Inside the ''LOTR'' musical: In an online-only interview, director Matthew Warchus talks about how he's adapted Tolkien's beloved epic for the Toronto stage spectacle premiering in March
Credit: Peter Howe and James Loye: Andrew Oxenhan

How do you make a stage musical out of a story that took more than nine butt-numbing hours to tell on film? Matthew Warchus, director of The Lord of the Rings musical (currently in rehearsals and set for a March 23 world premiere in Toronto), told Entertainment Weekly’s Whitney Pastorek what he’s learned during the three years spent adapting Tolkien’s trilogy into a world-music-based, three-and-half-hour experience. (Step one: Plan for two intermissions.)

Think big… ”[The story is] crying out for illusions, great dramatic, emotional scenes between strong characters. Spectacle. Transformations. Music. Action sequences? Aerial work, circus things, stilt walking. And I love all those things, and the idea that they could all coexist in one show is a very, very rare opportunity, and it’s unusual for a piece of spectacle to have such a strong story, and vice versa. It’s kind of the culmination of everything I’m interested in about theater, and it should be, if it works, a celebration of everything theater can do.”

…but find ways to scale down. ”We’re using a style for production that’s sort of imaginitive. In other words, we’re not literally representing mountains and rivers and forests and all that. If we’d done that, it would have been even more expensive.”

Borrow from others… ”What was really exciting about [Broadway’s] The Lion King is there was a bridge between commercial theater and art, really. The original story, very commercial, could have been simply produced in a very unimaginitive way, but [director] Julie Taymor really applied her own artistic standards and managed to build a bridge between the two… It pushed the envelope in terms of what audiences will readily expect. They’ll happily see people with grass on their head to represent a field, and happily listen to some fantastic unaccompanied African singing… So there is a sense that we are going to try and go further along that road.”

?but not too much. ”We haven’t referred to the film at all in this production, obviously deliberately. I suppose just because it’s a famous film, some people will be more conscious of the movie than the novel. But I think what happens when you actually get into a theater is if a show’s any good, you forget all of that… it’ll transport you straight away, and then that’s the only thing that’s in your head.”

Edit the story… ”What we’ve tried to do is create… a conventional, archetypal crest story shape. It’s got heroes and a plot and a subplot or two subplots, so that instead of just working through LOTR and trying to check all the boxes, it works as a story in its own right. So the center of the story is Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, but we do spend time in the story telling the Arwen and Aragorn romance as well, and Merry and Pippin are very much there. [We’re] tailoring different parts of the story to shape the priorities so that it works as a story in its own right — you don’t have to have seen the film or read the book to follow what’s happening.”

…but don’t cut out the magical details. ”An early version of the script that I was presented with before I came on board didn’t have the ents [the ancient, talking trees] — just because I think they thought at the time it would be impossible to do the ents on stage. But I thought they’re a crucial part of the story, and [if] you start taking out some of the extraordinary things just because you think you can’t do them on stage, it’s not Tolkien’s world. So I immediately put them back in and said, We’ll worry about how to do that later. They’ve got to exist in this world.”