The Globe and Mail
By Gayle Macdonald
Kevin Wallace is sitting in a bus, chatting on his cellphone, and travelling along a long, grey stretch of highway leading to the outskirts of Cleveland.
Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman is playing in the background, making it hard for the acclaimed British theatre producer to hear the questions being lobbed his way, specifically what could have possibly motivated him to make a 1,527-kilometre round trip (four days with stops in Rochester, Detroit, Buffalo and the aforementioned city in Ohio) in a glorified soup can on wheels?
The answer is simple: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings — which Wallace and company are adapting for the stage in an ambitious (some say insane) $27-million production to open next March in David Mirvish’s Princess of Wales theatre in Toronto.
Wallace — nicknamed “the Reverend” by Mirvish minions because of his evangelical zeal for all things LOTR: The Musical-related — is blunt about his reasons for this U.S. border-town road trip.
“This is a political campaign,” says Wallace, who worked many years for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group before striking out on his own, most recently nabbing an International Emmy for his film version of the British tour of Jesus Christ Superstar.
“I’m in these cities to convince people they simply cannot miss our musical. It’s incumbent on us to get out to these markets to have a one-on-one relationship with tour operators and group bookers so that they can see the whites of my eyes, and capture my enthusiasm.
“They need to trust me that we’re going to deliver a first-class, thrilling production,” the irrepressible Brit continues. Then he adds with a laugh: “Now I know what JFK must have felt like on his campaign bus years ago.”
And the indefatigable Wallace doesn’t plan to stop the bus here. With help from show sponsor Air Canada, he plans to visit farther-flung U.S. cities such as Dallas and San Francisco. Also on his list (for a bus trek a few months down the road) are Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago . . . anywhere he can book a hotel ballroom and hold 100-plus people of influence captive. “Toronto is a world premiere, and for Tolkien fans there will be a sense of pilgrimage coming to this city to see this production.
“I’m aware that Toronto has been this giant location for popular theatre in the past,” Wallace says into the phone, his voice rising to drown out the Pointer Sisters in the background. “Phantom of the Opera played here for 10 years. But Toronto hasn’t had the fresh productions — i.e., original shows without copies touring in the U.S. at the same time — since the days of Ragtime and Show Boat.
“Toronto is like this sleeping giant waiting for the right thing to come along and waken it,” says Wallace, who is accompanied on the bus by promoters from other Toronto tourist destinations such as the CN Tower, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the new opera house. “What could be better than the most recognized brand in entertainment — The Lord of the Rings?”
Wallace has been working on Shaun McKenna’s stage adaptation of the Middle-earth saga for four years. He and his partners — who, besides the Mirvishes, also include uber-concert promoter Michael Cohl and film producer Saul Zaentz (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The English Patient) — are vividly aware they have to get U.S. audiences to drive north if they want this megamusical to succeed.
As Mirvish Productions’ spokesman John Karastamatis puts it, American visits to Toronto are now roughly half what they were pre-SARS and 9/11. Lord of the Rings — self-billed as the biggest and most ambitious theatrical production ever staged — has to shake Americans out of their travel lethargy.
“The alternative for us was to buy ads in newspapers in these U.S. cities, but we don’t think that tells people what they’re going to get when they step into the Princess of Wales theatre,” says Karastamatis.
“We decided to take a more personal approach, and there is something quite magical about Kevin when he starts talking about his stage production. It’s his baby. He’s truly like a politician and believes we have to go out there and meet the people. Let them know who we are, and why we’re doing this. That’s why we decided to do the old-fashioned bus tour.
“The other thing we knew is we needed to do something fairly dramatic to re-establish the city on the theatrical map.”
Initially, Wallace projects that they will need to bring 35 per cent of the audience from outside the Greater Toronto Area. He believes Americans are ripe for the picking. “According to publisher HarperCollins, between 2001 and 2003, there were 47 million copies of the Tolkien books sold around the world, and 25 million of those were actually sold in the United States. That gives you an indication of the potential of the market in the States for Lord of the Rings.”
Wallace is well aware that the public’s initial reaction to news that he is mounting a musical based on the best-selling trilogy is, well, at best bemused. Most people can’t fathom how he and his team will be able to pull off the journey from Rivendell to Mordor, let alone the Battle of Helms Deep in a three-hour show. Well, a kitty of $27-million is a huge help, laughs Wallace. But the theatre veteran also insists it’s the calibre of the talent behind this production that will ensure he produces a spectacular, must-see event.
Wallace, who as in-house producer with Webber’s RUG was responsible for Whistle Down the Wind and The Beautiful Game, says that he’s been heartened so far by American reaction to his sales pitch.
An FBI convention, which is coming to Toronto next year, has already booked the entire theatre for an evening. And a tourism operator in Rochester told him that seniors — the first generation to read Tolkien’s book more than 40 years ago — are snapping up tickets.
“I’m constantly asked how can you put such a huge story on stage,” Wallace says. “Well, William Shakespeare put the whole of England on the stage in Henry V. We’re not putting [Peter Jackson’s Academy Award-winning] films on stage. We’re putting the books on stage. I think Torontonians — maybe all Canadians — are going to be very proud that Lord of the Rings came here first.”
He signs off as he and his bus-mates pull up in front of Cleveland’s Renaissance Hotel.
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