I wouldn’t want to have the job of adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord Of The Rings as a stage musical. Talk about trying to fit a quart into a pint pot: that would be more like trying to fit ten gallons into a thimble. But someone’s gone and done it, haven’t they? Some things should be left well alone where musicals are concerned and The Lord Of The Rings (LOTR) is one of them.
You’ve probably guessed by now that I went to see this show recently. As I was thinking about how to start this piece off I thought I’d shoehorn Directing LOTR: The Musical into a longer list of jobs I wouldn’t want to have. An easy enough task, you’d think: to come up with a list of jobs you wouldn’t want to have. I must’ve thought of hundreds in my time, but on this occasion I immediately came up with one, and that then just stuck and refused to leave my mind free to expand the list further. The job in question was Nurse/Orderly That Does The LipoSucking. I don’t know why this came to mind but as I started to think about jobs I would find repugnant I got this image of some obese Fat Cat lying on a slab, having their beer gut sucked out through a clear plastic tube inserted through a small incision in their ample abdomen. Imagine having to be the one holding that tube and monitoring the pink sludge along its journey from gullet to bucket. There can’t be a worse job than that, can there? Anyway, this image just stuck in my head and prevented me from compiling a list of Jobs-I’d-Hate-To-Have, so I had no comedy receptacle for “Directing-LOTR: The Musical”, so I gave up on the idea. But I still had to get the Liposuction image off my chest. What a mess.
But I digress. This must be nothing more than a cynical attempt to cash in on the phenomenal success of Peter Jackson’s LOTR films, which in turn reignited mass interest in the books. I can’t think of any other reason why anyone would want to turn it into a musical. An epic of such massive proportions should surely be at the bottom of your list of candidates for adaptation. Still, it exists now so we have to deal with it.
First impressions were good. Two things jumped out at me as I walked into the stalls. First, the safety curtain was a thick web of intertwined branches with a huge gold ring in the middle, and the impressive bit was that this web of branches didn’t stop when the curtain did. It grew outward, covering the ceiling in front of the stage and several boxes to each side, giving the impression of a wild overgrown forest threatening to swallow the theatre whole. Very original. The second thing that jumped out at me was a hobbit. There were about twenty hobbits milling about, both on stage and in the stalls as the audience filed in to take their seats. They were sitting, chatting, dancing, and catching fireflies in large nets. A female hobbit bobbed up and down the aisles bearing a tray of oranges, while a boy hobbit walked up and down on the backs of the seats. It felt like we’d taken a wrong turn and stumbled into The Shire. I got a warm fuzzy feeling from this overture, but it quickly dissipated when the curtain went up, and it all started to go downhill from there.
LOTR is just so big, so spectacular, so mammoth, so complex that the only choice open to the Director was to do a kind of edited highlights. The Fellowship Of The Ring enacted the flight from the mines of Moria while pursued by hordes of murderous Orcs by running around the stage twice, and the great battles of Helm’s Deep and the Siege of Minas Tirith were both covered off by a five minute choreographed skirmish between our nine heroes and about a dozen Orcs. The Black Riders were quite menacing, and that hell-beast the Baurog was inventively conjured, but there’s only so much that can be achieved with dry ice, a wind machine and some red lighting. The director needed more oomph, more special effects were clearly called for, and he found his apparent lifeline in the Drury Lane theatre’s hydraulic stage. I can only guess at the industrial labyrinth of hydraulic cylinders, pipework and wiring that must form the nervous system of this amazing stage, let alone the complex computer system that controls it. The Theatre Royal’s stage can revolve — both in whole and in part — and can raised and lowered in hundreds of jigsaw-like pieces. What a gift this must have seemed to the LOTR’s director. The first time I noticed it revolving I sat up and thought, “Ooh, the stage is revolving. That’s cool!”. Then the first time I saw pieces of it lift the actors high into the air as it formed a rocky mountainside before my eyes I thought, “Now that’s impressive!” But you can have too much of a good thing, and the novelty wore off after about ten minutes. An hour later and the show was starting to look more like an infomercial for Magical Stages Inc. with a few fantasy characters sprinkled around to emphasise scale.
I didn’t hate the show. Parts of it were very enjoyable, particularly the hobbits at the start and the dance number in The Prancing Pony. But it was always a desperate idea for a musical and it showed in most other areas. If I’d had the director’s job I’d have left out all the epic battles and Mordor stuff and just invented a story about hobbits. Boy hobbit meets girl hobbit beneath a starry sky. That sort of thing. Something a Musical Director can really get his teeth into without cheapening a masterpiece of 20th century literature.