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From 'Cursed Child' to 'Fantastic Beasts,' state of the Potterverse is magically good

Five years ago, I attended the first U.S. screening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 with some of the most avid fans on the planet.

Hundreds of them had gathered at Universal Studios Orlando's recently opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter for LeakyCon, a fan convention devoted to all things Potter. As the movie, the eighth and last in the series, unfolded, fans around me in the packed theater wept openly not only at the deaths of characters but at the upbeat finale. All around me, costumed young people wailed, "This is the end! We'll never have this again!"

Silly muggles.

As difficult as it was for fans to try to let go of author J.K. Rowling's beloved books about the boy wizard — and the enormous pop culture phenomenon that surrounded them — it was even harder for Rowling herself.

Indeed, she just couldn't do it. In 2007 she declared that she was ending Harry's story with Deathly Hallows, the seventh novel in the hugely bestselling series (more than 450 million copies worldwide). Since then she has written a political satire titled The Casual Vacancy and three fine crime fiction novels under the pen name Robert Galbraith. But all along, Rowling has continued to write about and expand the fantasy world she so convincingly created starting in 1997.

And this year we're seeing an explosion of Rowling's wizarding world: a new play continuing Harry's story, a new book released Sunday that is the script of that play (click here for local midnight release celebrations), an upcoming movie that serves as a prequel of sorts to his saga, the revelation on Rowling's website Pottermore of a global network of other schools like Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the opening of a second Wizarding World at Universal Studios Hollywood.

The state of the Potterverse is, in a word, robust.

Harry's story has been told on the page and on movie and computer screens, but now it's being continued on stage as well. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened in previews in London's West End on June 7 and has a gala premiere Saturday.

It made quite a nice gift for the author, I imagine: Sunday is Rowling's 51st birthday — and Harry Potter's 36th.

The play's script is credited to playwright Jack Thorne, based on an original story by Rowling, Thorne and director John Tiffany. Rowling has, by all accounts, been hands-on in the play's development. The play's official website calls it "the eighth story in the Harry Potter series," positioning it squarely as a continuation of the novels.

Cursed Child picks up the story with the scene that ended Deathly Hallows, in which Harry was an adult, married to Ginny Weasley and seeing two of their three children off to Hogwarts. In Cursed Child, Harry is a busy Ministry of Magic employee. Much of the play's action is focused on his younger son, Albus Severus (named, of course, for two of Harry's greatest Hogwarts teachers, Dumbledore and Snape).

Excitement over the play has been high since it was announced last year, despite tight security about its plot. There has been some controversy, too, mainly about the casting of Noma Dumezweni, who is black, as Harry's friend Hermione Granger.

Some fans protested that Hermione had previously been depicted as white — Emma Watson played her in the movies — but Rowling offered her full support for Dumezweni's casting. Responding to racist remarks on Twitter, Rowling tweeted, "Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione." For good measure, she added, "We found the best actress and she's black. Bye bye, now."

The play's 42-member cast also features Jamie Parker as Harry and Paul Thornley as Ron Weasley, who's now married to Hermione.

The format of Cursed Child is highly unusual. It's actually two full-length plays that audiences must attend either in one day (matinee plus evening) or two nights in a row. Stamina is called for, or perhaps a spell that anesthetizes the bottom: Part 1 is two hours and 45 minutes, Part 2 is two hours and 35 minutes, both without intermission.

That does not seem to be daunting any fans. Tickets are sold out through May 2017. On resale sites such as StubHub, they're going for as much as 950 British pounds, or about $1,200 — Hamilton territory.

Officially, press reviews of Cursed Child were embargoed until July 26, while the play was in previews. But on Tuesday morning, a wave of positive reviews declared the play a triumph. (See excerpts, Page 3L.)

Social media had already filled with mostly ecstatic fan response — frequently mentioned are the apparently irresistible Part 1 cliffhanger ending and the spectacular magical effects.

Remarkably, a large percentage of fans seem to be respecting Rowling's unusual request to "Keep Calm and Keep the Secrets" — that is, if you've seen the play, don't spoil its surprises for others. And fans who just can't resist at least seem to be spangling their reactions with spoiler alerts.

After the publication Sunday of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — Parts One and Two (Special Rehearsal Edition): The Official Script Book of the Original West End Production (whew), those secrets may start leaking at a faster rate. The script is getting rather more attention than the average printed version of a play: It has been the No. 1 bestselling book on Amazon most of the time since it was offered for presale several months ago, and at Barnes & Noble it's the bestselling presale since Deathly Hallows.

If you're reading this on Sunday, I'm happily reading Cursed Child right now. Look for a review in Monday's Times.

If you haven't booked Cursed Child tickets, and if reading the script doesn't satisfy your Pottermania, you only have to wait until Nov. 18 for another trip into the wizarding world.

That's the release date for the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, set in the wizarding community in the United States about 70 years before Harry Potter's story.

The title of Fantastic Beasts comes from a schoolbook that Harry and his friends studied at Hogwarts, written by a magizoologist named Newt Scamander. A magizoologist, if you are behind on your wizarding homework, is someone who studies magical creatures, from puffskeins to manticores.

The film promises to be nothing like a textbook. It's Rowling's first venture into screenwriting — so the story is all hers — and it follows the adventures of Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne (who, come to think of it, looks rather like a Weasley cousin), in New York City in the 1920s, after he's kicked out of Hogwarts. Trailers for the film have the same visual richness and detail that distinguished the Potter movies — and suggest that Newt is carrying at least one of those fantastic beasts around in his suitcase.

Fantastic Beasts will be the first in a trilogy about Scamander. Director David Yates said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that Rowling has already written the script for the second one: "The work is pouring out of her." It will take Scamander's story in "a whole new direction," Yates said. It should be interesting to see what sort of character the magizoologist turns out to be (a hint: the trailer mentions that, despite his expulsion, he's a favorite of Dumbledore's), and to meet a whole new magical cast.

As part of the buildup to Fantastic Beasts, Rowling has recently revealed details about other wizarding schools on Pottermore.com. The website, launched in 2012 and totally redesigned last year, is home both to digital sales of Rowling's books and to expansions of those stories with a wide variety of new content.

After announcing the presence of other wizarding schools in Brazil, Japan and Uganda, Rowling expanded on North America's school, Ilvermorny, set on a Massachusetts mountaintop. A video, a history of its founding and a sorting ceremony to let users find their "house" were all added, to the delight of legions of fans.

But not all. Rowling was criticized for the school's origin story and the houses, which borrow their names — Horned Serpent, Wampus, Thunderbird and Pukwudgie — from figures in American Indian lore, by some who saw those elements as cultural appropriation of living spiritual traditions, perpetuation of racist stereotypes or both.

Rowling has not yet responded (which is somewhat unusual given how active and quick she is on Twitter, where she has 7.7 million followers). The critics have a point, but the Ilvermorny material is so far just a brief introduction. Rowling could take its development, either on Pottermore or in Fantastic Beasts, in other directions that allay some of those criticisms.

Florida, of course, has its own piece of the Potter pie. Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a meticulous theme park re-creation of the visuals in the Potter films, opened in 2010, then expanded with Diagon Alley in summer 2014.

According to the Themed Entertainment Association's annual theme park attendance report, released in May, Universal Studios Florida had 9.6 million visitors in 2015 — a 16 percent increase, thanks to the opening of Diagon Alley. In April, Universal Studios Hollywood opened the second Wizarding World.

All of these various new and expanding pieces of the Potterverse have boosted sales of the seven novels that are at its heart. According to a report on Yahoo Finance, 2015 sales of the books were up 63 percent over 2014. Counting a new line of Harry Potter coloring books, 2015 sales added up to 1.5 million copies.

Rowling's net worth is estimated at $1 billion, making her the world's richest author. The wizarding world she created has become a magical moneymaker for her, to be sure.

But her imagination and the stories it produces — so rich, so humane, so appealing to an astonishingly wide audience — have enriched the rest of us as well. Happy birthday, J.K. Rowling, and many more.

Times wires were used in this report. Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two (Special Rehearsal Edition): The Official Script Book of the Original West End Production

By J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany

Arthur A. Levine Books, 320 pages, $29.99

From 'Cursed Child' to 'Fantastic Beasts,' state of the Potterverse is magically good 07/28/16 [Last modified: Thursday, July 28, 2016 1:37pm]
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