Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: James Synder Heads the New American Cast
By: Ellis Nassour
April 22, 2019: The two-part epic Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the eighth story in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and the first official Potter story to be developed for the stage. Following a blockbuster premiere in London, the show and cast crossed the Atlantic for the U.S. premiere at the totally renovated Lyric Theatre on West 43rd Street, which now has been turned into a Harry Potter fantasy experience.
It received ten 2018 Tony Award nominations and won six – including Best Play, Director (innovative Tony winner John Tiffany), Scenic and Costume Design (Christine Jones and Katrina Lindsay, respectively). If there had been categories for Best Magic and Illusion (Jamie Harrison and Jeremy Chernick) and Best Reviews of the Season, H.P. and company would’ve certainly taken those home, too.
JK Rowling was most intrigued with the idea of diving into Harry’s life as a father—the boy who grew up orphaned is now a parent. It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he’s a husband, father of three school-age children, and an overworked Ministry of Magic employee.
Taking over the lead of the adult Harry in the American cast is James Snyder (If/Then, In Transit, Cry-Baby,) who explained, “Harry is still grappling with his past thatrefuses to stay in the past. His middle son, Albus, also struggles with the weight of a legacy he never wanted. It really is a deep and complex family drama, abetted with all the JK Rowling trappings and mindboggling magic and illusion.” James says he’s always tried to book shows that are different “and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not only different, there’s nothing like it. Nothing!”
In his career, he points out, “I’ve been fortunate. Since L.A. was my home I was able to pick and choose what I wanted to go after without having to worry too much about where I’d hang my hat. The roles have been so varied. Thankfully, I got to work with great people who are interested in furthering the art.”
In October 2018 when he auditioned, he was hoping to get the role of Draco. “I did a lot of homework: read four books, spoke to friends familiar with the show. Malfoy. That part was going to be mine. And then…” Well, he was offered the role of Harry.
James, 38, was born in San Jose but raised in Sacramento. “I’m a real California boy, through and through. Luckily, I was raised in a musical family.” His father, a realtor, and grandfather, a barber, sang Barber Shop. Along with family members, they formed a group which won several awards. James’ mother is a writer. He credits his Christian Brothers High/Sacramento choir teacher Christian Bohm with instilling a love of theater in him. It was there he began appearing onstage.
“I grew up listening to the Beatles, Beach Boys, Billy Joel, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, so when I got into high school, I saw a path,” he says. “I was already a bit of a ham. I played soccer in the Fall and did track in Spring. I didn’t see a fit with the baseball guys, so freshman year I auditioned for Godspell, and won the role of Jesus. That’s where I clicked.”
He explained that with shows such as Gilmore Girls and Smallville, there were lots of opportunities in TV. It didn’t hurt that he was drop-dead handsome. He also appeared in musicals on the West Coast and at Goodspeed and Paper Mill Playhouse. The actors who’ve influenced him, that he looks up to, run the gamut from Albert Finney to Hugh Jackman.
James was self-taught on piano and guitar. In addition he plays clarinet, trumpet, harmonica, and the Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2003 from USC’s School of Dramatic Arts. From his late teens, he became a regular guest star on dozens of TV shows and in film. “I kept thinking, ‘Make the move to New York,’ but I could never convince myself it was the right move.”
However, he finally came to New York in 2008 to play Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker, a 50s Baltimore bad boy, albeit with a heart of gold, when the musical adaptation of John Water’s 1990 film [which starred Johnny Depp], Cry-Baby, moved from San Diego’sLa Jolla Playhouse to Broadway.
During Harry’s two parts [a total of five hours and 15 minutes, with two intermissions], James is rarely off stage except for quick costume changes. “Once the train pulls out of the station, it’s non-stop,” he states. “It’s the difference between running a marathon and running a sprint. I always considered versatility one of my strengths, and I get to test that theory. I’m pulling from every part of my body, from everything I’ve learned. It’s almost as if every bit of training I’ve had and every show I’ve done has enabled me to pull this off.”
He says for him, or any actor lucky to be in his shoes, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the ultimate experience. “We worked really long and hard. Rehearsals began before Christmas and were painstaking. It didn’t let up until after we opened. I’ll feel rested in about two months.”
He met his wife Jacqueline, a fashion designer who specialized in swimwear, on a blind date, while bartending by day and acting at night. They have two children, “so one of the fun things about this role is I get to work with kids—incredibly talented kids who are wonderful to work with. The bonding happened quite quickly. The great thing is I wasn’t going in alone.”
Although he doesn’t get to sing, he does create a lot of magic. “The difference between rehearsing for Harry and rehearsing for a musical,” he explains, “is that instead of doing book scenes for a couple of hours and then working with the music director and choreographer, I worked a couple of hours—or more, then met with movement director Steven Hoggett to develop character and learn magic. Now I can add to my resume: Magician!”
So what is this “movement”? “It’s choreography without music and with a feeling, a purpose, and an intention. It’s very natural, all born from within. Everything is motivated. You know the why before the move, not the move and then the why. Then, you turn the volume up and heighten it.”
James has appeared in a variety of TV and film roles, but the stage is where he feels he belongs. He and his family have been East Coast transplants for three years. When he and his wife saw Harry for the first time after he was cast, she said, “I can’t believe you’re getting to do this.” James couldn’t believe it either. “There’s nothing like it. Nothing! It’s a beautiful play about family, fathers and sons, parents trying to do better. Then, you add in this incredible wizarding world of possibility.”
He said when you audition for shows, certain things have to click. “I’ve gone up for shows I really wanted, shows I felt perfect for; and worked very hard to prepare. But I didn’t get them. There’s an intangible aspect within who you are and what you bring. It’s whether you fit the director’s vision or not. They know behind the table and I know within my heart whether it’s right or not. It’s a hard thing to deal with. I just want to work, show people what I’ve got. That’s what I love doing, exploring different worlds and putting it out there for people to experience so they can be taken on a journey. I just knew Harry was right for me, and prayed that I could show I was. It clicked!”
TV and film are wonderful, he said, “but nothing tops being on a stage in front of an audience. Working in front of the camera, you go on for 30 to 40 seconds and run that 100-yard dash because that take might be the take the director will use. With the stage, it’s about stamina, being able to pace yourself through the story to tell each individual moment as richly as possible. It makes my heart explode. I am so blessed because I get to do what I love.”
This Harry Potter is by Jack Thorne (King Kong), based on a new story by Ms. Rowling, Tiffany, and him. It has a stunning score, something a bit unusual for a play, by English singer/songwriter Imogen Heap. Unlike the film adaptations of the Rowling books, the stage play doesn’t use computer-generated imagery, stunt doubles, or smoke and mirrors. The conjuring wizardry leaves audiences gasping in wonder. The magic emanates from swirling capes, moving staircases, miraculously quick switches in identity and costumes.
Ithas become the most honored/awarded play in theater history. Besides its Tonys, in the U.K. it captured the Olivier for Best Play. In addition to 25 honors across the pond, there’ve been 25 major U.S. awards.
In addition to Snyder, the 38-plus cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child includes Diane Davis as wife Ginny Potter; and Nicholas Podany, fresh out of Julliard, and Will Carlyon are sons Albus and James. The role of daughter Lily is shared by Catherine Ashmore and Grace DeAmicis. Nadia Brown is Rose Granger Weasley; Jenny Jules plays Hermione Granger; Jonno Roberts portrays Draco Malfoy; and Bubba Weiler is Scorpius Malfoy. Someone very familiar to theatergoers, two-time Tony winner Stephen Spinella (Angels in America: Millennium Approaches/ Perestroika), plays many roles.