Kevin Wallace – Lord of the impossible.

AS the man behind the most expensive musical ever, Kevin Wallace is the closest thing Ireland has to its very own Cameron Mackintosh.

At £11.5 million, the budget his The Lord of the Rings musical is many times more than the average cost of a West End show – which normally comes in at between £200,000 and £3 million.

But if the former Limerick drama teacher is having any sleepless nights over the scale of what he has taken on board, he certainly isn’t letting on as he talks at his plush penthouse offices in London over-looking Trafalgar Square.

Perhaps that’s because he has at least achieved the impossible.

Nobody believed – least of all some of the members of his creative team – that turning the JRR Tolkien classic in to a musical could be done.

Yet the inspiration behind this massive project – the 40-tonne hi-tech three-stage set for which will take more than two months to assemble – isn’t some childhood dream to produce epics.

Instead, it’s actually the former chairman of Limerick Football Club – his father Michael – and the ritual goings-on round a dining room table off Limerick’s North Circular in the 1960s.

Wallace said: “Before I could read, I was at the game each Sunday with my dad and loving it.

“At the end of each game, the steward would hand my father a huge bag containing the takings on the gate, and it would be carried home and then the bag opened out onto the dining room table.

“The takings would then be counted and banked the following morning.

“Other things happened round that dining room table, the whole chat about who was going to be signed and how much players would be signed for.

“Various players would troop into the house to get their contracts signed and there was always a wonderful huddle of people around, all wrapped up in the whole drama of the game.

“There was a right lot of wheeling and dealing, and I’d be watching it all.”

He added: “The business aspect of soccer really appealed to me, especially as I witnessed my father and his friends pouring so much of their time and energy – and finance – into the game.

“They were the sort of characters up and down the country who were effectively keeping soccer teams going.

“They weren’t doing it for the money. They were doing it because they passionate about it.”

It wouldn’t be until 1990 when he’d be able to relive those days, which were also influenced by his mother Nancy.

He said: “She mum loved the theatre, and if there wasn’t something on in Limerick, we’d drive to Dublin and catch a play there.

“One of the people I remember seeing was Peter O’Toole in the Dublin Festival. Back in Limerick each year, I’d be hanging round the actors, the technicians, I’d sell programmes, clean bottles – anything just to be part of it all.

“I was completely lost in this world and saw countless repeats of some of the great classics.”

He added: “It suited me fine because I don’t think I was ever particularly gregarious or much of a mixer.”

After school at Limerick’s Salesians Convent followed by Crescent College with Jesuits for his inter and leaving certs, he spent a year teaching drama in Clare.

Despite the fact that his father thought he should try for “a proper job”, he funded Wallace’s drama studies at Rose Bruford in Sidcup, Kent.

He then went on the road around the UK with an 18-strong troupe of actors funded by the UK Arts Council to perform plays by Irish playwrights.

Two years later he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, working with actors such as Joss Ackland. But, despite his success as a stage actor, he became disillusioned with acting by the time he was 32.

So he decided to raise £7,500 to produce his first ever show, Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and staged it in a 48-seat venue in north London during the 1990 Camden Fringe Festival.

He recalled: “The play hadn’t been done in the UK for some time. Consequently it got a lot of favourable critical attention.”

That’s as maybe, but it ran for little more than two weeks and – like the 22-week first run in Canada of his Lord of the Rings – failed to recoup its costs.

He said: “From the start, I said to the people who were putting their money into that one, I want your money and your not going to get it back.

“Instead, it’s going to cost you £50 to get two tickets to come and see it.

“But despite not recouping its costs, the experience was the most exhilarating and all consuming of my life.

“I was only getting four hours sleep a night, and was doing every aspect of it – from PR and marketing to negotiating contracts with the actors.

“When I came out of it, I realised it was the two main influences of my life combined into one.

“One one hand, there was the theatre my mother had introduced me to, and on the other was me as a young kid counting out the takings from the gate of various Limerick FC matches with his father, and getting wrapped up in the politics of whether or not players should be signed, and how much the players should be played.

“Although I had loved my experience as an actor, I found that I actually liked theatre more than I liked acting.

“And after all those sleepless night as an actor where I said to myself ‘this isn’t quite what I want to be doing’ while not having any idea what else I wanted to do – I had finally found what I wanted to do.”

And, however odd this may sound coming from the man behind the biggest musical on the planet, he added: “The scale is immaterial to me.

“From that moment in 1990, I knew I’d be happy producing shows in Camden for the rest of my life.

“It was being stuck in the whole process that was the real pleasure for me.”

And it’s a passion that saw him being taken on as a producer by Andrew Lloyd Webber, for whom he worked for seven years until 2001, putting on various Really Useful Theatre Group productions on around the UK and London.

They included Whistle Down The Wind, The Beautiful Game and the Belgian production of Phantom of the Opera.

His most successful production was the UK tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, the musical.

He won an Emmy award for his role as executive producer of the film based on that production.

Keen to shine in his own light, Wallace went freelance in 2001, setting up his own production company a short time later with the help of a £300,000 “golden handshake” from Lloyd Webber.

Shows he has produced since include the Irish Times Theatre ESB award-winning Abbey Theatre production of Eugene O’Brien’s Eden.

In 2001, he was approached by writer Shaun McKenna with an early draft of a stage adaption of JRR Tolkien’s classic.

He recalled: “It was my introduction to the Lord of the Rings because I had never read the books and this was before the film came out.

“I just thought it was a great yarn, it felt like a very strong story and one I thought the would resonate very well in a theatrical environment.”

Duly inspired, he bought the rights to what McKenna had written.

Then, in November 2001, he began an 18-month bid to secure the stage rights from San Francisco-based Saul Zaentz, whose Tolkien Enterprises company owns the stage and screen rights to Lord of the Rings.

Wallace said: “Most of the people in my business thought the stage rights had already gone, but they hadn’t.”

Negotiations with Zaentz’s lawyer began in February 2002, they finally met in May that year and the script was worked on until December.

He said: “Lord of the Rings is such a great opportunity and me and my team have such a responsibility to put a story on stage that is dearly loved by a great many people who have such a strong opinion of it.

“The attraction and challenge of it was just too hard an opportunity to walk away from.

“I felt a bit like a climber confronted with Everest and the urge to climb it.

“In many ways, The Lord of the Rings is my Everest. It’s just too tempting a challenge to pass up.”

Right up until a deal was signed in April 2003, Wallace was aware he’d invested around £300,000 of his own money without any guarantee of success.

He said: “I’d put an awful lot of time and money into just getting to the negotiating table with no guarantee of success at the end of it.

“If he had said no, all my work would have gone up in smoke, not to mention an awful lot of my own money.”

After ten weeks of intense negotiations, a deal was finally signed in 2003 – on April 15, his late mother’s birthday.

To recoup costs – which a West End show traditionally has just a one in ten chance of doing – he has to completely fill the 2,200-capacity Drury Lane Theatre for 40 weeks.

If he does that, then the 50 or so investors who stumped up the cash stand a chance of getting a return on their money.

The investors are made up of a small number of large corporate investors and about three large and around 40 small investors, collectively known as “angels”.

He said: “Because of the level of risk, it’s no accident that these people are called angels because they take a significant risk in investing their money in shows like mine.

“If it wasn’t for them deciding to put a gamble on a show like this rather than a horse at Cheltenham, West End shows just wouldn’t happen.

“Like the people who invested in football in my father’s day, these people enjoy a certain amount of gambling but in a romantic environment.”

Typical “units” purchased by the angels cost around £12,500.

If the show is a hit, they stand to make a return on their money of around 25% over two years.

If it fails to recoup its costs, they lose the lot – and he will never see the £300,000 he has ploughed into the project so far.

Despite the pressure on him to come up with the goods, he rates its chances as “pretty good”.

But he’ll know for sure within the first six weeks of the show opening.

He said: “The critics are obviously important but word of mouth is vital and traditionally, it usually takes about six weeks to settle.

“But with the internet and the way things have changed, word of mouth can form even faster.

“People aren’t going to read every review, some people will probably only see a couple of lines.

“Instead it’s all about an instant death judgement – people asking themselves, is Lord of the Rings going to be on my list or not.

“The success is largely based around a combination of what people say and whether or not it has a feel of success about it or not.”

And as clear as he is about how it will sell, he’s also pretty certain about who it is going to sell to.

He says: “There are three audiences for this show, although they are not entirely mutually exclusive.

“There are the people who read the books, those that saw the film and people visiting the West End.”

When he received the signed contract from Zaentz in April 2003 giving him the rights to stage the musical, Wallace poured himself a large glass of Green Spot whiskey and toasted “the luck of the Irish”.

But with more than six months to go before the show opens in London,Wallace will be counting on more than luck to see if he can make a success out of what everyone once regarded as the impossible.


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Random and Irish.

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