“ This is probably the most expensive musical ever made and most dramatic…I think.
The music was different…very different ! Who was it? ”
– Overheard just outside the Princess of Wales Theater, Toronto, Canada on Mar 25, 2006 at about 11:30 PM.
If you stepped right outside the theater that night, on to King Street, you would have noticed that the drafty drizzle and the frisky breeze didn’t dampen the spirits a bit, of the Saturday night revelers. It was a warm night for the season. As the sassy theater goers walked out of the hall one by one, the cab drivers had a merciful night. My wife and I were caught in the cab-catching melee and that’s when we started eavesdropping.
Two thousand in all – that’s the capacity of the theater and I cannot possibly remember seeing a single vacant seat, using my sectional vision that night. I am not a theater critic nor is my wife, but when it came to being spellbound that night, we certainly were… in the midst of a largely amused crowd. When the doors open at 7:00 PM for the 7:30 PM show, you hardly expect any action on stage for the next 30 minutes. But it felt like we had stepped into the Middle-earth (albeit in our hulking twenty first century attires), once we started walking in the auditorium. There were a few male hobbits knitting and socializing on the stage, during what seemed like a very relaxed spring evening accompanied by their women lot who were busy in their own right in their sorority, all with a backdrop of what now is the famous icon of LOTR, the wooden braids resembling roots & branches. A lilting solo on the fiddle kept my musical antennae tuned, as a couple of hobbits started chasing some glowworms (fireflies) in the aisles, plainly ignoring the still settling audience. The solo piece that lasted almost thirty minutes made me imagine “Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan” playing Nordic folk in his own style.
What J.R.R.Tolkien created in writing in his cult classic and what Peter Jackson created out of the same classic in a visual medium, has once again been created on stage by Kevin Wallace and Michael Warchus. It is not an easy task to try to present the story through a similar medium again, in three and a half hours, especially after the astounding success of the three part movie which when put together ran for about 10 hours and odd. But the Kevin Wallace productions managed to create what possibly can be termed as the most scintillating spectacle that can be brought in front of you, on stage. We had decent seats in the Orchestra section and were may be 100 feet away from the stage. Whether it was the tragedy that horrifically ended “Act One” on a thunderous note with a Balrog from the mines of Moria spraying confetti on the audience with heavy winds circulating the hall or the attack of the Orcs to break the fellowship or when Aragorn was entering the paths of dead or the scene outlining Sauron’s evil figure or the final battle at the cracks of Mount Doom, the effects that were served to our naked eyes were feasts indeed.
Lighting was ingenious, crafty and masterful. Imaging was one notch above…and the stage – I can’t even praise the creative team enough for putting together the stage and managing the scene changes in a quick and a nimble way, artfully choreographed, echoing the passion of the team, with every move and with every second.
As for casting, it must have been a tough call… but may be not. Not many know that some of the popular Hollywood actors are from Canada – so it shouldn’t be surprising to spot abundant talent there. But the members of the cast, most of them Canadians, convinced me that stage artists too are aplenty in the maple state. Michael Therriault , who played Gollum very rightly deserved the incredible applause & standing ovation he received. It is a very difficult part to play – a split character of sorts, changing your tone, modulation, body language, literally in a split second in front of a live audience. I think he did better than Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in the movie, although it is an unfair comparison.
“I hope there will be no song you can point and say, ‘that’s by AR Rahman’ or ‘that’s by Varttina’!”, Christopher Nightingale, musical supervisor, LOTR.
When I read this statement after watching the show, I really thought he had achieved his goal. The part that stood out in the show was that it was not your regular West end musical or a Broadway musical. By the same brooding token, it was not Hollywood music either, which may be one of the reasons why some critics who slammed the music did what they did. So what was it like? To me, it was sort of like what “Roja’s” music was to the Indian film industry – something new, something different, something radical and something that none expected. Based on the initial reactions, unlike Roja, I suspect LOTR’s music will end up being termed as a “trendsetter”. But I am pretty affirmative that people will wonder what the music is all about. Clearly and distinctly, this was a show, with visceral and innovative music. The sound was totally original – presumably “middle-earthish” (hey, that’s the liberty that the composers had – to be able to create the sound of Tolkien’s imaginative world). Although there was no need for your stereotypical ballads to be interspersed in a story of this nature, if you closely follow the story, there is plenty of room for a lot of music, which is precisely what Michael Warchus & his creative team did – spotted that room. Barring a couple of Webberish ballad numbers, I think the show lacked everything you normally look for in a typical musical, from a musical perspective. I think that is a great feat and a great achievement -To try to do what everyone does not and what everyone is not used to.
AR Rahman – what can I say about his music? One of the main reasons for me traveling to Toronto during the opening weekend to catch the show was to show my support and pride (with a glimmer of hope that I would run into the man himself when I go out to get a drink or something, ha!). This project was such a risky thing to do from his career perspective not just because of having to work with 9 other composers (all part of Varttina) but also because of stepping into an unchartered territory. “Bombay Dreams” was a musical, alright, but it had familiar elements in the story for Rahman. Not LOTR. Even musically it was not the same. He had to work with Christopher Nightingale who apparently was the gluing factor between AR Rahman and Varttina to create a common thread for arrangements. It could have been hard for Rahman (just my speculation) when a piece or a melody he had envisioned gets across to Varttina through Christopher Nightingale and gets modified by them and comes back to Christopher only to be arranged and orchestrated based on his interpretation. Again, like Christopher mentions, AR Rahman is like a chameleon, capable of absorbing all forms of music and interpreting them & creating something original on his own. So may be all the pieces that I thought were Varttina’s were really Rahman’s..At the end, I couldn’t honestly pick out any piece and brand them confidently as Rahman’s.
My guesses on what could have been Rahman’s compositions from among those I still can remember:
* About 4 or 5 percussion bits (similar to the Dacoit Duel from WOHE, only in nature)
* The Prancing Pony Inn lively dance (which was probably the happiest song in the show and they played it again after the end credits)
* The Arwen-Aragorn ballad
* Galadriel’s solo ballad
* The Shankar Mahadevan aalap during a battle scene (who else but Rahman could have visualized this?)
* The pre-show fiddle solo
All of the above were simply awesome pieces and I really hope I get to listen to these in a CD. For someone who is trying to expand the horizons of his music, this effort is a grand feather in Rahman’s cap. I just hope it gets duly recognized by everyone alike around the globe.
As we drove back the next morning, my wife and I were pretending to be the theater critics that we were not, by simply munching over tiny bits of the show one moment at a time, as much as our memories could soak and serve, yet tacitly disappointed over not running into AR Rahman at the coffee bar.
Just like Frodo Baggins, we traveled west over the water (Lake Huron in our case), to the blessed realm of our home where we would find rest from our drive and rejoicing.