It practically takes a sorcerer’s spell to score a ticket to the New York production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two—the two part, five-hour Broadway insta-hit that is sweeping the Muggle world with its disarming charms. Much of the stage wizardry is the creation of the designer Christine Jones, who first devised the Harry Potter theater set in London and is now for her bewitching work on Broadway. We asked Jones to share a few details about the production—which at $68 million has the biggest budget of any nonmusical ever to appear on the Great White Way—without divulging any spoilers.
The theater got a floor-to-ceiling Hogwarts-themed redecoration.
There's a Cursed Child nest on its rafters and a 135-foot aluminum wing above the marquee.
The producers almost passed on the venue. “It was too big, with too many seats, and we thought it would never work,” Jones says. “But when the theater’s owners pitched us the idea of renovating the theater, that was an offer we couldn’t turn down.”
Together with her scenic designer Brett J. Banakis—and with the help of and theater consulting firm Charcoalblue—Jones oversaw a firebolt-fast 12-month renovation that transformed the humdrum auditorium into a Hogwarts-worthy haven. The floors were covered in custom carpeting emblazoned with H monograms.
Along with walls painted a custom color called “raven plume,” there is damask-style wallpaper packed with Potterverse references. The latter was created by Brooklyn-based wallcoverings firm , who also supplied their own Rorschach pattern, based on ink blot paintings by Andy Warhol and designed by Jones and Banakis, for sections of the lobby.
Jones describes the redo as “a Russian nesting doll” renovation: “The Lyric, as renovated in 1996, is still there,” she notes. “We basically built a theater within the theater, created arches for a new ceiling, and added boxes that had not been there. So, it looks like a complete transformation, but it’s more like an intervention—a space within a space.”
Neither the London nor the New York theater productions were permitted to use any visual elements from the Harry Potter movies. So they went straight to the source: the books. “What surprised me when I re-read them was that there were actually very few descriptions of what things looked like,” Jones says. “I would go through entire novels and end up with maybe three or four sentences underlined per book that I could use for ideas for the set.” One exception: Rowling’s vivid description of Professor McGonagall’s office. Jones brought the professor’s fireplace to life with a roaring fire—and a magical network through which characters tumble in and out of the room.
But the lack of visual clues didn’t bother Jones—quite the opposite. “Sometimes suggesting something and allowing the audience to finish painting the picture with you is what makes something truly theatrical,” she says. “Like a book, it allows you to engage your imagination and fill in the blanks.”
At St Pancras, a masterpiece of Victorian Gothic architecture, she discovered the Booking Office, a bar in what was formerly the station’s departure lounge. “That was a key source of information, with its original wood paneling and arches,” she says. Like a microcosm of a larger station, “it allowed us to adapt the scale of a vast space to the small box of a theater. It was fun because we could go there and actually measure things out."
“We set out to use the full range of magical effects at our disposal,” Jones says. “Sometimes it’s very simple rough magic—sleight of hand, distraction, techniques that a magician would use. And then sometimes we’re doing things that are more complicated with scenic technology—things that fly, or track, or that are built into the floor.”
The moving portraits (in one, Albus Dumbledore appears to counsel the now-adult Harry Potter) were “a collaboration between the costumes, lighting, set, and props,” she notes. And Hermione Granger, now grown up and the wizarding world’s Minister of Magic, has one of the set’s cleverest tricks: a “cursed bookcase” that swallows and spits out the play’s characters to vaudevillian effect. “It took a lot of prototyping because the actors interact with it so physically and have to do eight shows a week. We had to make it as safe—and malleable‑as possible.”
J.K. Rowling made several visits to view rehearsals of the play. “There was a moment when we presented her with the stage model and the designs to make sure she was comfortable,” says Jones. “We looked at the transition from Platform 9¾ from the Muggle world to the platform of the Hogwarts Express. We wanted her blessing. I have to say, she was incredibly generous and brave about giving over the reins to John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, who wrote the play.”
When she saw the model of the set and learned it was based on King’s Cross, “she was very moved to learn that was our point of departure,” Jones says. “She told me the story of how her parents had their first meeting on a train to Scotland which departed from King’s Cross. So the set really resonated with her.”
“We asked the head of each department to fill a capsule,” Jones says. “Mine has half-inch models of everyone who works in our office, some letters of hello to the people who might one day find it.”
“It’s a musical based on her life, directed by Jason Moore who did Avenue Q, and I’m co-designing the set with Brett (Banakis),” Jones (pictured above) says. “Bob Mackie is doing the costumes, which are pretty phenomenal. It’s going to be sexy and glittery with a lot of lighting and video, more like a tv show or a concert. Definitely different from Harry Potter, but that is the magic of theater stagecraft. The minute they asked me to design it, I immediately said yeah. It’s Cher! Yes!"