From Privet Drive to Shaftesbury Avenue
At the end of last week, it was revealed that the generation-defining Harry Potter franchise will be translated into a stage show in 2015. With author JK Rowling at the helm, could this be the logical conclusion to the epic series, or is it a step too far? Avid Potter-ite - and GMT regular Rachel Thomson ponders the potential of combining wizardry with the West End.
‘And now Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.’ - Albus PWB Dumbledore
On Friday, the news broke that within the next two years JK Rowling’s Harry Potter enterprise will have expanded to include yet another medium, as the boy wizard looks set to tread the boards of a West End stage come 2015. Although she will not be writing the script herself, JK is set to collaborate with a yet-to-be-chosen playwright, and will personally co-produce the show together with producers Sonia Friedman and Colin Callender, who have a well-established track record in the industry both here and across the pond. Having been approached by many looking to shift Harry from Hogwarts to Front of House over the years, it took something special to persuade the author to move forward with the idea: she told the Daily Mail, who broke the story, that the vision put forward by Friedman and Callender ‘was the only one that really made sense to me, and which had the sensitivity, intensity and intimacy I thought appropriate for bringing Harry’s story to the stage.’ The angle they have chosen to take is indeed an interesting and unexpected one, as the show will apparently focus on Harry’s life pre-magic, chronicling his ‘early years as an orphan and outcast’ with a substitute family who despise everything he stands for. One can imagine it may not be the cheeriest of settings.
Although many of my contemporaries who also grew up alongside Harry will have felt the same thrill upon hearing the announcement on Friday, I feel there’s a chance it may have had more significance to me than others, which is why I decided to put pen to paper myself upon hearing about this new chapter of the Harry Potter story. There are a few reasons for this, the first of which is timing: having the announcement be made the day before my birthday didn’t really do much to alleviate my somewhat egotistical notion that this was clearly news that was particularly pertinent to and meant for yours truly. The second thing is that I’ve clearly never quite forgiven the film producers for not responding to ten-year-old Rachel’s application to portray Hermione (complete with costumed photographs, I might add) and so this new opportunity to present myself for casting to the powers-that-be gives them the opportunity to right that catastrophic wrong. (For the record, I’m quite sure I’d make an excellent Petunia Dursley). The third reason though – and, to be perfectly honest, the reason why this blog piece will actually get published – is that having produced, assistant directed and directed shows for GMT over the last few years, one of which was put together entirely from scratch, I’ve developed a bit of an understanding of how much it takes to put a show together, and it’s with this insight that I’ve been thinking about exactly what it’s going to take to get Harry under the stage lights in two years’ time, and more importantly to get him to stay there. It’s more than you might think.
The money-making power and potential of the Harry Potter trademark is truly remarkable. The seven original books, published in the ten years between 1997 and 2007, have sold in excess of 450 million copies and have been translated into 77 languages. They also, incidentally, made JK Rowling the first ever female novelist billionaire – not bad for someone who has described how she was, at her lowest point, ‘as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless’. The film adaptations have the distinction of being the highest-grossing film series of all time, with all eight films independently making it onto the list of highest-grossing films worldwide, and in addition to simply making buckets of money they have been met with widespread critical acclaim. Surely then, whether a stage version of the books stands to make money is a no-brainer? Actually, that’s less of a given than you might assume. Anyone who watched the excellent channel 4 documentary ‘The Sound of Musicals’ recently will know that putting together a West End show is far more risky and complicated than the general public may realise: in the last year, the curtain went up on 18 new productions, but 17 shows closed their doors for good. It’s a hugely competitive market, and problems lie not only in attracting attention on opening night but on keeping people coming through the door in the months that follow. When running costs on even a medium-sized show can be more than a quarter of a million per week, the stream of audience-goers has to be constant. It’s simply not enough to have an interesting premise – a show must also captivate audiences night after night: contrast for example the recent rampant success story that is Tim Minchin’s Matilda with the doomed Spice Girls musical Viva Forever, which lasted just 7 months and lost an estimated £5 million.
Granted, the problems of staging amateur productions involve significantly smaller gains and losses, but these are indeed the same problems that GMT and others like us must overcome in order to survive. Although we know the value of innovative marketing and eye-catching design, we also know that the material we choose is hugely important, and there’s no mistaking the effect of a good product when you create it – the increase in ticket sales throughout show week as word of mouth spreads about a production is testament to the seemingly self-evident fact that people are far more likely to come and see something if they know it’s good, rather than just based on something they have a vague interest in. Yes, it’s likely that the initial rush of fans would keep anything based on Harry Potter ticking along nicely for a few months, but unless they can create a product that will stand alone and be entertaining in its own right it’s unlikely to endure past the point where the novelty wears off.
Here then is where, as both a fan and someone with experience of creating theatre, I’m cautiously optimistic. It would have been extremely easy to simply write a script that is a carbon copy of the words JK Rowling has already written on the page, essentially a staged version of one of the films, and leave it at that. I’m certain that Warner Bros would have been more than happy to endorse and throw money at such a project, and I’m sure it would have had at least some success. Instead however, JK has chosen to pursue a concept that is very different, and in some ways far more risky, delving into the world of a young orphan unloved by those forced to care for him, unaware of both the circumstances surrounding the death of his parents and his own monumental significance. Harry Potter… without the magic? Now there’s something that’s not a safe bet, with ideas to explore that could create riveting theatre independent of the other aspects of the wizarding world. Friedman and Callender promise that their concept will offer ‘a unique insight into the heart and mind of the now legendary young wizard – [a] seemingly ordinary boy, but one for whom destiny has plans…’ And they’re coming with credentials as well as ideas: Friedman co-produced The Book of Mormon and one of this year’s most acclaimed plays Chimerica, while Callender was behind the TV version of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s landmark adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. With their experience on the table and JK’s personal involvement - especially having been so directly creatively involved with the process of successfully adapting her novels to film - things look like they could be very promising indeed.
Of course a concept is just the first step and this production will have many hurdles to overcome, not least finding a playwright and director, before even considering the problem of casting a show that will undoubtedly require child actors, who by definition have a very short shelf-life. Daniel Radcliffe could age nicely along with Harry as the films went on – little Joey Smith with the big eyes and the button nose is going to look a lot less convincing as the 9 year old underfed orphan after 100 shows when he’s shot up a foot and a half and is covered in teenage acne. However, it’s early days, and with JK Rowling having made an interesting and bold move this early in the game I’m happy to continue to trust in her ability to keep making magic in the way that, for me, she always has. As a fan of Harry Potter, I’m excited, but as a theatre-goer, I’m very, very excited.