According to the calendar, opening night for the most ambitious theatre project in history -- the $27-million production of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings -- is still seven weeks away.
But for the show's producers, cast and creative team, the March 23 world premiere at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre is only a distant focus of attention.
The date that looms much larger in significance is actually much closer: on Saturday -- the night of the first preview, the first public performance of the three-hour-and-30-minute (with two intermissions) adaptation.
By the sheer cost, scope and audacity of the production -- its unprecedented budget, its epic scale -- producers Kevin Wallace, David Mirvish and Michael Cohl will enshrine their names in the history of commercial theatre, win or lose.
But the reaction of the audience to Saturday's show -- and to 42 other previews scheduled before opening night -- will go a long way toward determining whether the historic citation comes with accolades or demerits.
"I'm really curious to see first the 10 days of previews, and the chemistry of the stage and the audience," says Wallace. "Do they embrace the story and the actors and all the special effects? I want to see how they respond to the totality. If it doesn't work, we will tweak and fine-tune and address moments of weakness. If anything, that's the area we will be in."
Insiders say the preview period, while not decisive, will be a critical indicator of whether the show is a major hit, a middling curiosity or an outright flop. But the early buzz from those few who have penetrated the security cordon set up around rehearsals is positive.
Major theatre names from London and New York have been phoning for tickets. The advance sale has now eclipsed $15-million.
In many ways, the stakes appended to The Lord of the Rings could not be higher.
Financially, dozens of investors and backers, including the province of Ontario and Tourism Toronto, have rolled the dice, with wagers ranging from $10,000 to millions.
Professionally, Wallace and his entire creative team -- director and co-writer Matthew Warchus, co-writer Shaun McKenna, choreographer Peter Darling, designer Rob Howell and composers A. R. Rahman and the Finnish folk ensemble Varttina -- have committed at least two years of their lives and laid their reputations on the line.
For the city of Toronto, battling to regain its status as a major theatre mecca, The Lord of the Rings holds enormous promise. If it succeeds, it will finally erase the stigma left by SARS and the collapse of Garth Drabinsky's Livent empire, and inject millions of dollars in tourism revenues. If it fails, it may be a long time before outside producers decide to build a new show here.
LOTR is a gamble, too, for David Mirvish, the country's leading theatrical producer. He has $1-million of his own money invested and another million through Mirvish Productions. Beyond that, the impresario is testing his "credibility and judgment and what I've chosen to bring" to the marketplace.
It was one thing, he noted in an interview, to persuade the producers of Mamma Mia! to mount a Toronto production of their hit show before taking it to Broadway. "Now," Mirvish said, "we're raising the bar. So what's at stake is changing people's thoughts about where theatre can originate. Usually, it's only done in London or New York. Other cities have tried, but no one has succeeded at what were trying to do. Nothing of this magnitude, certainly. So this could change the equation of how we think about the city and ourselves and what we can do."
As for the creative team, Mirvish says they've been given "an enormous trust" by the Tolkien estate to do justice to the work. Vast resources have been put behind them, "in the belief they will do something extra. It will change all of their lives if they succeed, and they know it. Personally, Kevin Wallace has bet the house on this show. It's everything, his whole life. He has no other interests."
Wallace denies it. He's still as crazy about soccer as he was as a kid growing up in Limerick, Ireland. But "yes," he says, "I have absolutely everything tied up in this and I'm proud of it. I had to put everything in to keep it going because otherwise it would have gone down and I did not want to play safe. We're all sticking our necks out. We want the eyes of the world on us. And we will be remembered as the people who brought Lord of the Rings to the stage, and be judged by audiences and critics accordingly."
And if it fails? Wallace refuses to entertain the idea. "Out of superstition, we just don't go there. Going into battle, you do not entertain defeat. Everything is marshalled for success. You are expecting to be victorious."
But other observers say the stakes may not be as high as they appear. "I actually think it is such a difficult thing to pull off that a failure would not reflect badly on anyone," says Dory Vanderhoof, a Toronto-based cultural consultant. "At worst it will be called a noble effort, a noble failure."
Nor, maintains Vanderhoof, is there any appreciable downside for the city. "If it fails, it won't be Toronto's fault. This is a great theatrical market. It has great audiences and the community has really gotten behind this show."
The Ontario government, others note, has probably already made back in income and sales taxes the $3-million it lent to the production. At a minimum, even if the Princess of Wales is only 70 per cent occupied, the show will run for a year, and generate millions in hotel, restaurant and cab revenues.
And if it works, The Lord of the Rings, may revolutionize the art of stagecraft. " On the Twentieth Century was not great theatre," Vanderhoof says, "but technically it was the most amazing show anyone had ever seen. It changed the way we look at musicals. This show may do that."
Of its $27-million capital cost, about $20-million comes from Canada, the rest from Britain. In a best-case scenario, insiders say, the show could recoup its original investment within 37 weeks. More likely, it will take a year or slightly more. Running costs are expected to run about $1-million a week.
Last week, both Mirvish and Wallace made presentations at a dinner meeting of the Toronto Board of Trade. "I talked about why we came here and not New York," Wallace says, "to remind them of the level of excellence that exists here, but you don't see because it's under your nose. The talent is here. You need to celebrate it."
Mirvish lauded the recent wave of cultural spending on museums, art galleries and opera houses, but noted that the buildings mean nothing until there's something inside them. "Soon, we will have to turn our minds to content."
Mirvish says he is cautiously optimistic that The Lord of the Rings provides the kind of content to which audiences will respond. "I don't want to create too great an expectation. I want people to have their own experience. But it all comes down to the show. For all the toys and special effects, we're still depending on a group of people in their late teens and 20s to whom we've effectively entrusted millions of dollars."