Can Harry Potter survive Broadway?

From left: John Tiffany, director of Harry Potter And The Cursed Child; Jack Thorne, writer; and author Joanne Kathleen Rowling, at the Palace Theatre in London.
From left: John Tiffany, director of Harry Potter And The Cursed Child; Jack Thorne, writer; and author Joanne Kathleen Rowling, at the Palace Theatre in London.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Harry Potter And The Cursed Child may not be able to replicate its earlier success, being five-hour-plus long and without a marquee actor

LONDON • Broadway is not a place where many plays have cast a magical spell over audiences and raked in the money.

Joanne Kathleen Rowling - whose Harry Potter novels have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide since the first was published in 1997 - knows some forces are beyond her control, which is why the famously private author is doing a spell of promotion for Harry Potter And The Cursed Child.

The eighth - and only theatrical - instalment in her celebrated wizarding saga begins previews on March 16 at the Lyric Theatre on Broadway.

"We see this as a new challenge," Rowling said, looking at John Tiffany, the show's cheerful director, and Jack Thorne, its tall and gangly writer, who were seated with her backstage at the Palace Theatre in London.

Cursed Child confronts challenges in New York that it did not face when it opened in London in July 2016.

Secrecy then about the story line, collectively developed by the trio, whipped up plenty of interest. The play went on to earn rave reviews and pack in the crowds.

But now, that script has been published and the plot - a coming-of-age trajectory for Harry's second son Albus - is out there.

Unlike most family-oriented Broadway offerings, Cursed Child is a play, not a musical. It will compete in the spring with Disney's musical adaptation of the animated 2013 blockbuster Frozen.

"It is unusual to take such a large brand franchise and not musicalise it," said Sonia Friedman who, with Colin Callender, produced the play in London and is doing so again in New York.

Although seven original cast members are coming with the show, not one is a marquee name.

Cursed Child, which officially opens on April 22, also has a running time of five hours and 15 minutes. It is staged in two parts (either seen on one day or on different nights).

It was Friedman and Callender who, six years ago, brought the idea of a play to Rowling.

They suggested extending the Potter story and creating a new work, which intrigued Rowling.

"We talked about loss, fear, bereavement, what it's like to try to make a family when your own is poor or non-existent," Rowling said. "I was really interested in making something more reflective than had been possible in the films."

Broadway venues vied for the honour to stage the play, but Friedman said the British-based Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), which owns the Lyric, "made a proposition which was irresistible to the creative team and to us: They would invest in a space which we could create exactly as we wanted".

Clearly anticipating an extremely lengthy and profitable run, ATG not only paid for the Lyric's renovation, but also made it financially worthwhile for the Cirque du Soleil show Paramour, which had cost US$25 million (S$33 million), to move out.

Callender said though they could have made the venue smaller, they were committed to making 20 per cent of the seats available at US$40 or less per part.

"Those seats are all over the house and there isn't one bad one," he added. "Keeping 1,500 seats is how we could afford to do that."

Tickets range from US$20 to US$299 a part, a bit less during previews.

Asked whether they had encountered any resistance from parents to a five-hour-plus commitment, Rowling gave a firm no. For kids under nine, she noted, "it might be stretching it". Friedman noted that the majority of the fan base was the generation that had grown up reading Harry Potter and were now between 25 and 35.

The last Potter novel came out in 2007 and the final film in 2011. At one point, it looked as if that would be that. But with Cursed Child and the Fantastic Beasts spin-off films, the Potterverse lives.

Asked if she ever worried about her fans' reactions to extending a universe they treasure, Rowling sat up straighter.

"I think," she said calmly, "that it's up to me what I do with the world I created."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2018, with the headline 'Can Harry Potter survive Broadway?'. Print Edition | Subscribe