We all have a Harry Potter origin story. My own, predictably, is both unsatisfactory and embarrassing. I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone at university and, full of undergraduate superiority, decided the prose was clunky and the story tedious. It would, I confidently predicted, be a five-minute wonder.
Given this moment of brilliant literary criticism, it was slightly embarrassing to be invited to travel to London to see the eighth and final instalment in the saga, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – this one not a book, nor a film, but a stage play. I knew I was not worthy; I knew many people would kill for such an invitation. But it would be a chance to be in London in summer; it would be the West End in all its glory; it would be … well, there was no way I was missing out. So I said yes, secreted the Harry Potter books into my hand luggage, arranged my face into what I hoped was a wizard-receptive smile, and set off.
If you're not a Harry Potter fan, the sheer enormity of people's love for this orphan boy and his magical world is bewildering. In the 21 years since The Philosopher's Stone was published, more than 500 million – that's half a billion – Potter books have sold worldwide, in 79 languages, including Azerbaijani, Welsh, Latin and Ancient Greek. (The Philosopher's Stone is apparently the longest work in the latter since the novel Aethiopica in the third century). And the Harry Potter movie series – famous for its slavish accuracy to the books – is the third-highest grossing film franchise of all time, with its nine titles (including the Fantastic Beasts spin-off) grossing more than $US8.53 billion, rising to $US35 billion once merchandise and DVD sales are included. Only the Avengers and Star Wars franchises have earned more. Individually, seven of the eight Harry Potter movies have been among the 50 highest-grossing movies ever.
And now there's the play. A brand-new story, rather than an adaptation of an earlier plot, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened in London in 2016. It runs in two parts, and can be seen in the course of a single afternoon and evening, or over two consecutive evenings, like a Harry Potter mini-Ring Cycle.
It has been unbelievably successful. In 2017, Cursed Child won a record-breaking nine Olivier awards, before transferring to the Lyric theatre on Broadway this April at a cost of $92 million, making it the most expensive non-musical Broadway play ever. (Most plays cost between $4 and $6.5 million to stage; even musicals rarely top $35 million). Admittedly, $44 million of that went on paying Cirque Du Soleil, which was using the Lyric, to go elsewhere, and on transforming the barn-like theatre into a suitably gothic high-Hogwartian space, complete with a riviere of boxes, monogrammed "H" carpets, phoenix sconces and gilded dragon lamps. But a cool $42 million went on the play itself, including $15.8 million to build the sets and mount the physical production; $4.2 million to pay the cast; and $15 million for general and administrative costs, advertising and publicity.
Luckily for investors, before it even opened in New York the show was grossing $2.7 million a week in tickets to previews; and last month it won six Tonys. On both sides of the Atlantic, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has been heralded as the most immersive, most dazzling theatrical experience in decades.
In January, this show will arrive in Australia, at the oldest continuously operating theatre in the country, the Princess Theatre in Melbourne – which is itself being renovated in preparation. Its 42-person Australian cast is about to be confirmed, with tickets going on sale August 6. The 70-strong crew is gathering, and the enormous, beautiful sets – full of clocks and arches and a paint colour called Raven Plume – are already in train.
The Harry Potter novels have been translated into 79 languages. Photo: Alamy
Of course, Cursed Child is, by one analysis, simply proof that the fundamental, two-decade-old question about Harry Potter is still worth asking. Why is Harry Potter so incredibly, ubiquitously popular? What is it about the young wizard with the lightning-bolt scar that has captivated so many people who live, not just in Australia or the West, but on earth? There are only 7.6 billion people on this planet: there's a Harry Potter story in print for every one in 15 of them.
Perhaps the most believable theory for this popularity is an anthropological one. According to folklorists, there are certain recurring archetypes in the tales humans tell each other that we're hardwired to find satisfying and enjoyable. These archetypes, for reasons of evolutionary logic (and because, well, they make for kick-arse plot-twists), are virtually universal – crossing geographic, cultural and religious boundaries – and have been in operation for millennia. Not all of them appear in every story; but just about every one of them plays a part in Harry Potter.
Consider the trope of villainy. According to the eternal rules of storytelling, early in the action of any story, a villain must appear. This villain must go on to harm some member of the hero's close family or friendship group, thus setting the plot in motion. (Think of The Iliad and Beowulf. Think of Superman.) In Harry Potter's case, his mother and father are killed by wizardry's uber-villain, Voldemort.
Then, often, comes branding, when the hero is marked in some manner that signifies his quest (Harry receives a lightning-shaped scar). Then there's departure, when the hero leaves his home and the adventure proper begins (Harry leaves his horrible non-magical [muggle] relatives' home to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry). Following this, variously and in no particular order, comes the surviving of ordeals, the transfiguration of appearance, the receiving of magical items, gaining knowledge, acquiring donors (fairy-tale-speak for wise helpers, or friends), using maps, answering riddles and defeating false heroes, until, eventually and inevitably, the real hero gains recognition and victory
That might seem a lot to ask of any story, but J.K. Rowling, the then single mum who wrote longhand in Edinburgh cafes because she couldn't afford heating, delivers every element: time after time, book after book.
En route to England, suspended in the airy darkness somewhere over Kochi, India (where you can read Harry Potter in Tamil, Hindi and Malayalam, as well as English), my plane-reading light glowing like the tip of Harry Potter's holly-and-phoenix-feather wand, I open The Philosopher's Stone for the first time in 20 years. I find myself loving the descriptions of the feasts, and Hogwarts' main hall, and the endless inventive lollies. I like Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger and poor hapless Neville Longbottom and Hedwig the owl. I'm not too fussed with Harry, who's a bit mild-mannered for my tastes. But over Belgrade (Serbian – Cyrillic or Latin alphabet – Hungarian, Slovak, Croatian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Albanian), I surprise myself by finishing it.
Illustration by Simon Letch.
Eleven years ago, after the final Harry Potter book was released, it looked like that was that for Rowling and Potter. She'd written seven books in 10 years; she'd got her protagonist through high school, his first kiss, and the defeat of ultimate evil. Along the way, she'd gone from penniless author with an initial print run of 500, to billionaire megastar whose final work sold (sold, not printed) 14 million copies in its first 24 hours after publication. She'd made, literally, a billion bucks; founded a multimillion-pound research clinic to fight multiple sclerosis, which killed her mother; married a nice-sounding GP; had two more children; and written four books entirely unrelated to Harry Potter. She seemed financially, professionally, and personally content.
For more than a decade, Rowling stuck to her guns, saying no to more books (though she's written some Potter apocrypha), no to more movies (though she embarked on the Fantastic Beasts spin-off series in 2016), no to most new merchandising partnerships, and no to the lunatic fringe of her fan base (including suing one man who planned to publish a 400-page Potter encyclopedia). This makes Harry Potter and the Cursed Child even more interesting. Because suddenly, after all that time, Rowling said yes.
You might think she'd done it for the money. It's a little-known fact of the entertainment industry that live theatre sells. Or, more correctly, it can sell. According to legend, only one in five Broadway shows makes money, but if you strike it lucky, you really rake in the cash. The Lion King musical, for instance, is the most successful single work in any media in entertainment history, with a worldwide ticket gross of just under $11 billion. That's more than any film ever made or any book ever written. (The most successful single film of all time, Avatar, made only $3.8 billion). Of course, Harry Potter is not a musical – but with a franchise and brand this valuable, it might not need to be. The Lion King has run continuously for 21 years; experts suggest Cursed Child's life span could be just as long.
The financial arrangements of any production are unique and, certainly in this case, shrouded in mystery. But in March, the New York Times reported that investment documents filed with the New York attorney general's office stated that the "underlying rights owner, licensor and their affiliates" of Cursed Child – a group that includes Rowling – will initially receive 31 per cent of the play's net profits, eventually rising to 41 per cent as "the play moves deeper into profitability". This means that if the play does run for years, the profits will be beyond the ken of mortal man.
But, as Rowling herself has put it, "We all know I don't need the money." So why do it? Or more to the point, why let others do it? Because the truth is, Rowling did not design a single set, direct a single scene, or write a single page of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
London is warm and ridiculously festive for a Wednesday afternoon, gripped by the hysterical excitement that overwhelms English people whenever the sun is shining. At the Palace Theatre in the West End, half an hour before part one of Cursed Child begins, people (many dressed in Hogwarts paraphernalia) mill everywhere in a state of near-frenzy, clutching their tickets and getting their bags checked and queuing up the Palace's beautiful curving stairs. (Here, in the Hogwarts heartland of Victorian London, very little theatre renovation has been required.)
Just inside the enormous oak and brass foyer doors, I buy a small Hedwig owl for my daughter, and avoid telling anyone I'm only up to novel four in the series. They are, I have to say, growing on me. It's mostly the decor I like: the effortless depth and detail of the world Rowling creates. It's what editors call "fully realised" – like a video game where you never get to the edge of the virtual landscape.
I photograph the deep blue-grey of the "H for Hogwarts" wallpaper, tread down the thickly carpeted stairs, and take my red velvet seat. A moment later, the curtain goes up on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Simultaneously, the show's directive to #KeepTheSecret crashes down, neatly relieving me of the responsibility to tell you anything about it. The script itself was published in 2016 (and promptly became the first play in history to top Amazon's international bestselling list; four million copies sold in a single week in the US and UK alone), and the show has now been running for almost exactly two years. But it's still considered infra dig to disclose details of the plot.
So, spoiler alert! Cursed Child is set 19 years after the Harry Potter stories finish, beginning at the epilogue of Deathly Hallows. Harry is now in his late 30s, a harried civil servant at the (Hermione Granger-headed) Ministry of Magic, married to Ginny Weasley, and father of two breezy Gryffindor children and one tricky Slytherin one. This middle child – Albus – hates Hogwarts. But while he's there, he befriends an unlikely kindred spirit, and sets out to prove himself the equal of his dad. Cue drama! In two parts! Over five hours!
For the record, let it be said that Cursed Child never feels long, even to a non-Potter fan. There are some confusing moments, but the action barrels along like the Hogwarts Express, and the special effects are thrillingly magical. At times, actually, it does feel a little like a musical: big cast, big co-ordinated movements, big dramatic lighting and acting. But the tone is perfectly in keeping with the novels. It seems exactly the thing that Rowling would have written. Except that she didn't.
London theatre producer Sonia Friedman. Photo: John Davis
In what appears to be her single extended Cursed Child interview, with American broadcaster CBS, Rowling describes her feeling about returning to Harry Potter after 10 years. "You know, I was in no hurry. And the truth is that it wasn't until Sonia came to see me … that I started to think, 'Okay, what you're proposing is something that I could be creatively excited about.' … And if I'm honest, it was the prospect [that] Sonia and Colin were offering me: the chance to work with two people I thought were extraordinary."
At last, some mysteries of Cursed Child we are allowed to talk about. Who is Sonia? Who is Colin? And who are these other two people that Rowling thinks are extraordinary?
I meet Colin Callender during the interval of Cursed Child, in a tiny ante-room in the bowels of the Palace: the sort of gilded little room where Meghan Markle might sling her shoes off at half-time during a Royal Command Performance. Callender is a (mostly) TV film producer; the kind of heavy hitter that industry magazines regularly call a "mogul". For almost 20 years he was among the most influential executives at HBO, where his productions won 104 Emmys and 29 Golden Globes. Sitting on a velvet parlour chair, he is short-haired and kind-looking, with small round glasses and a very dapper pale summer suit. He is one of the prime movers who brought Cursed Child into being.
"We knew Jo [Rowling] had been approached many, many times for the [theatre] rights for Harry Potter," he recalls genially. "Primarily, people wanted to do musicals, which she's not that keen on – or big event shows in stadiums. But the way we conceived the play was as this really low-tech, one-wooden-bench-on-the-stage piece. It was the emotional, psychological landscape of Harry Potter we wanted to explore."
He leans forward on his velvet chair. "What we wanted to do, basically, was to answer a single question. 'How does Harry Potter, the boy who lived under the stairs, with no parents and no good adults around him, grow up to be an adult? How does this boy, who never had a father, learn to be a dad?' " He sits back. "That was it, really. That was that idea Sonia and I took up to Jo in Edinburgh."
"Sonia" is Sonia Friedman, a second legendary producer, this time in theatre, primarily in London's West End. She has produced more than 180 plays, and counts people such as writer Tom Stoppard and director Sam Mendes as friends. When they say legend in the West End, they mean it: Friedman's first ever job interview, for a position as a teenage stagehand, was with Laurence Olivier. Early in her career, she sat beside Nobel Prize-winning British playwright Harold Pinter holding his script as he watched rehearsals, marking in pauses at his direction.
We meet in her award-laden offices in the West End. Friedman is petite, with tangled blonde hair and a wary, slightly vulnerable air. She's thought a lot about this question of fatherhood, she admits. "I had a father who was a brilliant public man, but who failed as a dad," she says. (Her father was the famous violinist and conductor Leonard Friedman: he abandoned Friedman's mother and siblings before she was born, and she barely saw him growing up.) "He failed in the real basics. And so, when we first met Jo, we talked for two hours about dads, about fathers, about disappointment, about legacy, about parenting."
She looks to one side, thinking. "Jo and I just had a very, very emotional, quite intense conversation. Very moving, actually. Particularly for me, because we met in Edinburgh and my father lived and died in Edinburgh." She rewraps her long black cardigan around herself. "And of course I didn't really know him, but being up there with that very particular smell – Edinburgh has this smell from the brewing of hops and yeast, incredibly potent – and the cobbles and everything, all my life suddenly flashed in front of me, and I said to Colin, 'If my dad had known, he would have been so proud of me, about to knock on J.K. Rowling's front door.' And then, of course, I burst into tears."
Oh god, I say. "No, no," Friedman says firmly. "Colin was great. He propped me up and said, 'Come on, pull yourself together,' and pushed me through the front door. And 10 minutes later I'm there talking to Jo about my dad and dads and fathers."
In an interview in 2012, Rowling explained she had not spoken to her own father, Peter Rowling, in nine years. She didn't specify what had happened between them, but in 2003 he offered his Harry Potter first editions for sale at Sotheby's. One, a copy of The Goblet of Fire, was signed "Lots of love from your first born", and sold for $49,000. So perhaps Rowling is also interested in the complexities of father-child relations.
Certainly, Friedman and Callender left their first meeting with Rowling with specific instructions: "Come back if you can find a writer and a director that I think understand my world."
First, they found John Tiffany. A smiley round-headed man with a lovely Yorkshire voice, Tiffany is a successful director, both in London and on Broadway. His plays tend to be beautiful, emotional and understated. But he'd never come close to anything approaching Harry Potter-level fame. He does, however, have an odd connection to Rowling herself. When he was an assistant director of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre 20-odd years ago, he often saw a young woman in the theatre cafe. "I kept seeing this woman with a pram writing away in longhand," he recalls. "We didn't really ever have a conversation, but we'd say hello to each other. She'd sit with a cappuccino for three hours – I think she was always a bit worried I was going to kick her out. And 18 months later I realised that woman had been Rowling."
When they met again to talk about Cursed Child, Rowling also remembered Tiffany. "He had been very sweet to me," she told CBS. "Let me sit there for ages with my coffee." Rowling, it seems, doesn't forget people who were kind to her before she was famous.
Tiffany was brought on board because of his ability to produce quiet, powerful theatre. "Colin and Sonia were imagining something much smaller in scale initially – much more psychological," he recalls. "But having read the books to my nephews and godchildren, I said to them, 'Listen, you can do all that, but you've also got to give people a massive, epic story. Or theatre will have made Harry Potter boring! Can you imagine? Harry in the psychiatrist's chair? It would have confirmed everybody's worst fears about drama!"
In order to avoid this fate, Tiffany rang his friend, a young, five-time-BAFTA-winning writer called Jack Thorne, whom he'd worked with on the hit theatrical adaptation of the Swedish vampire novel Let the Right One In. "He writes very beautifully about young people," Tiffany explains. "And he was a huge Harry Potter fan."
The pair of them went up to meet Rowling in Edinburgh in 2014. "We had a whole day in Jo's writing room in her house," explains Tiffany. "And immediately, it just felt right." They spent six months having meetings in Edinburgh and London, with Thorne mapping out story ideas and sketching scenes.
Rowling was a constant presence, as sounding board and source of knowledge. "I, for obvious reasons, had power of veto over everything" is how she put it. "I could say, 'No, that didn't happen.' But often, the three of us would be sitting there and trying to finesse something, and one of the guys would say, 'Well, how about …' and I'd have that feeling, 'Oh yeah, of course, that's what happened.' It felt like excavation, which is how I know that I'm on the right track: when I feel that I am actually uncovering a story that's already there."
Tiffany still remembers when, after several of these meetings, Thorne sent him the first 30 pages of his draft. "He was very, very nervous," he recalls, "but as soon as I got it I thought, 'Oh yes. I can do this. It's a play.'" Tiffany recalls everything coming together very quickly after that: the decision to do the play in two parts, "despite how difficult that was, cost- and logistics-wise"; the workshops with actors; the resolution of unique stagecraft issues ("Yes, we can get people on top of the Hogwarts train!").
Friedman, too, recalls an eerie sense of ease about the process. "It was one of the easiest shows I've ever produced," she confesses. "I've had harder shows with casts of three. It was an utter joy." Even Rowling echoes this feeling. "I cannot tell you how much I loved doing this," she has said. "It was one of the most joyful experiences of my life, working with [John and Jack]. I loved it from start to finish."
The only person, in fact, who has a different memory of this period appears to be Thorne. "There were hard times!" he exclaims. "There were times when the mountain seemed very, very tall. When I was actually writing, I got quite good at blind denial. But I'd be in the shower, walking along the street, and I'd suddenly think, 'What am I doing? What am I doing?!!! How can I possibly be writing a Harry Potter play? This is insane!!!'"
What saved him, he says, was Rowling. "I've done quite a lot of adaptations, worked with quite a few authors, and I tell you, she's just made of gold." This is a surprise, I say: I've always thought Rowling seemed quite a reserved person, quite protective of her creation. I hadn't imagined her being wildly generous with collaborators. "Well, I think she's someone who, when she finds a relationship she believes in, she'll back it," explains Thorne.
"This is how kind she is," he concludes. "She knew that when the [script was published] and it wasn't written by her, I'd get some kickback. She dedicated it to me. That was her giving me her imprimatur. I'll never forget it."
From left, Cursed Child director John Tiffany, J.K. Rowling and the play’s writer Jack Thorne at the Broadway opening. Photo: Getty Images
Given the reception Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has received, it's hard to believe that no one involved in its production knew it would be a success before opening night. "We knew it was beautiful and looked amazing," says Friedman. "But we're not the audience. So we invited a few hundred fans to a dress rehearsal." She shivers, and holds out an arm. "I've literally got goosebumps remembering it. Seeing it through their eyes will always be one of the most remarkable days, and nights, of my life. They went berserk." She shakes her head. "But until that moment, we literally didn't know what we had."
Soon after my plane home takes off from London and heads over France (French, Breton, Basque, Catalan), I sit with Order of the Phoenix open in front of me, thinking about that dress rehearsal, and about Rowling. I wonder if she felt like Friedman, or if she did know what they had: a successful play, certainly; perhaps a great play. Or perhaps the defining play of a generation. She, better than almost anyone alive, knows such things are possible.
Since Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened, Rowling has announced publicly that it marks the definitive end of the Harry Potter story. It seems an appropriate finale: dramatic and unexpected, full of love and loss and polyjuice. What Harry Potter fans will make of it in the years – perhaps decades – to come is uncertain. But Rowling seems happy with what she, and Colin and Sonia and John and Jack, created.
"It's my world," she has always said, "and I can do what I like with it." And she did.
Amanda Hooton travelled to London courtesy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
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