Have you ever wondered which awkward situations Quirrell and Voldemort got into the year the latter lived on the back of the formers head? Have you ever wondered whether there’s a wizarding school on Mars? Have you ever thought about the benefits of having a magical scarf which sort people into a sexual preference? And have you ever heard about A Very Potter Musical?
If you haven’t I suggest you go to YouTube right now and broaden your horizon. Have you done it? … Great.
Now you know that A Very Potter Musical is a fan-created musical theatre production inspired by the work of J.K. It was conceived in 2009 by StarKid Productions – at the time a group of students at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance. Initially performed at the university campus, the show took the internet by storm when it was uploaded to YouTube. Today A Very Potter Musical has had above 12 million views, securing the cast and crew their own fan-base within the Harry Potter franchise.
The show (and its two sequels) is a humorous parody on the franchise, expanding our knowledge of the Harry Potter universe. The core narrative of Harry Potter is, as we know, the story of the good young wizard who faces an evil Lord of Darkness. In A Very Potter Musical this core narrative has been challenged. We are presented with a Voldemort who might not just be the ultimate evil, we know from the books and movies. Through his relationship with Quirrell we see a softer, more caring Voldemort who might just be the way he is because he misunderstands those around him.
At the same time, the Harry we meet in the musical is not presented as the righteous hero. In the books and the movies, Harry can sometimes be somewhat arrogant or self-centred, but in the musical these less favourable traits have been exaggerated, showing an exceedingly immature Harry, who is only concerned about himself and while running away from his responsibilities. Though he is returned to his well-known heroic state near the end of the show, it is a Harry whom we, initially do not sympathize with. This challenging of the characters is created for comical effect – who doesn’t laugh at the thought of Voldemort and Quirrell performing a ballade about their bromance? But at the same time it expands our relation to the characters of the original universe. When presented with an alternative to the characters we know and love, we are made to reflect about these characters. Do we really think that Voldemort is all bad? And why is that? Could there be good in him? By challenging and expanding what we know of the characters, the show urges us to rethink our own opinion and relation to them.
The other characters of the universe are, lovingly, challenged in the same way. Snape’s allegiance is contested, as he is the one bringing the Dark Lord back by cutting off his hand, Malfoy’s bullying of Hermione Granger is interpreted as him actually being in love with her, and Dumbledore’s sexuality is explored in the sequel when he falls for Umbridge. Furthermore the story world in itself is expanded. As mentioned at the beginning the show presents the idea of a wizard school on Mars called Pigfarts, a scarf that can tell you your sexual preference, while it explores the idea that the wizarding world is somewhat close to the Muggle world since everyone seems to know and enjoy muggle pop-culture (but who can blame them? Zac Efron is awesome!).
A Very Potter Musical, then, becomes an instance of transmedia, where a franchise or world is expanded through the use of another medium – in this instance musical theatre. This medium and its devices of song, dance, jokes and gags presents the well-known and loved world of Harry Potter in an entirely different light, allowing us to re-explore and reimagine it. What makes A Very Potter Musical a special case of transmedia, however, is the fact that it is fan-made. It is not a top-down creation engaged by Warner Brothers, but a bottom-up production created by the fans, without profit as a goal. As a fan creation the show becomes part of the participatory culture surrounding the franchise. This culture does not have anything to do with the abilities of the different technologies used to present the narrative, but with the mentality surrounding the franchise. It is the ability of the fan-base to take part in a franchise by parodying, rewriting or creating anew, while feeling that their contributions are appreciated and matter to the community . In the example of A Very Potter Musical, Warner Brothers, who owns the rights to the Harry Potter universe, actually strengthened the participatory culture surrounding the franchise. Warner Brothers gave Starkid permission to have the musical online, and to own the rights to the material they created – e.g. scripts and songs (under the condition that Starkid does not profit from it, or give the rights to others).  In this way Warner Brothers gave this fan creation what could look like a stamp of approval, creating the mentality that fan creation is appreciated or even approved. The agreement with Warner, however, means that other fans cannot legally perform their versions of A Very Potter Musical, because Starkid are not allowed to give the rights to others. This means that the Youtube version of A Very Potter Musical might be the only performance of it we will ever see. By encouraging fan creation, Warner somehow also restricted it. No one said participatory culture was easy…
~ The Ravenclaw
: Henry Jenkins. 2007. ‘Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century (Part One)’. Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy. 1: 23-33
: GeekyNews: ‘Unauthorized Starkid Production Brings Wrath.’ http://www.geekynews.com/unauthorized-starkid-production-brings-wrath/