The Harry Potter Era Begins on Broadway

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Matthew Murphy)
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which opens this week, may mark a turning point in the evolution of American theater.

Decades from now, April 22, 2018, may loom as large in the history of theater as May 25, 1977, does in the history of movies. The latter date marked the opening of Star Wars. The former brought the Broadway opening of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

The stage sequel to the Harry Potter series takes place 20 years after Harry defeated Voldemort and features a new generation of young sorcerers. Compared to earlier Broadway plays, it is as different as George Lucas’s space opera was from mid-’70s Hollywood, and its commercial potential is similarly vast. Performed in two parts, with two separate tickets (you can see a matinee and evening performance on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, or see part one on Thursday evening followed by part two on Friday), it arrives with a preposterously large, indeed movie-sized budget: $68.5 million, $33 million of that just to clear and redesign the cavernous Lyric Theatre in Times Square. Orchestra seats are $299 for each part of the show. (Boxofficicus magnificus!)

Few will walk out complaining about the price tag, though. Spectacle has long been associated with musicals on Broadway, but Cursed Child has broken the blood–brain barrier and created an unprecedented extravaganza out of a so-called straight play. It’s like a colossal magic show with a story wrapped around it: Characters change costumes instantly, actors morph into other actors, wraithlike Dementors roam terrifyingly over the audience, dire prophecies get flashed on the walls, jets of flame shoot out of magic wands, bookcases swallow people. One actor floats above the proscenium only to reappear in a pool on the stage after what feels like an impossibly short period. As directed by John Tiffany, the play is a marvel, and exactly on the same wavelength as the movies and novels.

Cursed Child is such a staggering piece of entertainment that it is bound to have imitators. The odds of making a hit stage production out of a Hollywood-style story have got to be shorter for a non-musical than for a musical; there is simply no way to guarantee a great slate of original songs. In this case, though, the artistry matters less than the technical craftsmanship: The thrill is in the live illusions the show delivers. Because of its success, in a few years, there could be as many superheroes and cartoon characters inside Broadway theaters as there are wandering the streets outside them.

There will be some angst about this transition — each theater that gets occupied by Superman or Han Solo will leave one fewer stage for Willy Loman or Hamlet — but I’m fairly sanguine about it. Theater’s most interesting work has long been found in the smaller off-Broadway venues where much of today’s standard repertoire originated. And anyway, there are enough Broadway theaters — 41 — that at any given moment many of them are vacant. As the roomiest theaters become home to blockbuster shows, the more challenging work will nestle in cozier confines, just as at the multiplex the largest auditorium will feature a Marvel movie about saving the world from aliens at the same time as the smallest one hosts a documentary about saving the world from capitalism.

Because of its success, in a few years, there could be as many superheroes and cartoon characters inside Broadway theaters as there are wandering the streets outside them.

Cursed Child, which is credited to playwright Jack Thorne and based on a story by Rowling, Tiffany, and Thorne, is a seamless addition to the seven Potter books. It’s set two decades after the end of the final entry in the series, when Harry (Jamie Parker), now married to Ginny Weasley (Poppy Miller), is at loggerheads with his teen son Albus (Sam Clemmett), who at Hogwarts becomes best buddies with Scorpius (Anthony Boyle), the son of Draco Malfoy. Hermione Granger (this time played by a black actress, Noma Dumezweni) and Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley) have married and had a daughter, Rose (Susan Heyward).

Albus’s yearning to define himself as something other than Harry Potter’s son leads him into mischief with Scorpius and another young person, Delphi Diggory (Jessie Fisher), whose cousin Cedric was killed in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Using a time-travel gizmo, the kids venture back across the years to try to save poor Cedric, only to find themselves dealing with unforeseen complications that threaten to rewrite history for the worse.

The time-travel conceit allows Thorne to bring back a trove of beloved characters, many of whom turn up in surprising ways that will delight fans of the series. I had exactly the same range of reactions to the play as I did to the films, all of which I saw, but few of which I saw twice. The character development is thin, the dialogue bland, and the chunks of exposition devoted to explaining how the next magical caper will be executed continue to interest me about as much as the IRS instruction booklet. Running a total of five hours, the two parts could easily have been trimmed by an hour or more, just as the 20 hours of Harry Potter movies could have used some vigorous pruning. One big difference is that the films featured a superb cast. On stage, the actors are utterly undistinguished.

That isn’t the point, though: What you look for in other plays is not what you should look for here. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a gargantuan entertainment extravaganza straight out of Orlando or Las Vegas. It’s not likely to be a gateway to Shakespeare or Ibsen for your children, but it’ll surely captivate them. And if you sit in the balcony, you won’t have to take out a second mortgage on your house.

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