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.