When Lew Wallace's novel Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ was published in 1880, the 1st-century swords-and-sandals epic featuring chariot races, gladiators and the Bible became an instant bestseller.
Over a century later, the story is to be set to music and retold for contemporary audiences in a £5m hi-tech theatrical performance. The show is set to feature pyrotechnics, a storm machine, a water wall with light projections, a high-speed chariot race, 400 performers and fleets of horses, donkeys and camels, with falcons, vultures and eagles flying overhead.
So ambitious is the production, to premiere at The O2 arena in London's Docklands next September, that it has been nearly 15 years in the making and is being billed as the "ultimate" stadium experience, second only in spectacle to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in August.
The show will bring together a creative team from Hollywood, Broadway and the music industry. A symphonic soundtrack has been composed by Klaus Badelt, who wrote the music for Gladiator and Pirates Of The Caribbean, while Mark Fisher, who designed Pink Floyd's The Wall tour and also the Beijing Olypics ceremony is on board alongside Patrick Woodroffe, who has created light effects with the Rolling Stones. A spokesman for The O2 said the show would take "live entertainment to a new level".
Franz Abraham, the German-born producer of the show who has worked as a promoter for David Bowie and the Three Tenors, said he conceived the idea in 1995 and hoped the updated historical drama would rival the ice shows and circuses that usually fill stadium-sized spaces. "I thought it would be boring to do the 127th musical, or the 57th ice show," he said. "This is something gigantic and legendary. Right from the beginning I aimed to create something completely new, with a high level of artistry that would excite the audience. The show will have the speed of a musical, the depth of great theatre, the power of a rock concert and the visual opulence of a Hollywood blockbuster."
The production team travelled across Europe to select the animals needed for the show. The horses for the chariot race, which are to be trained over the next 12 months, are from Andalucia in Spain, while a bird sanctuary in western France provided three birds of prey. "The chariot race will be real and high speed, audience members sitting in the first row will feel the sand on them," added Mr Abraham.
The show, he added, would stick closely to the novel, which earned the distinction of being the first piece of fiction to be blessed by the Pope soon after its publication.
The plot revolves around not just the story of Jesus but also Judah Ben-Hur, the central character and the prince of the Hebrew house of Hur whose childhood best friend, Messala, a Roman, becomes his rival in adulthood. The enmity eventually leads to Judah's downfall.
The novel had such a significant impact on American readers – it was as popular as its near contemporary blockbuster, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind – that it inspired a series of film adaptations in 1907, 1925 and 1959, and an animated version in 2003.
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