Come and Meet Those Dancing (Hairy) Feet: Baggins on Stage!
TORONTO --- When the stage version of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings opens here in February, the show will feature about 18 original songs, a cast of 55 performers and literally 12 million investors.
That's because in an act of unprecedented governmental showmanship, Ontario's officials, on behalf of its 12 million or so constituents, have signed on as investors for the production, which is expected to be one of the most expensive such shows ever. Taking on a role traditionally played by impresarios, idealists and assorted other theatrical gamblers, the provincial government will contribute some $2.5 million of the show's $23 million budget, staking it all on the idea that the project's global appeal will justify a unique, albeit risky, public-private partnership.
"We've never done anything like this," says Sandra McInnis, President and CEO of the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation, which is the province's tourism agency. "But this is one of the largest productions ever to come to Toronto, and we've got a vested interest in seeing to it that it's successful."
They're not the only Canadians putting their money into the Rings. Tourism Toronto, a private convention and tourism group principally financed by the city's hoteliers, has contributed an additional $2.5 million to help market the show in such places as Japan, Germany and Great Britain. Air Canada has donated over a million bucks worth of airline tickets to help the creative team -- whose principals include a British director, Matthew Warchus; an Indian composer, A.R. Rahman; and a hot Finnish folk band called Varttina --- commute back and forth to Toronto. The Canadian Actors' Equity Association has also lengthened its own standard contract to allow the producers a better chance to recoup their investment.
Their hope is that The Lord of the Rings, having already been adapted into a successful motion picture trilogy, will draw tens of thousands of tourists here --- and ONLY here --- to see the production. Indeed, a critical part of the deal struck between the executive producer, Kevin Wallace, and the Ontario government gives Toronto an exclusive run of The Lord of the Rings in North America from its opening in March right up to the summer of 2007. Mr. Wallace also explained that the production's second company is expected to head for London, meaning that no Broadway, New York City opening is likely before 2008.
"Our estimation is that a 36-week run could bring in close to $40 million Canadian," says Bruce MacMillan, President and CEO of Tourism Toronto, which calculated monies spent on hotels, restaurants and taxes before making their decison to invest. "Everything's a risk, but we did our due diligence."
Subsidies for art are nothing new, of course, and Toronto in particular has long been aggressive about luring U.S.-based film companies by offering tax breaks. But in general most direct government artistic support --- on either side of the border --- is given to non-profit companies; The Lord of the Rings, by contrast, is a commercial enterprise.
Among the other significant investors in the project include its presenter, Saul Zaentz, the Berkeley, CA-based filmmaker whose Tolkien Enterprises division controls the stage and film rights to the Baggins legends; and the father-and-son team of Ed and David Mirvish, which own the historic Princess of Wales Theatre in downtown Toronto, where The Lord of the Rings will be performed.
Mr. Wallace, however, said that the involvement of the Ontario government was central to getting the project off the ground, as it cut the amount of money that he needed to raise.
Thus far, advance sales for The Lord of the Rings, which began rehearsals just last week, are nearing $8.5 million --- a respectable take for a new musical --- and much of those sales are coming from international groups, most notably American theatregoers who refuse to wait for about 2 or more years for a Broadway version, according to Mr. Wallace. In May, Ms. McInnis' office paid for a print advertising campaign designed to woo potential ticket-buyers in Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland and Rochester --- all of them within striking distance of Toronto.
"They're all within a stone's throw of the U.S.," said Mr. Wallace. "If we do a really good job, the word will go out to every major market" in the U.S. Not that they haven't already heard of the title. The Lord of the Rings, first published in Britain during 1954 and 1955, is one of the most successful three-part books ever, with over 100 million copies sold worldwide. An epic adventure set in a time "when this ancient Planet was not quite so ancient, long before Man recorded his history," the tale involves Men, Elves, Dwarves, Wizards, Orcs, Dragons --- and, of course, Hobbits, those small, hairy-footed homebodies --- as they battle the evil desires of the Dark Lord Sauron, in the hope of destroying the all-powerful One Ring, the three books were all translated into three phenomenally successful movies, under the direction of Peter Jackson. Released by New Line Cinema in 2001, 2002, and 2003, the Trilogy brought in almost $3 billion in gross revenues worldwide, and collected a mammoth 17 Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture for the final chapter, The Return of the King.
The stage version's $23 million budget would make it more expensive than any other Broadway show ever. The Lion King, by contrast, cost Disney some $20 million.
Like Las Vegas, which has imported several major Broadway shows in recent years, from Avenue Q to Mamma Mia!, Toronto seems to be angling for tourists with a taste for theater, a demographic that it hopes will also sample other of the city's cultural outposts, notably the Royal Ontario Museum.
"We'd like to be #2 behind New York," explained Bill Allen, Deputy Minister of Tourism for the Province of Ontario. "Frankly, we lost quite a lot of our place in the theater scene, and we see Lord of the Rings as a way to get it back." (The province's monies, technically a loan, would be repaid bigtime if the show makes its investments back.)
Indeed, as Mr. Allen suggests, Toronto, Canada's largest city, was considered a robust theatrical outpost for much of the 1990's, with such high-profile productions as Ragtime, Show Boat, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, all of which eventually made it to Broadway. But all three shows were supervised by Garth H. Drabinsky, a Toronto-based impresario whose production company, Livent, collapsed after certain accounting irregularities were discovered in 1998.
Since then, Toronto has mainly been known as a reliable yet creatively unremarkable showplace for touring Broadway shows. Needless to say, Lord of the Rings is aiming far, far higher. Press materials circulated for the show advertise it as being "the biggest and most ambitious theatrical production ever staged," promising that the 3 1/2-hour event will begin before the curtain rises --- the idea being that those actors who are cast as Hobbits are to prowl the aisles even as the audience enters the theater. A promotional DVD depicts some of the elaborate puppets used to represent the villianous Black Riders, as well as offers short samples of the songs written by its composing team.
The first reports on the show, which has been in the planning stages since 2003, conjured up images of Hobbits singing and dancing their way through show tunes --- an impression that Mr. Wallace has been ardently trying to correct. "It's all in tune with the books," he said of the show's overall tone. "This show has the gravitas of Tolkien."
Mr. Warchus, meanwhile, imagined the show as having a "mix of Shakespearean history play, the magic of Midsummer Night's Dream, and Cirque du Soleil," Quebec's immortal circus troupe.
"From the very beginning, we've said we're not gonna try to do anything the way the movies did it. The battle scenes, for example, will be much shorter on stage. I think that our finest hour will be in terms of the emotional territory," Mr. Warchus continued.
Originally, the show was to have been staged in London's West End; a lack of an appropriate theater, however, forced Mr. Wallace to think outside Great Britain. Among the first people he called up was David Mirvish, whose family controls two additional Toronto theatres. Initially, David was skeptical. "I thought it was undoable," he said, citing the scope of the books' and the films' emphasis on the battle scenes. "I had planned on politely saying no, and accordingly sent a representative to London to do just that. But then, he came back and said, 'I wanna play you something.' And the minute I heard the music, I knew exactly where I was in the story."
David Mirvish sold governmental leaders on the Rings show last fall. "The entire reason that the government bought in has to do with the reputation of the Mirvishes," Mr. Allen recalled. While 8 out of every 10 Broadway shows fail to earn back their money, Toronto tourism officials argued that the cost of not investing might be higher. "We realized in the last couple of years," Mr. Allen said, "that if you don't have new and exciting things to do, people will go someplace else. They want an experience that they can't find anywhere else."
Well, here's how your humble Dragonmaster sees this:
As I monitor the progress of The Lord of the Rings: Live on Stage, it becomes more and more apparent that here is a musical that will not only break the rules -- it will rewrite the rules as well. I am not the only one, I think, who will get hip to this. The Tony Awards Nominating Committee will undoubtedly figure this out as well, and when they do, mark my words, expect considerable debate among Broadway insiders as to whether or not this show will become the first stage musical not produced entirely in the U.S. to nail the BestMusical Tony.
Were that to happen, The Lord of the Rings would have the unprecedented distinction of boasting, amongst its many honors, two of the most powerful awards in all of entertainment --- which would also make it the ONLY sci-fi/fantasy franchise to be so honored. The final road to that milestone, however, rests with YOU. Your verdict shall be rendered this February. Pray, Lords and Ladies: make it a good one!
Such is the wisdom of Blackwolf the Dragonmaster, Duke of Talisker!