Harry Potter Enchants the Stage

Jack Thorne and J.K. Rowling work on 'The Cursed Child' script

playwright Jack Thorne and J.K. Rowling working on ‘The Cursed Child’ script

I would wager a small fortune, and a Ministry Time-Turner were such a nifty device in my possession, that now unfolding is a phenomenon never to be seen again in my lifetime.

The best-selling book in the world just now is no literary novel or bodice-ripping page-turner; it’s not biography, scandalous memoir, or self-help. This week all those genres may stand aside, doff their hats, and bow in respect to a playscript; that’s right, to a direct descendant of those oddly formatted stories Shakespeare wrote, in fact, the same thing I scribble at every morning.

The publication seated on the throne is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, billed as the eighth “story” in the Harry Potter series, capping Harry’s previous seven boffo-hit escapades.

Scholastic, the Harry Potter publisher, is printing 4.5 million copies of the script in the U.S. and Canada. Scholastic reports that more than 2 million print copies were sold in the first 48 hours. My jaw drops because a typical first print run for a new play by a prominent playright is 5,000. Cursed Child script sales have bounced between number one and number two on Amazon.com since it became available for pre-purchase in February. One of those scripts now sits on my desk. I intend to read it and post a review on this blog next week.

Jack Thorne, until this week a relatively unknown playwright, wrote the script, based on an original new story by Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling. The script is structured in four acts and is staged as two sequential performances. Total running time is 5 hours, 15 minutes. The play can be seen in one day or over two consecutive nights. The director is John Tiffany.

Preview performances began in London’s West End in June, and the play officially opened there July 31. The reviews have been bullish. Ben Brantley, the New York Times lead critic, hailed the play as achieving “a kind of magic that is purely theatrical yet somehow channels the addictive narrative grip of Ms. Rowling’s prose.” In the Guardian Michael Billington, perhaps England’s most influential theatre critic, called it “a thrilling theatrical spectacle.”

The script even received a rave book review in the New York Times. Has the Times ever reviewed a playscript as a book before? Michiko Kakutani described the script’s suspense as “electric and nonstop.”

The play has whipped London’s theatre scene into a frenzy similar to what Hamilton has done to New York. All performances of Cursed Child are sold out through May 2017. 250,000 more tickets were released today for performances taking place from next spring through December 2017. Needless to say, the producers are drawing up plans for a Broadway production. Pausing now and then, I imagine, to rub their hands with glee.

The Cursed Child is a blessed gift to the business and art of theatre. For one thing, the “live stage” form of storytelling is being experienced by new audiences, as a significant part of the London tickets are being purchased by nontraditional and younger theatre-goers. And almost all of those millions of scripts will be enjoyed by readers unaccustomed to a play’s page format. Their enjoyment will encourage them to read more scripts – hey,  Shakespeare is still being published. Many will be more willing to attend live theatre.

The saga of J.K. Rowling and her creation of Harry Potter is even more remarkable than the current torrid affair between Harry Potter and the stage. Once upon a time there was a penniless and depressed single mother who wrote books while her daughter slept. Unemployed, she relied on government assistance (“welfare” we call it in the U.S.) to help pay the bills. When she finished three chapters for her first novel she began to submit them to publishers. She would retype the manuscripts to mail out because she was too broke to have photocopies made. The first 12 publishers that received her manuscript rejected it. (I’d like to know what the suicide rate is for those 12 publishers.) Rowling has said of that time in her life, “By every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”

Finally an editor at Bloomsbury Publishing sat down with the manuscript, titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. More importantly, at his side was his eight-year-old daughter. The girl loved the opening chapters and begged to read the whole thing. That gave her father enough confidence to publish Rowling’s novel. Not that he had much confidence in Rowling herself, mind you, suggesting she get a day job because she would never make a living writing children’s books.

That discouraged writer went on to write six more Harry Potter novels, which became the best-selling book series in history. Her seventh and final Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, broke records as the fastest-selling book ever. Translated into 73 languages, her books have sold more than 450 million copies. Every novel became a blockbuster movie. There is a Harry Potter theme park in Orlando, one recently opened in Los Angeles, and another will open in Beijing in a few years. Rowling controls a website, Pottermore, run by a staff of 45 who keep her millions of fans up to date on all things Harry Potter. She also has her own writer’s website.

Today, at age 51, J.K. Rowling’s fame and wealth are immense (I might have said “unimaginable” but not with her overflowing creative imagination). Her net worth is around $1 billion. She gives away large sums each year to charities, including those targeting single mothers going through a rough patch.

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