EXCLUSIVE: A musical stage adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, originally co-created in 2006 by Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical director Matthew Warchus, is headed to the English countryside.
The Shire of Middle-earth, the inland area inhabited by the hobbits and Bilbo Baggins, will be re-created at the Watermill Theatre to allow a cast of 20 actor-musicians to perform the musical in the open air.
The Watermill Theatre is located in Berkshire, a county adjacent to Oxfordshire, where Tolkien wrote his chronicle of the Hobbit universe’s Great War of the Ring. It will present a semi-immersive production of The Lord of the Rings that takes advantage of the venue’s picturesque setting on the banks of the River Lambourn.
Expect the village of Bagnor close to the town of Newbury, where the Watermill is based, to be overrun by Ringers and Tolkienites eager to see the show, which runs for nearly 12 weeks beginning July 25.
Interest in Tolkien’s tale of the hobbits, tasked with a treacherous mission to destroy the gold ring, has reached a fever pitch of late with several screen versions being planned for production. New Line Cinema and Warner Bros are lining up several new films based on the lore, while Prime Video has committed a $1 billion spend on five seasons of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.
The music theater show’s book and lyrics are by Shaun McKenna and Warchus, with music by A.R. Rahman (Bombay Dreams, Slumdog Millionaire), Finnish folk group Värttinä and Christopher Nightingale (Matilda the Musical).
Paul Hart, Watermill’s artistic director, told Deadline that he and his team came up with the idea of creating The Shire in the gardens surrounding the theater two years ago, then set about acquiring a license from Kevin Wallace, who works with business partner William Bennett at their KWL production house.
Wallace was lead producer of the spectacular version of The Lord of the Rings musical that Warchus collaborated on, which boasted a cast of 65 and had its world premiere in Toronto in 2006.
The following year it transferred to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, but it didn’t open until it was thoroughly overhauled by Warchus and his creative team. However, that was not enough to satisfy some critics who gave it the Dark Lord treatment. It ran for a year, failing to recoup its eight-figure budget.
However, the Watermill’s managers are betting that their theater’s pastoral setting will lure fans. Hart said he “fell in love with the music” and “loved its folksiness” over the extravagant sets that bedecked Drury Lane.
”We’re going to give audiences a very visceral experience in that they’ll be arriving into The Shire” for Bilbo Baggins’ ‘eleventy first’ [111st] birthday “on our lawn,” said Hart.
The Lord of the Rings will be “semi-immersive,” he added. The show will have outdoor sections at the beginning and end of the piece, with the rest of the story experienced in the theater.
Joining Hart will be designer Simon Kenny, who created scenic designs for the authentic pie shop version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd musical that played in London and Off Broadway.
Wallace partnered with Oscar-winning producer Saul Zaentz when the musical played in Toronto and London. At that time, The Saul Zaentz Company subsidiary Middle-earth Enterprises oversaw a vast intellectual property catalog and worldwide rights to motion pictures, video and board games, merchandising, theme parks and stage productions relating to the iconic fantasy literary works written by Tolkien.
Zaentz’s Middle-earth Enterprises was acquired by Sweden’s Embracer Group last August.
The Watermill is producing its production in association with Wallace for KWL and Middle-earth Enterprises.
Fredrica Drotos, Director of Brand and Licensing at Middle-earth Enterprises, collaborated with Wallace on the complex arrangements. The musical has the blessing of the Tolkien family.
“It’s the ultimate story of endurance; it’s about surviving against the odds,” Hart said of The Lord of the Rings show. He was also referring to the 220-seat Watermill itself, which last year was stripped of its Arts Council of England grant, representing a 14% cut in its annual funding. “We all feel that after the pandemic and Arts Council cuts we didn’t want to squash our ambitions,” he added.
Hart laughed when he observed that “there’s nothing more ambitious than The Lord of the Rings.”
Drotos agreed, adding she “can’t imagine a more fitting locale for the live staging of the fellowship’s epic adventures from The Shire to Mordor, and back again set in the bucolic Berkshire countryside.”
Wallace said the Watermill’s ideas were the first he had listened to that grabbed his attention since the original production closed in Drury Lane 15 years ago. “We’ve been holding off waiting for an opportunity to reintroduce the copyright in the UK,” he said.
Rights holders and other theater owners will be keen to see what Hart does with the material and whether it has potential to transfer to the West End and beyond. “This production is location-based and we’re concentrating on that,” said Wallace firmly. However, he didn’t deny that it could transfer if the 20 actor-musicians in Berkshire make enough of the right kind of noise.
Considerations have been made for it to be staged inside “if there’s a deluge in an English summer,” Wallace said, implying that the Watermill production could be adapted for certain auditoriums.
Casting for the Watermill’s Lord of the Rings will officially start today.
Tickets for various levels of subscribers are on sale from March 15.