The Ring Sings

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Fright Knight: A Black Rider seeks the ring

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And yet. A stage musical of LOTR? Good Lord, why? Well, for starters, because the original three-volume story was filled with music--more than 50 songs and poems that added levity and lyricism to the grand war ballad of its narrative. In 1967, Donald Swann, half of the comic-songwriting duo Flanders and Swann ("Madeira, m'dear"), released an album of musical settings to seven LOTR verses.

Another, more concrete reason to put LOTR on the stage: because it's such a formidable franchise. The books are among the most popular and beloved works in history. And although the first attempt at a Middle-earth movie, a 1978 animated version by Ralph Bakshi of the first half of the saga, flopped so resoundingly that the second half was never made, Peter Jackson did all right with his three installments, released in 2001-03. They are the all-time top-grossing movie trilogy (sorry, George Lucas), earning $2.9 billion at the worldwide box office.

Book, movie--fine. Yet you may still be thinking the idea of putting the story onstage is mad. If so, you aren't the first. "I thought it was foolish," says Warchus, 39. "It's such an earnest story, and people are so protective of it." Yet he signed on. He had built a tidy international reputation on a controversial Hamlet (with Simon Russell Beale) and with the stagings in several countries of Yasmina Reza's three-hander Art. He was a comer who hadn't yet arrived. He needed a huge challenge--the Nicholas Nickleby or Les Misérables that lifted director Trevor Nunn into the theatrical stratosphere. When he says the new endeavor is "a big, very visible, very expensive experiment," he sounds both wary and proud.

Saul Zaentz, 85, who produced the Bakshi film and owns the movie and performance rights to LOTR, approved the choice of Warchus because he was "young, active and still trying to make it to the next level." Zaentz also liked Howell, 39, who had the cybersavvy to bring new technology to this old story. "He's like a little kid with all the right tools," Zaentz says. "And it really is exciting when you see the things he's done."

Warchus has worked for 2 1/2 years on the script with McKenna, the veteran on the project. Known for his stage adaptations of Thérèse Raquin, Heidi and How Green Was My Valley, McKenna had been knocking out drafts of the Tolkien tale since 1999. Slowly, the fellowship of the Ring team came together, emboldened by the scope and audacity of the enterprise. But that solidarity didn't allay the creators' doubts, throughout rehearsals, about their quest and their sanity. "Every other day," Howell says, "one of us was wondering out loud, 'What. Are. We. Doing?' And that's good. It's very rare that you're asked to jump into completely uncharted waters."

As the boss, Wallace, 48, was taking the biggest jump. "If Lord of the Rings works, I have a company," he says starkly. "If Lord of the Rings doesn't work, I don't have a company." For Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group, he had supervised the international stagings of such hits as The Phantom of the Opera. By 2001 he was ready to make his own blockbuster. When he read McKenna's LOTR script, he saw the chance to produce a "curious mixed marriage of a mega, huge, spectacular epic event, with the use of language and text that required an audience to listen to it to absorb it." A thinking man's Cats.

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