After Toronto, team prepping U.K. revamp

“We wouldn’t be here if the Toronto experience wasn’t positive enough.” So said Brit director Matthew Warchus at the London press launch for the mega-musical “The Lord of the Rings,” which begins previews May 9 at the Theater Royal Drury Lane.

That’s a defensive approach, given that Warchus is helming a show the industry regarded as a monumental flop — it cost C$30 million ($27 million) and closed after only six months at an undisclosed loss.

Yet the phrase from the press conference that flew around the world was Warchus’ apology to author J.R.R. Tolkien.

“I visited his grave a few months ago to kind of apologize and get his seal of approval,” Warchus told press. “It was a magical moment. I apologized just in case he didn’t like the idea of his novel becoming a stage show.”

Two months later, producer Kevin Wallace is determined to set the record straight on the “apology.”

“Some purists say you should never do ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as a musical,” he says. “But Matthew hasn’t given up four years of his life to make something he feels sorry for. I believe he was saying to Tolkien, ‘I’m sorry if you don’t like the idea, but if you could see it, you’d like it.’ “

Beneath the watchful eye of producer Saul Zaentz, who holds the Tolkien screen and stage rights, Wallace is the show’s hands-on exec producer.

Formerly an actor, Wallace became a producer working for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group. His track record encompasses hits — a successful U.K. tour of the “Jesus Christ Superstar” revival — and misses, including the musical “Eurovision,” which Wallace transferred from modest fringe success to West End failure.

However, “Lord of the Rings” is a transfer on a more seismic scale. Wallace has raised British, European and American money to the tune of £12.5 million ($25 million). That covers 50 actors, a band of 19, more than 70 backstage crew and all financial reserves. The break-even point in the 2,167-seat house is 51%. If the show plays to 100%, with school and group rates included, it will recoup in 40 weeks. At 75%that projection becomes 77 weeks.

Like all London producers, Wallace is tight-lipped about his advance. He does, however, observe that his show is not up there with the record-breaking advances of “Dirty Dancing” and “The Sound of Music” –well-loved titles that each hit $25 million prior to opening. But he says “Lord of the Rings” sales are similar to those of “Wicked” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot” prior to previews. That suggests a figure in the $6 million-$8 million region.

Despite the lukewarm Toronto reception, Wallace is bullish. He cites two interlinked reasons for previous failure — not a word he countenances.

“The show got a reputation as being long, which it never got over,” he argues. The production took out full-page ads in Toronto to announce that within weeks of its March 23 opening, the running time was down from 3 hours, 45 minutes to 3 hours, 26. Following extensive rewrites, principally of the second and third acts, Wallace promises the London version will come in at under three hours.

The timing problem was compounded by reviews. Only one of the four Toronto critics was positive, while New York-based reviewers were decidedly cool and U.K. critics gave seriously mixed opinions.

Yet some blockbusters — “Les Miserables” in London, “Wicked” on Broadway — have ridden out critical drubbings. Wallace maintains this show was different because the bad reviews were heavily reported by the media, amplified by the expectation that the much-feted production might help turn around the local tourist industry.

“It was more than a show,” he suggests. “I think the burden of the title and the burden of expectation was so great that the level of deflation after the reviews was wounding.”

To avoid similarly high expectations, Wallace and advertising-marketing firm Dewynters have thus far run a temperate campaign that has only just moved into high-gear visibility.

In Toronto, because of skepticism surrounding “Lord of the Rings” as a musical, Wallace and the creative team did the lion’s share of media interviews. That strategy has changed in London.

“I have been accused of being evangelical,” says Wallace. “I know I could set the production up for a fall, so I decided to take myself out of the picture. It is being marketed more like a movie so that the people you’ll see in the interview are the people you are going to see onstage.”

The aim is “to personalize it.” The initial logo-led campaign will give way to faces of the actors in character to emphasize the idea of human beings onstage telling a story. Small images of characters will be placed across newspaper pages rather than blasting out full-page ads. The show’s Website features an irreverent blog, which is also the basis for a viral campaign including downloads to popular 02 mobile phone network subscribers.

The aim is to turn around the perception of the show.

The London version, Wallace argues, is now a piece of musical theater with text, rather than a play with music. His pitch to group bookers is that if they’ve seen “The Lion King” and “Wicked,” the next big blockbuster entertainment will be “The Lord of the Rings.”

According to the producer, “swathes” of material have been excised, shortening the show by almost 25 minutes. There’s one intermission plus a short break before the 37-minute third act.

The story is now more firmly focused on the Hobbits, while Galadriel (Laura Michelle Kelly) is now a presence throughout the third act, which in Toronto was predominantly text-driven. “That act is now almost entirely musicalized,” says Wallace. “That’s a fundamental change.”

Overall, the object has been to make the musical epic more appealing by being lighter, less dense. “Minutiae of historical detail has gone, but you still have the whole of the magical, fantastical world,” offers the producer. “That’s what’s driving the story.”

Wallace isn’t yet fully entertaining concrete plans for further territories. He’s focusing on his uncommonly lengthy six-week preview period — thought to be a London record.

“We’re making sure we get good houses for the previews and that we hit the ground running so that audiences will come out saying that was a great show and you’ve got to go,” he says. “I don’t want those first weeks of ‘will it work or won’t it?’ After Toronto, we can’t afford that.”

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