The immortal Frank Rich, King of Broadway, once ruled the white way with an iron pen. His reviews could topple comedies, decimate dramas or mark even the lowliest moose murder-esque play a world-beater. Until one day came along his only weakness: a French nerd with a furry fetish. The Broadway musical version of “Beauty and the Beast” got the same amount of good reviews as Donald Trump would have had wives if he weren’t rich. It attracted the ire of nearly every critic like feces attracts flies, and normally this would shutter a Broadway production immediately. But something was different. After the reviews came out, the box office sales exploded and thus began the great shift of musicals away from critical acclaim and towards low-risk, well known intellectual properties (IP). These shows, like “Aladdin,” “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark” and “The SpongeBob Musical” are putrid and drain Broadway of creativity. I could trash talk these for days, taking you on a guided tour of my many issues with Disney on Broadway. And maybe one day, if we happen to be sitting on a seven hour transatlantic flight together, you will be forced to. But today, I want to give major props to a show based on an enormous piece of IP: “A Very Potter Musical.”
“A Very Potter Musical” (AVPM) became an internet sensation in the late 2010s, launching several of the creator’s careers and generating universal acclaim. I sat down with Prescribed Escape Production’s (PEP) “Rocky Horror Picture Show” Director, Mary Grace Wagner, to peruse the annals of this show’s history and try to cogitate our way towards a thesis explaining why this musical is so different from other IP productions. “This show is nuts,” she said. “Written by a bunch of theatre students at the University of Michigan in 2009, they combined the plots from around four of the books, wrote some of the songs about a day before the show opened and included a wizarding school called Pigfarts, located on Mars.” The main difference between J.K. Rowling’s original Harry Potter books and this hastily composed comedy musical are the liberties the creators took with the original property. Compared to a rendition more faithful to the original property, perhaps based on one of the books, this show blows those versions out of the water. AVPM features all the characters of the books, plot points from across the series, but isn’t an adaptation so much as it takes the world of Harry Potter and crafts a story out of that world’s elements. In that way, AVPM is not just a role model for Broadway musical adaptions of IP, but for single-event adaptions of episodic IP. Imagine how “The Last Airbender” movie adaption of a cartoon movie would have been better if the creators had approached it like AVPM. But AVPM has a huge advantage over all other adaptations. That secret weapon? “This show was made by a bunch of kids,” Mary Grace chuckled as she related the story of the musical’s genesis. “Basically, a bunch of kids hanging out were like, ‘Hey, this would be funny,’ and then just threw the thing together. They didn’t have the rights, they didn’t have songs, they didn’t even have a script when they started advertising the show. I mean, if you think about it, it’s a very Lawrence thing to do. Get together a bunch of friends, say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna commit to doing this random thing.’” A slapdash affair it may have started as, but it morphed into a well-crafted production, and part of the reason for that may have stemmed from their lacking the rights. They had no obligation to be faithful to the original, an obligation which can become a manacle around other IP adaptations. But the paucity of pressure on a collection of college students performing a passion project parody enabled an unparalleled level of creative freedom. “The result,” said Mary Grace, “is a love child between Monty Python and ‘High School Musical.’”
For those who have followed my articles, you could probably have guessed the thesis of this article after the first few sentences. Disney is terrible, Disney is a cancer on the creative capabilities of Broadway’s talent, the best way to adapt a property is by doing something insane with it — the best way to write anything is to write something insane. That is the reason I loved “Kiss Me Kate,” that is the reason I dumped on the “Rocky Horror” remake. It should be noted, however, that this method of adaptation has a weakness. Since it uses the IP’s world as its base, it relies on audiences already having knowledge of the IP. Much of the humor in AVPM would make no sense to someone who has not read or watched Harry Potter. But that said, this show by a bunch of uppity punk students stands as a testament to the creative potential of adaptations and as inspiration to Lawrentians to be crazy.