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The three-and-a-half hour stage adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy played on stage in Toronto for almost six months.

MIKE CASSESE/Reuters

Fifteen years ago, theatre critics from across the globe were in Toronto to review the world premiere of a $28-million show that would turn out to be the most expensive flop in Canadian theatre history.

The Lord of the Rings opened at the Princess of Wales Theatre on March 23, 2006 – and the three-and-a-half hour stage adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy was given a rough ride by the critics.

The Globe and Mail’s Kamal Al-Solaylee called the show – which had music, by several composers, but wasn’t exactly a musical – “a pale imitation of the books, the films and, tragically, theatre itself,” while Ben Brantley of The New York Times deemed it “largely incomprehensible.”

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While it later went on to win a number of Dora Mavor Moore Awards, The Lord of the Rings closed on September 3, 2006 – with its lead English producer Kevin Wallace, who had partnered with local producer David Mirvish on the Toronto production, defensively blaming North American critics for the show’s demise. And yet, it didn’t fare much better on London’s West End, despite slightly better reviews, when it opened in a revised version there a year later.

Though it was undeniably a flawed show, I personally have fond memories of The Lord of the Rings and the hullabaloo that surrounded it – poignant ones now that a couple of the performers in it have died. Both Brent Carver, who played the wizard Gandalf; and Victor A Young, who played the warrior Elrond, passed away in 2020.

And it was an exciting time in Toronto as the city tried to lure tourists to town in various ways after a pandemic – SARS, in that case – hurt its reputation as a destination.

A New York Times feature written in advance of LOTR paints a picture of that cultural era – with work on Daniel Libeskind’s crystal extension to the Royal Ontario Museum and Frank Gehry’s renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario under way, the brand-new Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts almost completed construction and the Soulpepper Theatre Company having just moved into its more modest building in the Distillery District a couple of months before.

Toronto was in bloom, and yet that a new musical there wouldn’t make any money in the end shouldn’t have been surprising: Only one in four or one in six shows do even on Broadway, depending on whose numbers you trust.

The Lord of the Rings not breaking even became a political issue, however, because the Ontario government lent the producers $3-million to get the show off the ground.

Is it a cautionary tale as we look to recovery from the current pandemic? Or was it a risk work taking?

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How to help and how much to help as stages reopen will be a heated debate in governments around the world in the coming months as the COVID-19 pandemic (fingers crossed) recedes in the face of mass vaccination.

But John Karastamatis, director of communications at Mirvish Productions, writes this in an e-mail about his company’s own investment of time and money into Lord of the Rings 15 years ago: “While it was neither a commercial or critical success, it did run six months in Toronto, provided employment for almost a thousand people and helped to erase the notion that Toronto is the place with the deadly virus. Yes, it was worth it.”

Some long-shuttered theatres have started to reopen in certain parts of Canada. In Halifax, the Neptune Theatre held a fundraiser in front of a live audience on Saturday night. “Our first performance back after 372 days,” artistic director Jeremy Webb enthused, in a celebratory video posted to Twitter.

Meanwhile, Quebec has given the green light for theatres in its red zones to resume performances later this week, as many theatre companies anticipated.

Among the shows opening in Montreal is Mob at the Centaur Theatre. This production, interrupted by the pandemic last March and now resuming with the same cast, is the first of the English-language translation of Catherine-Anne Toupin’s hit La Meute. It is back onstage in front of a live audience again on Friday, the day before World Theatre Day.

Audio drama has been one of the primary pivots for theatres artists during the past year – but it is worth remembering that this old art form was already on the upswing in Canada before the pandemic hit thanks to the continuing podcast boom.

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The Alberta Queer Calendar Project, for instance, launched in January of 2020, promising a full year of podcast drama from queer, Albertan writers. It has eluded my attention until now, but plays by Dale Lee Kwong, Jay Northcott and Arielle Rombough are among those still available to stream online or through Apple Podcasts. Additionally, a new workshop production of The Hooves Belonged to the Deer by Makram Ayache has been uploaded this month, directed by Peter Hinton-Davis, a favourite of mine.

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