The world of J.K. Rowling’s stupendously popular Harry Potter books expanded in thrilling fashion last spring when the two-part theatrical event Harry Potter and the Cursed Child arrived on Broadway, winning six Tony Awards, including Best Play. This multigenerational tale centering on the children of Harry, Hermione, Ron, and their Hogwarts classmates comes to vivid life on Christine Jones’s Tony Award–winning set. But there’s much more to savor before and after the show at the Lyric Theatre, which received a multimillion-dollar, top-to-bottom renovation before Harry & Co. moved in.
From the eye-popping exterior to the multilevel lobby and the gorgeous new auditorium, the Lyric is a wonderland of treats for Harry Potter fans. Jones and her colleague Brett J. Banakis, the production’s international scenic supervisor, took on the daunting task of re-envisioning the space, inspired by the Lyric’s history and by the Victorian Gothic ambience at London’s Palace Theatre, home of the play’s Olivier Award–winning premiere production.
“We wanted to engage the imagination,” explains Jones, whose Broadway credits include Spring Awakening, The Cher Show, and the Tony-winning scenic design of American Idiot. “You’re coming to have a magical experience,” she says of Cursed Child audiences, “and so the job of the creative team is to give you hints of the world of Harry Potter without trying to re-create specific places.” Agrees Banakis, “The space is in dialogue with the show in a way that celebrates theater. Our director [Tony winner John Tiffany] was adamant that he didn’t want to compete with movies or theme parks — that this was going to be an event for the stage in every capacity.”
On a recent rainy afternoon, Jones and Banakis gave Broadway Direct an insider’s look at the reimagined Lyric, which has turned a once sleepy block on West 43rd Street into a must-see stop in the “Potterverse” and a New York City destination. Having worked on the show since its London debut in 2016, the designers are fully up to speed on all things Harry Potter: Jones read Rowling’s seven novels with her two sons (now ages 11 and 14) over the course of several years; Banakis, Jones’s former design student at NYU, devoured the books in a marathon before the first script workshop.
The adventure begins just off Times Square, where an enormous winged nest with a child inside sits atop the tallest portion of the theatre, visible from both 42nd and 43rd Streets. A 3-D version of the play’s now iconic artwork, the nest “is meant to be a beacon and lead you toward the theatre,” says Banakis. Closer to the ground, a 50,000-pound black metal wing stretches majestically toward 8th Avenue from the marquee. Spanning 150 feet, the metal installation cleverly covers a blank expanse of brick and has become a favorite focal point for social media posts.
East of the giant wing, the theatre’s historic 1903 facade features newly designed sconces and logos for Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff, the four houses of the Hogwarts school. “That was one of my favorite parts of creating this world,” says Jones, who also designed wands used on stage by the play’s young characters. Once ticket holders step inside the main lobby, they’re enveloped under a gleaming blue domed ceiling dotted with gold-leaf stars. The rich red carpet, designed by Jones and Banakis, features an H motif (for Hogwarts) surrounded by symbols for Gryffindor (sword), Slytherin (venom or pure blood), Ravenclaw (quill), and Hufflepuff (leaf).
“There’s a lot to feast your eyes on from the moment you enter the theatre,” says Jones. In a delightful surprise, artist Peter Strain transformed a nondescript cloakroom area into a gallery of Patronuses, the magical guardians dreamed up by J.K. Rowling to protect wizards from soul-draining Dementors. Many of the beloved characters are represented, with phrases from the play woven into images of a stag (Harry), otter (Hermione), Jack Russell terrier (Ron), and more. In the lower lobby, impressionistic wallpaper evokes the Forbidden Forest, with columns covered to resemble bark. Even the circular stairwell to the balcony, seen by only a few hundred theatergoers a day, pops thanks to a striking new multistory helix chandelier.
All these “Easter eggs,” as Banakis refers to the design details surrounding the expansive snack shop, multiple merchandise areas, and four bars, serve as a prelude to the main event: entering the world of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the all-new auditorium of the Lyric Theatre. The formerly boxy space has been transformed into a warm and intimate venue with the removal of 400 seats, the addition of opera-house-style boxes on each side, and a curved Dress Circle that sits much closer to the stage than it had been.
Overhead, an arched ceiling hides lighting equipment and echoes the arches framing Jones’s set design. Sconces in dragon and Hogwarts-house animal motifs appear both on stage and in the auditorium, which is paneled to match the walls of the set. The balconies feature a necklace of phoenix sconces adorned with mirrored Ls mimicking those on the original facade of the Lyric Theatre.
“Our design is all about fostering a sense of community,” says Banakis, a quality central to the appeal of Harry Potter. “These stories have such richness; people feel tied to them so deeply, and we wanted this room to feel like an embrace.” The designers used the smoky gray and red color palette of the Palace Theatre in London, creating an overall effect that is both fresh and timeless.
Surveying the finished theatre with satisfaction, Jones says, “We worked with so many great artisans to give these spaces a feeling of history. The hope is that audiences will come early and spend time in the lobby and the gift shop, get a picture with the Patronuses, and take in the details.” All that, plus an acclaimed two-part play performed by the 35-member multinational cast. “At heart,” reflects Jones, “these are stories about people trying to find their way in the world. They’re not simply about magic; they’re about family, who you love, and what you’re willing to fight for. They’re epic.”