5 Fun Facts About Harry Potter’s New Home Down Under
Melbourne is about to get a lot more magical. The West End and Broadway smash hit “Harry Potter And The Cursed Child” is now in previews and will celebrate an official gala premiere on Feb. 23, conjuring a world of witchcraft and wizardry on the stage of the Princess Theatre. As one of the city’s most cherished venues, the Princess is an ideal home for Potter and co’s first foray into live theatre. But a look into its history reveals an even greater affinity with the spellbinding creations of author J.K. Rowling. Here are five fascinating facts about Harry Potter’s new home Down Under.
There’s been a theatre on the same spot for almost 175 years.
It might not be quite as ancient as Hogwarts, but the Princess does boast a rich history. During Australia’s gold rush era, entrepreneur Tom Moore built the first theatre at 163 Spring Street. Little more than a large barn, Astley’s Amphitheatre was completed in 1854. It featured a horse ring for equestrian entertainment, as well as a traditional proscenium arch stage for dramatic performances. It quickly became such a hit with Melbournians that just three years after opening it was given a major refit, including a new façade, re-opening as the Princess Theatre and Opera House. However, by the 1880s, the building had fallen into disrepair. The original Princess was demolished and the opulent building that exists today was erected, re-opening with a gala performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” on the 18 December 1886.
Just like Hogwarts, the Princess has its very own ghost.
The spectre of a gentleman dressed in his best evening attire has been sighted numerous times over the years. It is believed to be the ghost of baritone Frederick Baker, better known by his stage name, Frederick Federici. Performing the role of the demonic Mephistopheles in a production of Gounod’s “Faust,” it was a fateful evening on the 3 March 1888 when at the climax of the production, as Mephistopheles is cast into the fires of hell, Federici was lowered below the stage via a trap door. It is believed that during the descent he suffered a massive heart attack, dying instantly. This was particularly shocking for members of the cast, as many of them insisted that Federici had joined them on stage during the curtain call, taking his final bows while supposedly dead in the theatre’s basement.
Harry Potter will not be the first magical marvel to grace the Princess’s stage.
“Harry Potter And The Cursed Child” has bewitched audiences in London and New York with its astonishing illusions, pushing the sophistication of stagecraft to unparalleled heights. But this won’t be the first time audiences at the Princess have been wowed by something magical. Since the mid 1950s, the theatre has been Melbourne’s premiere receiving house for international productions, particularly musical theatre, and of the many shows to have graced the theatre’s stage, two in particular stand out as kindred spirits. In 1975, “The Magic Show” by Stephen Schwartz (who also wrote another blockbuster stage hit about a witch, “Wicked”) toured to Melbourne, and in 2002, the Princess became the first international venue to host James Cameron and John Dempsey’s musical adaptation of “The Witches Of Eastwick.”
The makers of “Harry Potter And The Cursed Child” chose Melbourne for its Aussie premiere because of the ‘feel’ of The Princess.
If the barnstorming box-office success this play delivered in London and New York is any indication, it would be easy for the show to pack out stadiums in Australia. But rather than cash in at a huge venue, the team behind the production opted for the 1452-seat Princess because of its intimacy and the Potter-esque atmosphere of its architecture. In an interview with The Age, International Technical Director Gary Beestone said of the decision to stage the show at the Princess, “We don’t want the audience to be strangers in a crowd; we want them to feel like a community of people watching this story together.”
The Princess has undergone the most significant refurbishment in its history to make it ready for “Harry Potter and The Cursed Child.”
While the theatre’s atmosphere met with the producers’ approval, the Princess has nonetheless undergone a major facelift ahead of the show’s opening, to ensure the comfort of theatregoers while also creating an immersive experience. As if lifted from the pages of Rowling’s books, the interiors have been carefully styled. The walls have been painted grey and wood panelling has been installed. Luxurious red carpets have been fitted and the existing crystal light fittings replaced by dragon-shaped sconces. Conservationists were employed to analyse paint layers on the building’s frontage, restoring the facade to its original glory – including a new coating of 24-carat gold leaf on the theatre’s rooftop angel. The biggest upgrade has been made to the theatre’s seating. Custom-made in the UK, the new stalls configuration will give patrons more legroom and the plush crimson velvet upholstery will ensure the audience is perfectly comfortable during the more than five-hour running time of the show’s two parts.