect.
One of the most magical scenes to me was Lothlorien. After a golden ladder descended from above and the Fellowship (all authentically blindfolded in solidarity with Gimli) began to climb it, it also began to descend into what was now the circular opening in the middle of the stage – so you saw them continuously climbing and then arriving at the top of the Mallorn tree. The golden branches were at first hanging down as willow branches might, then expanded out to form a golden dome over the entire stage – a magnificent setting for Galadriel. At the end they again folded, almost like the gentle gesture of hands being folded in prayer. It was beautiful.
Large swathes of silk were used to depict the Misty Mountains, and silk was also very evocative during the flood at the Ford of Bruinen. The costumes were great – from Arwen’s shining silver gown when she appears in a vision to King Elessar’s golden armour at his coronation. It took me a while to sort out that Merry had the red vest (and the impressively strong voice) while Pippin had the green vest… Frodo’s and Sam’s were brown, as far as I remember. Strider wore a long brown leather coat. Very Striderish. (Aragorn also wore this coat at Helm’s Deep, which may not have been quite as safe, but he survived. He wore it until his coronation.)
There was a strong dance element in the production, for example a dance with many folk elements at the Inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree. It was a lot of fun, and had good acrobatics in it as well – dive rolls, roundoff-back saltos, front saltos, aerial cartwheels (as well as cartwheels done over the inn’s benches)….
As with many of the animals in the Lion King production, stilts were used in amazing ways – not only for the Ents and the fiery red bird-like Witch King, but especially for the ringwraiths riding horses (the stilts became the front legs of the horse, and the movement was very lifelike). Shelob also moved in an absolutely convincing way, and I had no problem suspending my disbelief even though there were people on stage moving her various legs – but in such an oh, so spidery fashion! At times the orcs also had short “arm” stilts or even skate - type “springy” contraptions (sorry I don’t know what they’re called) attached to their feet which allowed them to bounce as if on a springboard when they were tumbling.
I was delighted with how much Elvish was spoken in this story. When Galadriel first greeted the Fellowship, she spoke to Aragorn in Elvish (and called him “Elessar” – the rest of my Elvish wasn’t up to translating any more!) Then she said that they needed to continue “in the common tongue” so that his friends could also understand. And when Aragorn was given Anduril, he sang mostly in Elvish.
As I said, I loved the inclusion of things from the book which didn’t make it into the movies. Yes, it IS possible for Gimli to be given a golden hair, and Sam a box of earth “from Galadriel’s orchard”. It’s even possible to have the Scouring of the Shire (yeah!!!) And Treebeard does at least mention that he is going to visit Tom Bombadill, even if we don’t get to see him.
I loved Arwen saying to Elrond, “Death once was called the GIFT of men – not to be bound forever to the circles of this world.” And right after the Rivendell scene it was the hobbits as they walked who were discussing what Arwen’s choice of giving up immortality meant. Sam’s temptation when he had the ring in Mordor was there, as were the comments about the lone star in the sky, and the light behind the darkness – some very beautiful dialogue. Also Gandalf saying to Frodo just before Frodo returns to the Shire – “You don’t need me now. You are grown, indeed, very high.”
Putting 1000 pages of writing into one afternoon’s production does require that some things be left out, obviously. And that some things be telescoped. Bree turned seamlessly into Weathertop, the Battle of Pelennor Fields into the Battle at the Black Gate, and the Witch King kind of into the Mouth of Sauron….
There were some other changes (and forgive me if I’ve forgotten exactly what happens in the book in these moments – my film experience is much clearer in my mind than my reading experience). Aragorn told Boromir about his identity during Boromir’s death scene. It worked for me. Aragorn also told Theoden about his identity, and showed him Narsil, during the scene at Edoras which in the film became the casting out of Saruman. This also worked well. Gandalf was not there during this scene. Gandalf the White didn’t appear until there was dire need for him to do so at Helm’s Deep!
The goodbyes at the Grey Havens seemed less sad than in the films, except for the one with Sam. “I thought we’d be doing it together,” Sam said. “So did I, once,” replied Frodo… And then the travelers walked into the pale blue light at the back of the stage, and the narrator talked about the white shores and the far green country.
Now a word about the characters. Legolas (played by Gabriel Burrafato) was somewhat older than Orlando Bloom (sorry girls). He also had dark hair. But he could shoot those arrows well, and otherwise he was what we might expect.
Arwen was lovely, just what I had imagined from the books. She had very long dark hair, which in the coronation/wedding scene was partly braided. Her wedding dress was white as she said to Aragorn, “I will live and die by your side.” She was played by Carly Street who has done a lot of Shakespeare.
Gandalf (played by Brent Carver) was a gentler Gandalf than I expected. Except for scenes like the fight with the Balrog – there he could certainly hold his own. I think I would have liked a fuller beard, covering more of his face.
Richard McMillan as Saruman was strong and nasty. He played Scar in The Lion King.
James Loye was very good as Frodo. Just the right mixture of seriousness and humour, much like Elijah Wood. The other hobbits were also good.
Michael Therrieault as Gollum was great. He MOVED with such convincing gestures, intensity, and pain. He SPOKE with emotion as well as distortion in his voice. His Gollum was clearly informed by, but NOT a copy of, Andy Serkis’s Gollum. It was nice to see his own interpretation of this tortured character, including the argument between his two personalities.
I was somewhat surprised at the deep mezzo-soprano voices of both Galadriel (Rebecca Jackson Mendoza) and Eowyn (Ayrin Mackie). I think I was expecting more of a soprano quality, probably imagining the speaking voices of Cate Blanchett and Miranda Otto. Eowyn didn’t really have a very big role here. She was there at some key moments, she did want to fight and was told by Theoden she shouldn’t, she did kill the Witch King and mourn Theoden. She did have the speech about fearing a cage (effectively paraphrased to say she feared to be “a woman behind bars…”) But there was no Faramir in this story, and we actually didn’t find out that she loved Aragorn….
I was concerned about Aragorn, because for me Aragorn is Viggo Mortensen. The actor here was Evan Buliung, who has played many roles at the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival (and who apparently started by playing Dwalin the Dwarf in a highschool production of the Hobbit!) He brought an intensity and an authentic nobility to the role. The hair looked right, the voice was somewhat husky and very intense, the sword fighting was convincing, and the gestures and acting were sincere.
Now something about the music. Some of it is very simple, but simple in a good way. Often it’s the hobbits who come up with the folk-like, “hummable” tunes. Some of the other solo singing is very florid, with long sinuous lines – Galadriel singing about Lothlorien, or a lullaby to the sleeping Fellowship – Arwen singing to Frodo in Rivendell (in Elvish and then English), or to Aragorn (both in real life and in a vision), Eowyn’s lament at Theoden’s death (somewhat reminiscent of Miranda Otto’s chant at Theodred’s funeral). Often there is background singing, and often women’s voices, while something else is going on onstage. When Frodo offers at the Council of Elrond to take the ring to Mordor, the background voice is very intense, almost wailing. Gimli later sings about the glories of the past in Moria (ok, one of my very favourite bits of Howard Shore comes from that scene, but this was pretty nice too!) Gollum’s “song” has good dissonance in it.
Sam’s speech about the old stories, and about finding themselves in one, is a song. “Sing me a story of heroes of the Shire”, I believe it says. When they come to verse 2, Sam sings “Sing me a story of Frodo and the Ring”. They sing in very nice two-voice harmony, and they keep giggling because actually being IN the story seems so funny to them. It’s really sweet. Then Sam falls asleep, and Frodo sings about Samwise the Brave… a very touching way of structuring the song. The songs later returns after the “Mouth of Sauron” scene, and this time the accompaniment is in a different key from the melody – an evocative distortion of Frodo’s heroic actions, and a yearning for him.
One of my favourite musical passages was after Gandalf tells Aragorn to take the Paths of the Dead. Gandalf then sings briefly to Aragorn, and then you hear Arwen singing to Aragorn, and then she comes to him and they sing together. He is given Anduril, to the sound of an appropriately triumphant harmonic progression, and Arwen sings to him something about “find the hidden paths, alone and unafraid” , finishing with “return, my love – return, my heart – return”. (I hope I have the words right – one day I’ll know for sure.) The music leading up to the coronation had a fine quality of triumph and celebration – orchestra, with lots of brass. At the Grey Havens the voices singing in the background had chords interspersed with rests, which was very evocative.
There was nearly continuous music much of the time, expressive atmospheric music which often built up greatly in intensity and supported the action well. I found myself wondering which of it came from A.R. Rahman, which from Varttina, and which from Christopher Nightingale, who integrated it all together. But as he said in his program note, that’s probably not the best way to look at it. “In the finished score, I hope there will be no song you can point to and say, ‘that’s by A.R. Rahman,’ or ‘that’s by Varttina’. You may hear a melody originally written by Rahman, but to which Varttina has applied its own, unique interpretation, and vice-versa…. Everything has grown together, building a whole and complete new world”.
Altogether it was a wonderful experience to see and hear this, and I hope it won’t be the last time. For any of you who have an opportunity to go and see this, go. You won’t be disappointed.