With This Ring, They Thee Mock

A new production sends up Toronto’s disastrous ‘Lord of the Rings: The Musical’


by Jordan Timm

Hearing Kevin Wallace talk today, you’d never know he was the man behind the biggest flop in Toronto theatre history. As the London production of Lord of the Rings: The Musical opened to mixed reviews last week, the Brit responsible for the most expensive production ever mounted in the West End was trying to put a happy face on last year’s failed $27-million Canadian production — never mind that it was panned by critics, snubbed by audiences, lost money by the bucketload and closed only five months into what had been planned as a lengthy run.

But on July 4, Toronto audiences will get a reminder of Wallace’s expensive failure when a ragtag group of actors and amateurs in hobbit costumes pieced together at Value Village debuts Lord of the Rings: The Musical: The Musical! at the city’s fringe festival.

The work of two first-time playwrights, LOTR: TM: TM! is the “true(ish)” story of a sinister British producer — Wallace — desperate for a hit and a Toronto mayor — David Miller — desperate for tourist dollars in the wake of SARS. Against this familiar backdrop, romance buds between the producer’s wife, Tabitha, an aspiring actor, and Mark, a struggling writer who’s tabbed by the producer to turn J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus into a song-and-dance routine for the stage.

“I always thought that Lord of the Rings: The Musical was the worst idea I’d ever heard,” says actor and director Lorna Wright. Co-author Nicholas Hune-Brown agrees. “The city and province gave [the producers] $3 million, and they were all so eager for this epic musical about dancing hobbits. They thought this was going to save Toronto’s tourist industry. That idea is so funny to me.”

And LOTR: TM: TM! is funny, too. The musical’s 10 original songs include a duet sung by “Wallace” and “Miller” in which the producer dispels the mayor’s fears that the show will flop by promising him that The Nerds Will Come. If there’s something with Orcs in it / They’ll be at the debut, the Wallace character croons. They’ll camp out for opening night / That’s just what they do. Elsewhere, Mark slumps at his desk late into the night wondering What Rhymes With Frodo? and Tabitha laments her failing marriage, sighing that as soon as she slipped her producer husband’s wedding ring onto her finger, she — like the hobbits who used the magical One Ring — became Invisible.

The musical, whose creators and cast are all Torontonians, was born in part from a strong sense of offended civic(and national)pride. Mark argues with actors who dismiss Ontario’s capital as a backwater in Everybody Wants To Go To Broadway(I Say King Street’s Good Enough For Me) — poignant in the wake of the comments Wallace made when his show failed here last year, calling Toronto critics and audiences unsophisticated, even more so considering the line he’s selling in the U.K. that the £12.5-million London debut was LOTR: TM‘s “real” opening.

Co-writer Ben King is among those who resent the notion that Toronto somehow wasn’t good enough for Wallace’s epic. “This is your show — when it fails, don’t blame the city. That’s ridiculous. You don’t just turn on the city that’s been supporting you for months and that has given you every resource you could possibly desire.”

When the casting call for the satire went out on the Internet, King and Hune-Brown heard from at least one former member of the original LOTR: TM cast. Greg Armstrong-Morris, understudy for the actor playing Bilbo, wrote to say that if he’d been available, he’d have auditioned in a heartbeat. “It would have been so much fun,” Armstrong-Morris says. “And therapeutic.”

But it’s the fictional romance between Mark and Tabitha that’s really at the centre of LOTR: TM: TM!, and that’s what makes the play more than just a one-note joke about a theatrical flop, Wright says. She’s right. It’s through this archetypal love story, and through the show’s embrace of bright, traditional show-tune-style songs(in contrast to LOTR: TM‘s dreary and unhummable score), that this fringe production, with its $3,000 budget, makes its most subtle criticism of its bloated subject — that the megamusical was hollow where its heart should have been.

“I really like the fluffy musical comedies of the ’40s,” Hune-Brown says. “And really, if you take away all the meta-theatrical stuff, this is really an old-fashioned, Judy Garland-style, ‘let’s-put-on-a-show’ musical.” Complete with Orc costumes made of garbage bags and a papier mâché Eye of Sauron.