One morning on a trip to Las Vegas, I was swimming in the pool. I looked up from the water and was startled to see that almost every woman in every lounger was reading exactly the same book: "Fifty Shades of Grey," the 2011 erotic novel by the British author E L James. Granted, this was Las Vegas. Still, "Fifty Shades of Grey" has sold more than 40 million copies. When it set the record as the fastest-selling paperback of all time, guess whom it knocked off that lucrative throne?
The Harry Potter books, penned by J.K. Rowling for a very different demographic. British literary women have all kinds of markets covered.
So what do Harry Potter and "Fifty Shades of Grey" have in common? Well, aside from making their authors a fortune, both have sparked parody shows coming to Chicago in coming days. Beginning Tuesday, two British writer-comedians, Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, are opening their "Potted Potter" show at the Broadway Playhouse. The family oriented show's full title, actually, is "Potted Potter — The Unauthorized Harry Experience — A Parody by Dan and Jeff." Therein, Clarkson and Turner do all seven Harry Potter books in 70 minutes. And beginning Nov. 28, "Spank! The Fifty Shades Parody," which is certainly not a family show, will occupy the main stage of Chicago's Royal George Theatre.
"Spank!" is not the only "Fifty Shades" parody on the books for Chicago this fall. Beginning Nov. 16, you can also see "Fifty Shades: The Musical" at the Apollo Theater. This is a locally originating production, boasting a live band and original musical numbers, as penned and staged by Baby Wants Candy, the group known for its full-length improvised musicals.
So what gives? Well, when a cultural entity becomes as massively popular as either "Fifty Shades" or the Harry Potter books, there is fun to be had and money to be made on its coattails. And as long as the show is clearly definable as that magic legal word "parody," you can usually get away with creating an entire production. Of course, it can be a very fine line between being perceived (or closed down) for trading off someone else's intellectual property and lampooning it, which is why all three of these shows carry disclaimers that they are "unauthorized" and have no connection with the original author or her books.
In practice, it helps if the owner of the original copyright is supportive. In a recent phone interview from Britain, both Clarkson and Turner said, in essence, that the Rowling folks had early on checked out their show (a hit at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and later in London's West End and off-Broadway), had a good laugh, decided that it was very much in the spirit of Harry Potter-dom and decided to let them quietly go ahead.
"They really have been very kind and gracious about it," said Turner. "I think they realized it was all coming out of our great love of the books."
"Spank!" producer Michael Mills said his show was conceived as a light, fun "girls night out" that would poke a little fun at the book so many women have read (quietly, unless in Las Vegas). In both cases, one could imagine that the shows will help the sales of the original, rather than hurt them. Mills said that the tour, although still in its early stages, has been doing very well, with "Spank!" playing to sold-out houses in several cities, often to the producers' surprise. Whether there will be enough business in Chicago for two "Fifty Shades" parodies to run simultaneously remains to be seen (note that "Fifty Shades: The Musical" is a late-night show), especially if one turns out to be much better than the other (watch this space). Then again, "Fifty Shades" sparks a lot of interest.
Given all the Potter parody and paraphernalia now out there in the universe (such as the hugely popular StarKids musical parodies that managed millions of YouTube hits), Clarkson and Turner were at some pains in our chat to point out that they'd been working on their "Potted Potter" show since 2005. The deliberately low-tech show actually originated, they said, as an attraction inside a London bookstore that was holding a celebration in honor of the midnight release of one of the Potter books and needed to compete with a store across the street that had come up with the idea of hiring a live owl.
The show took off from there, even adding the chance to play your own game of Quidditch, which has become one of its calling cards.
"When we started, there really wasn't anyone doing anything like this," Clarkson said. "Even now, this is the only show in the world where you can see all seven books performed live on stage by two men. Plus we have authentic British accents." They also have a word in their title — Potter — that might just sell them a few tickets.