Bringing Lord of the Rings to the Stage

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The fate of the kingdom of Rohan is hanging by a thread as the evil Orcs swarm the mountain fortress of Helm’s Deep. Under blood-red clouds, Aragorn and his small band of men stand shoulder to shoulder against the invading hordes, who are hobbling around on freakish weapon/crutches. The elf warrior Legolas mounts a promontory to fire arrows at the Orc targets: FFWWOOSH, FFWWOOSH, FFWWOOSH!

The stage production of The Lord of the Rings is barreling through a rehearsal of its most complicated scene when the pounding martial music stops, the smoke machines fizzle out and the 40-ton moving stage whirs to a halt. "Joe, are you aware you didn’t die on arrow two?" choreographer Peter Darling asks one of the Orc actors, who today are dressed in t-shirts and track pants. “Your crutches have to whack up in the air.”

The preparation for a typical musical has its familiar anxieties: cutting a favorite song, replacing a dialogue scene, finding some extra business for the star. That’s nothing compared to the three-year ordeal of putting J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy on the Prince of Wales stage in Toronto. How to choreograph the great battles Tolkien described? To visualize the dozen realms in the great saga? To blend narrative, drama and music in a 3-1/2 hr. production, and do it all without retakes and post-production computer effects? Most daunting, how to satisfy the million of Tolkien fans whose image of Middle-Earth has been molded by many readings of the text, not to mention Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning film version?

At one point, Bilbo, the Hobbit whose accidental custodianship of the ring would lead to the War of Middle-Earth, plaintively asks, “Don’t adventures ever have an end?” For the producers of this stage extravaganza — TIME got an inside peek for a forthcoming story — the answer is: not this one, not yet. After the show's much-anticipated opening in Toronto on Thursday, they plan a London opening of LOTR a year from now, then Berlin or Hamburg. Contracts with the Canadian co-producers require that Toronto is to be the show’s only North American venue for 18 months, so Broadway will have to wait, probably until 2008.