According to normal business protocol, Harry Potter would eventually come to Broadway as a Disney-style family-friendly musical – perhaps with songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz (who worked together successfully in the 1990s on Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame). They could musicalize just Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book in the seven-part series, in which a pre-teen Harry Potter discovers that he has special powers and goes off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Or, like the recent musical adaptations of The Addams Family and The Honeymooners, the musical could involve an all-new adventure from some point during Harry’s time at Hogwarts.
But in the ultimate anomaly of anomalies, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which comes to Broadway following its premiere two years ago in London, where it continues to play to sold-out houses) is a play – one with extraordinary stagecraft (both old-fashioned and high-tech in nature), a large cast, a six-hour running time (divided into two parts, Angels in America marathon style) and haunting original music by Imogen Heap (which happens to be more distinctive than the bulk of the scores from this season’s new musicals). As with War Horse, another English import, the production (directed by John Tiffany, Once) is so elaborate and spectacular that it feels like it is a mega-musical. If it were nominated for the Tony for Best Musical instead of Best Play, it would still easily win.
In addition to having an original storyline, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is more about the “Cursed Child” (i.e. Harry Potter’s son Albus) than Harry Potter. It is set approximately 20 years following the conclusion of Harry Potter and the Death Hallows, in which Harry Potter finally defeats the dark wizard Voldemort at the Battle of Hogwarts, and picks up right after its epilogue, in which Albus (Sam Clemmett), as he boards the Hogwarts Express from Platform 9 ¾, shares his concern that the “Sorting Hat” will sort him into Slytherin House instead of Gryffindor House (where Harry, Ron and Hermione spent their glory days). Not only is Albus sorted into Slytherin, he becomes a school misfit (making people believe he is unworthy of the Potter legacy) and a close friend of Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle), son of Draco Malfoy (Alex Pride), Harry’s bitter enemy during their days at Hogwarts.
I (along with all other audience members) have been strongly urged to not reveal any more of the plot, other than merely noting that at the time of the play, Harry (Jamie Parker) is now an overworked, somewhat depressed employee at the Ministry of Magic, Ginny (Poppy Miller) is married to Harry and works as the sports editor of The Daily Prophet, Hermione (Noma Dumezweni) is his boss, and Ron (Paul Thornley) manages a joke shop. The show’s producers have gone so far as to promote a “Keep the Secret” campaign (even two separate versions of the script have already been published). I’ll just say that the play involves a plotline quite similar to Back to the Future, Part 2 (where the villainous bully Biff altered the future by altering the past, forcing Marty to go back to the past and set things right).
Considering the number of Harry Potter fans and how seriously they take the Harry Potter universe, I think it’s only fair that I should admit that I did not follow Harry Potter until just recently. From 2001 to 2004, I saw the first three film adaptations, but I had difficulty following them without having first read the books. However, as an unusual project in preparation for attending the Broadway show, I decided to read the books to my infant son, a little bit each night before he went to bed. I was able to get through the first five books before he lost patience and insisted I stick to picture books. I then finished the project by watching the three films comprising the last two books. Had circumstances been different, I could easily imagine myself having been a big Harry Potter fan and reading each book as soon as it came out.
With that in mind, I am aware that there are many Harry Potter fans who object to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as being too derivative in nature, relying heavily on past events and cameos from characters both major and minor, living and dead, giving it the feel of fan fiction. Even Moaning Myrtle, guardian of the girls’ bathroom, makes a show-stopping cameo. Whether the play genuinely is the eighth chapter of the Harry Potter saga is questionable merely based on the fact that J.K. Rowling did not write it. Rather, it was written by Jack Thorne, as based on a story jointly devised by Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany.
I think Harry Potter and the Cursed Child should be viewed for what it is – a theatrically inventive, crowd-pleasing, young adult adventure spectacle, full of special effects (Dementors levitating over the audience, students morphing into adults via Polyjuice Potion), fluid movement and moments of intimate family drama. It does not contain enough literary substance to merit being turned into a 700-page book. By the same token, the play (although still jam-packed by normal standards) is far breezier than any of the films because it was intended from the start as a piece of theater instead of a novel. Theatergoers with no prior familiarity with Harry Potter besides glancing through the brief study guide in the program may not get the point of numerous references, but they should still be able to follow the play quite easily. In fact, they may enjoy it more than the diehard fans because they will be soaking in the wonderfully unique and detailed Harry Potter universe for the first time, with no basis of comparison to the novels.
Perhaps the greatest gift bestowed upon Broadway by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child lies in the extensive renovation of the Lyric Theatre from an oversized barn into a traditional playhouse. With the exception of soft hits like Ragtime and 42nd Street, the venue has been home to flop after flop after flop, some of them quite notorious (Spider-Man, Young Frankenstein). My only regret is that it will probably be a very long time before I get to see another show at the Lyric Theatre.