Harry Potter and the Riddikulus Musical

By Matthew Arcuri

A Formal Look Into Parody and Celebration… and Musical Theatre 

Both the art of musical theatre and the art of parody help ground the phantasmagoric, rooting it in realism, narrative, and personal connection. Stories can take us on journeys and adventures beyond our wildest imaginations. They delight and entertain us with breaks from reality and logic and allow us to let our minds wander with glee and anticipation. Books can do this through pages and pages of unexpected action, beautiful description and complex character development. However, although books can tell stories of wonder, they are limited in their ability to connect to their audience about the material and the story itself. Books don’t help their reader interact with their stories, but THAT is where musical theatre and comedy shine. 

Honesty time: The last few months I have been under the delusion that before this class I had never written about musical theatre. That is not true. I am a huge Harry Potter fan and I allowed that passion to lead me into a full university course dedicated to Harry Potter. And for my final essay in that course, I turned in an essay titled  “Harry Potter and the Riddikulus Musical: An Informal Look Into Parody and Celebration.” It was an essay about how parody can help bring people together to enjoy a story that would otherwise be enjoyed alone. The essay focused on A Very Potter Musical and how it celebrates the absurdity of the Harry Potter Universe through comedy. I gave little to no thought about how the art of musical theatre itself also contributed to my academic celebration of absurdity and– actually never even thought about the medium at all. SO, I will now make my attempt to rewatch the musical (with its original 2009 youtube recording) and give true due diligence to the theatrical medium and how these students used it to create an irreverent work of art that allows Harry Potter fans the chance to connect to the story they love in ways they never have before. 

A Very Potter Musical

A Very Potter Musical takes the story of the most popular book franchise and turns it into theatrical and musical moments that the entire fanbase can enjoy together. The most famous character in the musical is the two headed villain Quirrell/Voldemort, the dynamic duo,  played by Brian Rosenthal and Joe Walker respectively. They poke fun at a circumstance no reader would have ever thought to question- what’s it like having two heads on one body?

Rosenthal and Walkers costume consists of two robes sown together at the back and a bit of facepaint on Walker to make him look like a ghostly nose-less creep. They stand back to back and struggle to walk in unison throughout the course of the musical. To complete the “body” Walker pokes his arms through the robe creating a bulbous lumpy man with four legs, two heads, and no feasible way to preform any simple physical task.

J. K. Rowling expected us to accept the anatomical possibility of someone’s head being attached to the back of someone else’s head. The musical points out the absurdity of this by portraying the day-to-day life of Quirrell/Voldemort such as sleeping and brushing teeth. We are even introduced to Voldemort through a sneeze coming from the back of Quirrell’s head.  Rosenthal and Walker bring a sense of everyday normalcy to an absolutely bizarre situation. Voldemort even orders Quirrell to wash the turban hiding Voldemort’s face simply because the turban tickles his nose. It is these touches of theatrical comedy that flew over my head the first time I took an academic look into this production. 

It isn’t just jokes and parody that help the audience connect with this material, it is also something so distinct within theatrical storytelling. The point of this comedic duo is clear from the very beginning. To delight the audience. The jokes are all one “hot take” after another- providing the audience with new perspectives on the story they wouldn’t be able to gain just from the source material alone. The duo plays off the audiences laughter letting the audience set the tone for the characters situation. 

They follow this “Odd Couple” comedy act with an iconic musical number that has over six million views on youtube. Their rocky relationship is crucial to the plot of JK Rowling’s story, but she never gives us insight into even one of their conversations in the books. Her readers are left wondering. So, why not take this unresolved tension between the two supervillains AND this unresolved tension between Rowling and her readers and turn it into a musical number? That’s the beauty of musical theatre: it takes moments of heightened emotion within a story and turns them into pieces of music. Music makes the audience feel the emotion along WITH the characters and their story. Their duet song plays with the beautiful musical trope of appealing to universities through specificity. Not everyone can relate to living with two head, so of course that is not the tone of the song. It takes on a bickering married couple tone with a jolly syncopated beat and a simple chipper hook “were different, different as can be.”  

In print, the phantasmagoric lives on in the imagination of the reader, who rarely questions the realism of the narrative. Musical Theater is limited in its ability to communicate the imaginative magic since it comes from a live medium of human beings who, even if they are “telling a story” are limited in their fantastical abilities. For example, Disapparating is easy to imagine and even easy to represent in a film, but, this musical theatre production has no way to display such magic. It is forced to focus on the human side to the story, which becomes its greatest asset. Because a group of 20-year-old humans are attempting to tell the 7 year long story of a wizard and his magical school in under 3 hours, the performance has limited its creative insights into only those able to be displayed in the musical theatre format. This grounds the story in a sense of reality. The musical never attempts to even build a “fourth wall” and create a window into a magical world. The audience is right there with the actors- here on earth at the University of Michigan. The actor’s obvious lack of magical ability is used as a running joke and the story moves quickly on to tell a narrative story that connects with the audience through music and comedy. The main draw of the Harry Potter series is the magic- but this musical can’t rely on exciting magic, instead it leans into connecting with its audience based of comedic insights into the story and catchy tunes. 

It just so happens that the things that people can’t relate to are also the things that can’t be portrayed on the stage: Mind reading, Spell casting, potion making, Flying with a broomstick, transforming into animals….you get the idea. This creates a musical full of moments that are uniquely human and easy for the audience to relate to.

Since it is a parody, the audience most likely already knows the narrative, ensuring that they do not need to be enticed to watch with magic tricks and phantasmagorical stories of triumph. To play with this casual knowledge of the phantasmagorical, the show, in its parody and singing, transforms and conolidates moments of intense magic into casual storytelling.  

The musical outbursts conjure emotion in a qualitatively different manner than the comedy bits. However, both serve to humanize this inhuman story couching it in the entertainment of parody and singing. A Very Potter Musical is an invitation to the fans of Harry Potter to experience the entire beloved tale in the way that relates to them most- a bunch of college kids goofing around. Instead of becoming lost in the verisimilitude of some else’s (J. K. Rowling’s) imagination, the audience is free to laugh at the story, the society, and the characters, WITH the actors- causally yet very intellectually. 

A Very Potter Musical gave us all permission to laugh at a story that is held up on such a high pedestal. Every one of the novels still ranks in the top 10 best selling books of all time. Other than the life of Jesus, there is no magical underdog story more well known than the story of Harry James Potter. For the longest time this meant that it was untouchable. JK Rowling is known for having total creative control over the Wizarding World, creating a place where the art is never separated from the artist. As the Wizarding World lives on in her head, she is the god of that universe and she continues to give us small peaks into the society she built- with her blogs, websites, movies, cookbooks and more. What A Very Potter Musical did was take this oh-so-precious “artist’s intent” and throw it out the window, run over it with a car, set fire to it, throw it in a turkey fryer and then push it off a cliff. This almost biblical story is now allowed to be looked at critically and amusingly. We get to laugh about how the only Asian character is named “Cho Chang.” The adults in the story emotionally abuse the kids with zero repercussions. AND Harry is treated like a literal sacrificial lamb… I could go on and on about the jokes and fun songs within this show, but what makes them so special is the way they surprise you with an exciting new perspective every minute. So, in hopes to not spoil the whole show for you, I will now make an effort to conclude this blog and finalize my thoughts. Thank you so much for reading and now please enjoy my Very Polished Conclusion. 

My Very Polished Conclusion

Theater has been making connections to and for its audience for millenia, filling an empty space with rituals that redefine reality. While watching A Very Potter Musical, the listeners hear the songs and are pulled away from a simple enjoyment of a story, and are able to identify their own personal responses to the material they are watching- something music has done since the beginning of time. The story of Harry Potter did not start in the theater, but in literature. It went from novels to movies and now is just ubiquitous. The musical parody was created two years after the final book was released and the world was going crazy as the films were about to conclude. The Wizarding World was at the center of pop culture. As stories are told on the theater stage, movie screen or between the covers of a novel, those who watch or read their narrative connect with the arc, with the characters’ development, and with the theme the author or director wishes to communicate. Harry Potter is full of this dense and meaningful storytelling and the musical parody celebrates that. But if you don’t care about that stuff, it is equally fun to giggle at the lack of logic and verisimilitude throughout the tale.

Those who got lost in the magic of this book series want an outlet to discuss their love– hanging on every detail JK Rolwing reveals about the Wizarding World. These ideas circulate in the heads of readers and viewers to the point where they embrace the phantasmagoria unapologetically. This musical parody stands as a triumph, finally allowing those fans to come together in a very real way. Without CGI or big Universal Studios money, this musical brings people together to celebrate the STORY of Harry Potter and their connections to it. The audience brings with them their own version of the narrative and opinions on the story, which are immediately confronted by the comedy and parody of the show. It allows one to take on a critical lens dissecting the biggest popular culture craze since the birth of Jesus. It humbled the story like nothing ever had before. When the audience sits down to watch A Very Potter Musical, Harry Potter is no longer a magical international phenomenon, Harry Potter is a joke amongst friends. 

Fiddling with Hamilton

Matthew Arcuri’s deep thoughts to introduce this blog…

Ensembles are representational. For the audience, they help define the norms of the society that exists within the musical as well as provide a greater context to the musical through representation of real life tropes. Through the ensemble’s representational acts, they challenge the audience’s preconceived notions while also welcoming them into a story that may break every bias each audience member holds. They help translate the stories the audiences watch on stage into stories that could exist within the audience’s own life. The ensemble is there to be the society, reject the main characters, accept the main characters, celebrate the main characters, envy the main characters. Consequently, the ensemble manifests that which in real life often lies within the collective unconscious. 

What this blog will do.

To see how an ensemble world-builds best, I’d like to take a look at two very pandemonious opening numbers: “Traditions” from Fiddler on the Roof and “Alexander Hamilton” from Hamilton. Both numbers allow the ensemble to set the scene for the rest of the musical, but I’d argue they do so, much more.   

Diving deeply into Fiddler on the Roof’s introduction.

Fiddler’s opening scene establishes the ‘rules to live by’ for the whole community- the norms on which the entire culture is based. Tevya, the main “Papa” character, tells the audience that in his village, Anatevka, tradition dictates everything… “how to sleep, eat, work, how to wear clothes,” including the constant expectation to wear a head covering and carry a prayer shawl to show a person’s dedication to Jewish traditions and religion. When singing about the importance of tradition, Tevya states Anatevka’s other expectations for people. Men become papas and work. Women become mamas by working for men, marrying rich and having children. At the end of the song, before entering the village, Tevya declares, “Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” He says that life in Anatevka is solely about “balance,” which for the audience obviously means “stay in your lane” and do not break the traditional roles assigned to you. The roles for gender, socioeconomic status and ethnicity (being Jewish by birth and faith) define life and happiness within the fictitious village. 

In the 1971 film, directed by Norman Jewison, the audience is lead through the village life in full swing, with every symbol, costume, gesture, and prop reinforcing Tevya’s homage to tradition, Tevya throws out his first challenge to the audience. He simply looks into the camera and says, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof… but I don’t even know how the traditions got started.” Now the audience is faced with a conscious choice. Do I observe the exotic nature of Anatevka’s time period, political environment, religious undertones and cultural practices and be entertained or do I examine my own life, my own community, my own traditions, and ask myself hard questions- “What do I do out of robotic compliance to traditions which have no meaning to me? How do the traditions of the community I live in affect me?” The musical’s action continues so fast the audience has little time to reflect, but they will continue to be challenged with the same issue over and over as they watch traditions… and harsh expectations for people to conform to the rigid roles in the community… crash. These “values” weaken as the changing world threatens the community itself, thus making it possible to live outside the norms of the “traditions.”

Diving just as deeply into Hamilton’s Introduction.

The filmed Hamilton begins, not with telling us where the action will take place, but by reminding us where we, the audience, currently sit and what we know. This sets up a challenge for the artists: now that you’ve reminded us of what we already know, can you pull us away from that comfort and into your story? The first thing we see is the stage, bare, with a floating credit telling us this was filmed only a few years ago in “present day” New York City. The first lyrics we hear intentionally trigger the audience to start questioning their inexplicable knowledge of this long-deceased founding father. We know what Hamilton did, but “how?” The ensemble quickly begins to answer this question. Starting from his birth, the ensemble creates a chaotic visual where Hamilton’s life flashes before our eyes. They fast forward Hamilton’s life up until the minute he meets Aaron Burr. They establish his position in society. They run through his broken relationships. They define his motivation, his inspiration, and his ambition. And most notably, through exquisite dance and blocking, –throughout the entire rap ballad– every character in Hamilton’s life literally positions themself in relation to him. Almost as if creating a flowchart from a textbook, the history is taught directly and unambiguously. “We, fought with him; me, I died for him; me, I trusted him; me, I loved him.”  The norms are set. This is a world of guns and machismo and love and so many erudite elites. We will see Hamilton scrap his way to the top, but how this affects each and every one of these relationships; I guess we’ll see soon. As the ensemble works hard to build a world from an empty stage, we realize the story we are about to see is about building another world: the world in which we now find ourselves. The ensemble represents everything we see in 2020 America reflected by 1700’s America and they lay it all out on the table in the very first song. 

So how does this make a story?

For the musical’s characters, ‘to belong’ is to fit within the norms of the society that is built and reinforced by the ensemble. But we would not have a story if the norms of this society weren’t challenged by our lead characters. And when the biases of the society portrayed on stage are challenged, then the audience’s biases are challenged right back. The ensemble builds a detailed world the audience has no choice but to fall into. The musical’s story, not the ensemble, then breaks our assumptions about that world. Not only are we entertained by song and dance, we learn the lesson that assumptions can sometimes rob us of discovering beautiful individuality. 

So what does Hamilton’s ensemble teach us through story?

As the ensembles for both musicals establish societal norms, gender roles, socioeconomic status and ethnicity begin to drive the narrative of the stories. In Hamilton, the ensemble presents the duplicitous nature of fulfilling the roles. On the one hand, Hamilton, Eliza, Angelica, Burr all live out the societal expectations of the musical’s “community.” On the other, the ensemble brings to the audience’s attention the long-lasting consequences, still affecting us today, of these characters conforming to such irrelevant norms. Angelica is the eldest sister, whose job is to ensure her sisters marry well. By fulfilling that role, she set into motion Eliza’s drive and passion when she becomes widowed. But before we see Hamilton fall in love with his wife, Andy Blankenbuehler, the show’s choreographer, uses the ensemble to rewind Angelica’s first moments with hamilton. This give us a deeply personal look into the exact moment she decided to act on norms she so desperately wanted to break. Without the ensemble, there would not have been a story to tell. We would have just seen an upper class woman fulfill her duty. This sets the tone for us to question the obedience of every future dutiful action.

We see so many more characters comply with the expectations surrounding them. As Angelica and Hamilton’s relationship matures, she can only act as a moral compass for Hamilton as much as her female identity and marital and socioeconomic status allow. All the while, Eliza’s money allows her to be moralistic when she discovers Hamilton’s extra marital affairs. Hamilton’s status as an “immigrant” makes him plunge into his work when he is being kept out of the “room where it happens.” His bravado makes him prove his worth over and over again, to the point of challenging Burr. All these actions, completely dependent on the characters obeying strict societal norms, have enormous consequences for us. We did not benefit from Hamilton’s intelligence as a potential president of the United States. Eliza made incredible gains for women’s rights and humanitarian aid simply because she remained a widow. But the audience remembers each character as an individual since the entire ensemble continues to focus audience attention on the value of their individual freedom and beauty.

Fiddler on the Roof reverses this. I’ll explain…

The Fiddler audience did not need the ensemble to remind how breaking with societal norms has subsequent consequences. In this case, the ensemble acts as a reinforcement to societal norms while the main characters break with tradition. In conjunction, we see the consequences on our own spheres of society symbolized in the changes forced onto Tevya. Every time a daughter challenges her role’s rigidity, Tevya’s acceptance parallels the progressive developments that are continuing to happen today in our own world. Tzeitel breaks from her rigid role as “unmarried daughter getting along in years.” She makes a pledge with Motel for love. She challenges Motel, a male “superior” (her boyfriend), to speak up for their desired marriage and against the tradition of marrying up. Tevya must now reconcile whether his daughter’s happiness as a person is more important than his own desire for her to be economically safe. The ensemble, including the Butcher, cannot let go of the sexist hierarchical traditions; only valuing promises and pledges between men, especially when it comes to marrying off their daughters. In addition, Tevya justified his enlightenment by lying to his wife about a dream. This does not represent true change of heart, but simply a misogynistic way to survive in a society that is becoming woke.

We, today, are still continuing that suffrage. Hodel, with encouragement from her older sister, challenges her sense of religion and ethnicity. While Tevya’s world viewed his faith as private and personal, Hodel, now feeling deserving of marriage for love, also challenges her father by insisting he accept Perchik as her groom. Perchik’s religion is politically tainted and he instinctively rejects societal norms. Even though both youngsters want love to be the center of their relationship, Tevya can only accept their togetherness when Perchik announces he wants to marry Hodel. Tevya rationalizes their union on very simplistic terms; the very thing we struggle with in our modern culture.

The ensemble helps to reinforce how much Hodel’s break costs for her, Perchik and the rest of society. Russia oppresses Perchik and imprisons him in Siberia. Hodel goes voluntarily to be with him. She does this not out of a sense of traditional gender roles and their inherent duty, but because she believes there are higher callings like love, decency, and hope. She harnesses a commitment to fight for the freedoms taken away from “the least of these.” She must leave a traditional orthodox society for more open, freer-thinking ideals, even if it means isolating herself from the only home she had known.

Throughout the musical, the ensemble establishes the societal norm that “ethnicities and religions do not mix.” Through this, the ensemble shows the audience how much hate there is between orthodox Russians and Jews. Young orthodox Russian men abused the weaknesses of Jewish women, and the ensemble shows the abuse and arrogance in every interaction. However, Fyedka, as part of the ensemble, breaks tradition himself and shows respect and love for Chava. Does Fyedka break from tradition or does Chava? The double-barrelled shotgun is too much for Tevya. As much as his heart has grown in terms of acceptance and progressive thinking, he simply could not process the extent to which Chava challenges gender and ethnicity roles respectively. Every bit of Chava’s desire to marry Fyedka stretched the orthodox roles Tevya simply could not set aside. As a result, the ensemble legitimizes his angst and confusion, but they also reveal the pain everyone experiences when awakened individuals remain stuck in the small, albeit comfortable, world of whimsical and meaningless norms. 

Matthew Arcuri’s final Deep thoughts.

Stories would be boring if they never broke any norms. Well, honestly, stories wouldn’t be written if they didn’t defy any norms. My favorite quote I ever learned in my only Vanderbilt Art class is “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Something isn’t art unless it helps you go beyond your assumptions, expectations, and preconceived notions. Musicals are in fact art, but ensembles are what brings the medium legitimacy. They serve to help the story, the characters, and the lessons stand out from the norm. They create realities on stage that engage audiences. By creating meaningful fictional realities, ensembles allow audiences to examine their own lives through this lens. In doing so they shed new light on their own preconceived notions about the social norms and rules through which they live their lives. The audience leaves the theatre ready to live a different life; an enlightened life. If a small group of people singing and dancing can both fully actualize and shatter a fictional hierarchy in under three hours, then norms are total bullshit, and empathy is necessary and fun. That’s what I learned from all this.