The Sunday Salon: The Lord of the Rings — The Musical

Did you know that there’s a The Lord of the Rings musical? Because there totally is.

For some reason, though, the fact of its existence never sank in, even when a fellow high school thespian told me about how much he’d enjoyed the stagecraft of the production when he saw it in Toronto. But last year, whist browsing TheOneRing.Net’s forums, I found out the cast recording was available on Spotify, and I began to investigate the now-closed show in earnest.

Music and Tolkien walk hand in hand—the clip above is Tolkien reciting/singing (it’s very Rex Harrison) “Troll Sat Alone On His Seat Of Stone”, a poem Sam recites in The Lord of the Rings. The story is infused with music; even Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, which otherwise eschews the songs in the text, features hobbit drinking songs and Aragorn’s coronation song. (I think I have something in my heart, hold on…) There’s copious amounts of music inspired by the novel; to list a scant few, there’s Bob Catley’s heavy rock album Middle-EarthChris Thiles’ bluegrass “Riddles in the Dark“, Paul Corfield Godfrey’s copious operas based on Middle-Earth, and the four albums of The Tolkien Ensemble, which covers every song and poem in the canon. Music, we’ve got.

But a musical? There’s a reason George R. R. Martin fled television for prose—the budget. How do you stage Middle-Earth, let alone adapt the whole story into three hours? The Lord of the Rings musical tried to answer that with a budget of roughly thirty million American dollars in its first incarnation in Toronto, making it one of the most expensive productions ever mounted on stage; the London production cost a comparatively slim twenty-five million American dollars. It was heavily advertised as a spectacle, a la Cirque de Soleil, instead of a more traditional musical.

Lord of the Rings musical

During the Toronto production, Richard Corliss wrote an article for Time detailing the birth and birthing pains of the musical, “The Ring Sings“. We see the core creative team ignore the Jackson films, occasionally ponder if the project they’re taking on is just too big, and try to create something that’s very different from Broadway. Another contemporary article in The Guardian gives an interesting look backstage at the London production, where the production is shaken by the mixed critical response in Toronto. (Audience responses, however, appear to have been positive, or at least financially positive.) Between the two productions, there was much tinkering and rewriting, to the point that I’ve been finding it difficult to get information on the Toronto version. The cast recording released is London, of course, and an hour-long documentary about the show produced by National Geographic follows the London production.

As fascinating as the production process is, what about the production itself? Well, it’s kind of hard to judge a musical that closed five years ago solely off of the cast album and assorted press reels. Y’all know me—I’m a completionist. Without the libretto to read, I feel as if I can’t authoritatively get mad that Rohan appears to be cut entirely (although Corliss refers to Wormtongue being a character that gets cut) or speak to any other means of streamlining the story. But I do feel comfortable assessing the production design and the music on the basis of the press reels and the cast album.

Given how much Middle-Earth means to me and how deeply that’s rooted in Jackson’s particular slant on The Lord of the Rings, I really value different takes on the material—it not only features how universal the core story is, but also gives me a glimpse into how other people see the story. (Some people don’t focus on Eowyn. I must learn to be okay with this!) The Lord of the Rings musical gives us more rugged and Northern men, more ornate and ethereal elves, and more rustic hobbits. It’s as if as the story is pared down, these characteristics have to be played up to make up for a few lost threads. I don’t know how this fits into the production as a theatrical experience, but, in the press reel, the staging of Gollum’s fall into Mount Doom as contrasted against an almost angelic Galadriel reprising a bit of song is frankly astonishing.

As for the music, I’m not sure if I like how rustic the hobbits are played, especially in the comic “The Cat and the Moon”, a dance sequence that takes place at the Prancing Pony. And a lot of the more accessible songs tend to start strong but then overreach themselves, such as “Lothlórien”. Instead, it’s the incidental music that grabs my imagination. My favorite song in the musical barely qualifies as a song—before “Lothlórien”, there’s a minute of mood-setting music that perfectly captures the allure and possible danger of Lothlórien, which reflects the allure and possible danger of Galadriel, the elven queen atoning for her young sins. It sends shivers up my spine.

I’ve had a rough week—I’ve been getting sick and not getting as much work done as I need to. Still, I did fire off my application to Columbia’s publishing program and started my new gig as a First Reader at Strange Horizons, so progress is being made. As for reading… I didn’t make much headway this week, to my chagrin. Still, today is about throwing an Oscar party, so I’m going to focus on that, hmm?

This week’s links:

  • Mystery fans: a short little video on Ellery Queen, an influential mystery series being rereleased now by the Mysterious Press. The Mysterious Press folks sent me an e-mail to ask for a signal boost, so here it is.
  • Freakshow” is an article at Out about World of Wonder, the production company that brings us RuPaul’s Drag Race (otherwise known as the greatest reality television show ever made). It’s an interesting look at the production team’s championing of people on the fringe of society, as well as asking if their sympathetic shows are sanitizing queer culture.
  • Amy S. Choi at Feministing examines her knee-jerk reaction to the Reborn subculture, which focuses on creating, collecting, and nurturing incredibly lifelike baby dolls. I love stuff like this, because this is how you should be examining your reactions to things, and also because Choi asks the uncomfortable question of whether we devalue these women’s participation in this subculture because it’s focused on something gendered female in our society (childcare).
  • A history of movie theater food from Bon Appetit; I love food history.
  • As a nod to tonight’s Oscar ceremonies, a supercut of all the winners for Best Picture, via Slate. It’s an interesting look at film history, although, of course, it’s an incredibly specific film history.
  • And to continue with the Oscars, The New York Times examines the trailers of five of the Best Picture nominees to look at how trailers advertise their films.
  • BuzzFeed’s “25 Very ’90s ‘Disney Adventures’ Magazine Covers” is a nostalgia bomb. I particularly like Pierce Brosnan posing with Esmeralda, my favorite Disney heroine. (Favorite Disney princess? Probably Jasmine. It depends on the moment, though.)
  • The Weekly Sift’s “The Distress of the Privileged” is a fantastic examination of why the privileged feel put upon when the oppressed speak out, and why, while it should be recognized, it should not be an excuse to oppose progress. Referencing Pleasantville is just icing on the cake.

What do you make of The Lord of the Rings musical, or musical adaptations of books in general?

4 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: The Lord of the Rings — The Musical

  1. I actually saw the stage musical in London, and I enjoyed it a lot. In context, I wasn’t too bothered by leaving out Rohan (or indeed any of the many, many omissions they made). With so much material, they had to make cuts, and I would rather whole threads be abandoned than have them be rushed through or simplified to the point that they get characters outright wrong. What they ended up doing was making a decent adaptation of Fellowship, with enough material from TTT and ROTK to provide resolution. Focusing on one volume kept the pace from feeling too frenetic and gave them time to really milk some of the great sequences–the flight from the Ringwraiths and the Balrog were especially amazing. The Balrog was basically dramatic lighting and a wind machine, but the wind was pointed at the audience, so you end up being left completely breathless. It was pretty cool! I’m sure I had some quibbles at bits and pieces of it, but years later, it’s mostly the impressive stuff that stuck with me.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience! After watching the documentary and everything they had to go through to make those sequences work every night, night after night, it’s really amazing what they were able to execute.

  2. I guess I’m a bit late in seeing this post (though I’ve been following your blog for a while), but I saw the Toronto version of the LOTR musical, shortly before it closed.

    First disclaimer: I was still quite young. Second disclaimer: I was up in the balconies, so effects like the wind of the balrog were somewhat lost or distant. HOWEVER

    …there were certain aspects of the production that were wonderful, moving, and impressive. The moving stage was great, especially in battle scenes when it was sinking and rising and twisting while the orcs were swarming and leaping all over it. The orcs themselves were loads of fun.

    And the music! I can understand your reservations about parts of it, but I took it as a valid interpretation, very different from Shore’s version, but haunting and wild. It was doubly exciting for me as I was already a fan of Varttina, the Finnish group who co-wrote with A.R. Rahman.

    Teresa’s comment is an interesting take on the adaptation of the story. I think I agree. Though the balance of the story was very different because of the relative strengths of the actors: Gandalf was actually very weakly played, but Aragorn shone all the more brightly, in a sense, to take his place.

    Michael Therriault’s Gollum was, besides the music, the best thing about the show. I believe he HAD seen Andy Serkis’ version, loved it, and purposely went in a different direction. He said in an interview that he spent a long time just ‘inhabiting’ Gollum’s mind, without trying to define a voice for him. And he began to feel more and more like a drug addict. And finally, the voice just came… And it worked.

    Thank you for all your enjoyable reviews of Things! (And especially for writing the most balanced review of “The Hobbit: AUJ” that I read anywhere. I found myself agreeing with nearly every point.) Good luck with your upcoming Future Career!

    Excuse my A.A. Milne capitalization of Important Words.

    • You’re not late! The Internet exists in the present tense. It’s brilliant like that. Thanks for sharing your impressions—live theater is such a rewarding medium, but it’s frustrating if you’re out of the way of some of these productions!

      Thank you so much, Samuel! I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. And your capitalization is more than welcome in this neck of the woods.

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