At the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience on Monday night at Boston’s TD Garden, I kept imagining what the spectacle before me might look like to someone who had never seen Game of Thrones. Would a newbie enjoy the prog-rock pyrotechnics, the endless chugalugging of cellos, the cloak-draped vocalist who looked like Diana Ross performing for King Arthur’s court, and all the montages of knights and dragons and beheadings and weddings? Would they suddenly understand the show’s aesthetic appeal—the ravishment of expensive cosplay and expert cinematography and overactive timpani? Would it just come across like Dungeons and Dragons on Ice, nerdiness multiplied by shlock, embarrassing for all involved? Would they understand why people had shelled out $40 or more mostly just to watch clips of something they’d already watched?
Whatever the answers, the preposterous but fun concert was decidedly not aimed at newbies. With Thrones’ bombastic score performed live on a set that takes cues from pop-arena shows by Kanye West or U2, the Experience represents the latest evolution in expensive fan service. It’s also an innovative brand extension for HBO’s era-defining drama, and a sign that TV now holds the potential to build orchestral-music stars the way movies did for the likes of John Williams. The composer Ramin Djawadi conducts and emcees; with his recent inventive score for Westworld following his hit Thrones work, the Hans Zimmer protégé’s name is now famous enough to be central on arena-tour posters.
The Experience’s set is a sprawling series of stages viewable from 360 degrees, which means Live Nation can sell out an entire basketball stadium’s worth of seats. On one end is Djawadi and his orchestra; the rest of the real estate is made up of platforms and crenellations over which various costumed soloists roam. At one point, a man in what resembled a Buddhist monk’s outfit bowed his cello furiously while stomping in a puddle, recalling the dramatic splashing of Beyoncé at the BET Awards. Later, a fur-clad performer stood under a rain of snow-like confetti while flinging about a floppy tube that Djawadi later said was a “Wildling horn”—apparently a dozen feet long, sounding a lot like a didgeridoo.
But the main attraction was not the instrumentalists or the ever-changing set, but simply Game of Thrones itself. Massive screens hung above the stage, with a central rectangle flanked by nesting octagonal screens that moved up and down. On them were montages centered on particular characters and storylines, as well as a few famous scenes excerpted at length. I had to keep reminding myself to pay attention to the epic work of the performers below rather than simply reliving, say, the hero arc of Jon Snow or the turns of the Battle of Blackwater. It might seem churlish to suggest more antics for an arena Renaissance fair, but the “live” component could have used a boost to compete with the footage: Cirque du Soleil acrobatics or actors playfighting or animatronic dragons, maybe.
In any case, focusing on the screens is probably the point—the show is about re-experiencing Thrones from a slightly different perspective. The complicated week-to-week plot web is untangled, and the dense dialogue-driven intrigue of the show falls away for a series of hell-yes! moments. If this betrays the literary ambitions of the show a bit, it also clarifies the overall story’s mythic proportions. One example: The twisted saga of Jon Snow and Ygritte was edited to begin with her death, flash back to their meeting, and emphasize the Greek-tragic turns—and sentimental highlights—of what came between.
Yet it was the action set pieces rather than the individual characters that were served best by the concert’s visual and musical remixing. Later Thrones seasons have seen showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss taking a more active writing role as the story has outpaced George R.R. Martin’s source text, and the Experience underlines how the most remarkable parts of the recent episodes are the ones with the least dialogue. The Battle of the Bastards is rendered as thrilling and tense as it was when its episode first premiered; the ambush at the fighting pits in Meereen is way better live than it was on HBO.
The famed brutality of the show was toned down a bit live, but what was left makes clear how bloodshed and negative energy are essential to Thrones’s appeal. The sadists who program the concert made the arena sit through the Red Wedding again more or less in full, though it cut away before the climactic throat slitting. Sansa’s highlights reel had a brief shot of her wedding-night rape scene, and her revenge later on got fuller treatment. Nudity was excised from the montages, and Cersei’s famed walk of shame was referenced only with a darkened stage, a tolling bell, and cries of “shame” from around the arena (plus, Monday night, one errant “WHORE!” from someone presumably not in the cast).
Djawadi’s band sounds regal and he plays an affable host, but there is no great revelation about his work to be had here. Most of the sequences begin with mournful slow sections led by a solo instrumentalist or singer before building into a redux of the theme song’s throbbing strings and percussion. It’s a reminder that six seasons of Thrones have really served up only two musical landmarks other than that excellent title tune: the catchy-ominous Lannister theme “The Rains of Castamere,” whose melody the show interpolates a few times, and the piano-and-organ composition “The Light of the Seven,” which accompanied the explosive twist of the most recent season finale.
To close the main part of the concert, Djawadi gives a sensational performance of “The Light of the Seven” alone behind a keyboard rig, with a final payoff as temperature-raising as the one on the show. The moment is pure entertainment, the kind of rush that Thrones has doled out sparingly—but that the Experience lets fans mainline.