'Harry Potter' on stage: Why it's (probably) a good thing
If we were ever led to believe that our Harry Potter experience would end after the final page in the books or final frame in the films, recent history has proven otherwise. The years since J.K. Rowling’s devastating last pen stroke (or what I believed was her last) have since borne a decadence of extensions of the Potter realm, including three theme parks, a film spin-off, an encyclopedia, a pop-up museum tour, copious video games (several of the Lego variety), novel re-releases, and a sort of online interactive e-book kind of thing (does anybody really know what Pottermore is these days?).
Today’s news marks the latest development in the Potter world, and it’s quite a doozy. Rowling is on board to co-produce — not write, but co-produce — a stage play on London’s West End based on Harry’s younger days. The official synopsis is that it’s the “previously untold story of Harry’s early years as an orphan and outcast,” which leaves little wiggle room for interpretation that it’ll find young Harry inhabiting the cupboard under the stairs. This appears to be the implied setting, considering the rest of Harry’s journey is, well, the not-previously-untold story.
My initial reaction to this news, as it is to any Harry Potter developments, is on its surface unbridled joy. My boy lives! The little piece of me that died with the series [Horcrux joke here] will never resurrect, but any furthering of Potter pop culture has me rejoicing. Any Potter is good Potter (plus I’m a theater nerd, so this is a double whammy of good fortune). I allowed this child 15 years of my life, and then boom, it all ends, cold hippogriff, nothing—so to be told that there may be yet another opportunity to continue my relationship with this incredible series? I’m thrilled.
But here’s where I get a bit nervous: Thankfully, Rowling is aboard the creative team for this play, and don’t think for a second that we shouldn’t praise St. Mungo for that. See, I suspect we’ll soon reach a point of Potter saturation, wherein one extension will perhaps be a step too far, a step too illogical in keeping with the world and preserving the magic (The Leaky Cauldron‘s Melissa Anelli put this warning best: “How does JKR manage this empire that requires a little bit of her genius in each portion?”). It’s when we reach that overextended step that I fear Rowling won’t be involved, and our wizard won’t be in as good hands as, say, the stage venture’s producers (theater veterans Sonia Friedman and Colin Callender, who are more than perfect fits for this project, and the nascent-but-promising live theater ventures’ arm of Warner Bros, which is also working on Misery, Secondhand Lions, and the recently premiered Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
Being a vehement fan of the theater, I’m praying that this stage play isn’t the final step too far. I hope it’s not the turning point in the Potter franchise, the point where the trademark became too ambitious and wound up unleashing eager critics who have long been waiting to sink their teeth into a systematic takedown of what could potentially become an increasingly devalued brand. (Even a few of my EW colleagues assert that Harry Potter ruined movie sequels, though I disagree.) The more over-extended the brand is, the more ripe it is for criticism—and as the world continues to spread more rapidly than we thought it might, we as fans can’t help but nod our heads and watch the carnage.
I don’t want theater to be the thing that killed Harry Potter.
Since we’re still blessed to have Rowling’s involvement, I hope it won’t be. Truth, a few things about this play did immediately trouble me. For one, I believed I knew what Harry’s early years entailed, and I’m not sure how I’d feel about having those explained further. Can you imagine meeting, say, the one classmate who kindly befriended Harry during his Dursley days (thereby lessening the importance of Ron and Hermione in his life) or another Mrs. Figg who kept an eye out for HJP? We know this story, or at least we’ve put together the pieces Rowling provided and filled in the rest ourselves.
But then again, I also recognize the silver lining. It’s a play, not a musical — we’ve been there already, and frankly, despite my fierce love of all things song and dance and kick-line, musicalized adaptations of literary properties are far more prone to criticism and Riddikule. Similarly, by focusing on a pre-magical Harry, the play appears to not try to replicate the Gryffindor common room or purport to bring the Quidditch pitch to the proscenium. And we should be thankful that, if we’re getting a Harry Potter play, we’re not getting a Harry Potter farce.
I believe Rowling saw something in this idea, and saw the value of exploring Harry’s earliest stories, even if I being a stubborn fan don’t immediately want to hear them. I have every belief that Rowling treasures this world more than I do, and would never put her name (or Harry’s) on anything that would jeopardize or embarrass the legacy. And don’t forget, Rowling previously turned down Michael Jackson’s idea to do a stage musical, so there’s got to be something special here. So I have to believe that whatever the story of Harry Potter and the West End Opening Night, it’s going to have the Rowling seal of official approval, which often makes her invincible to critical dismay (just look at the reviews of The Casual Vacancy, and then look at the sales figures). I would confidently predict that the stage play is going to be an unmitigated success, extended thrice and brought to Broadway as soon as the ship across the Atlantic can be boarded. But the biggest critic this time around will be the fans, and as a passionate one, I’m going to have to swallow my pride and relish the idea that this might be one of the last times Rowling furthers Harry’s story before the WB machine takes it over completely. It all inevitably happens, when the marketing reach expands beyond the author’s wishes. It will happen to Harry Potter, like it or not.
I’m optimistic for this venture, but perhaps not for the future of these brand extensions (you could argue Star Wars suffered a similar fate.) The Potter franchise has weathered occasional missteps in merchandising and whatever Pottermore was, but of course it stayed afloat, because it’s Harry Potter and nothing will sink that ship. I’m ready to be surprised and impressed by this stage production. But as a lifelong Potter fan who is beginning to see my second favorite Gryffindor (why won’t you call me back, Oliver Wood) stretched too thinly, I hope I’m not around to see the world of Harry Potter entirely lose its magic.