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The StarKids Are All Right: The rise of a 'U' theater troupe from the Basement to the national stage

By Kavi Shekhar Pandey, Senior Arts Editor
Published November 2, 2011

About two years ago, in a basement on a North Campus far, far away, a group of friends from the University’s theater program put on “A Very Potter Musical,” a lovingly witty tribute to The Boy Who Lived and his wizarding pals. Inadvertently, the musical’s international fame blossomed, and its creators, members of the group now called StarKid, followed up with the legendary Basement Arts performances “Me and My Dick” and “A Very Potter Sequel.”

The founding members of StarKid, who are all alumni of the University’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, have moved base camp to Chicago, where they continue to put on original musicals like last February’s “Starship.” But tomorrow night, the crew will return home to the Michigan Theater for the opening leg of their S.P.A.C.E. (StarKid Precarious Auditory Concert Experience) tour.

Everyone knows the fame: Darren Criss in “Glee” and his impending succession of Daniel Radcliffe’s role on Broadway. Everybody knows the numbers: The group’s channel has more than 100 million views on YouTube. But the story behind their rise to global stardom reveals how truly remarkable and down to earth these StarKids are.

A StarKid is born

The beginning of StarKid can be traced back to a Basement Arts stage adaptation of one of the great fantasy tales of our time — no, not “Harry Potter” (that came later), but “The Hobbit.” Back in 2006, then MT&D student Nick Lang pitched the idea to put on a “Hobbit” play to Basement Arts. The student group approved it, but that was before Lang had actually read the play. Once the script was in his hands, Lang realized it wasn’t good and decided to rewrite it — which is against the rules of Basement Arts.

“But that’s a big part of StarKid,” said 2009 alum Joe Walker. “Doing whatever the hell we need to make the show good.”

“The Hobbit” begat April 2008’s production of “The Hobbit 2: The Lord of the Rings” which featured much of the current StarKid cast, including 2009 alum Lauren Lopez as Frodo Baggins, 2008 alum Brian Holden as Aragorn and Walker as Boromir, Faramir and their father Denethor (who Walker calls the “asshole humans”). While Lang’s version of “The Hobbit” toed the line between proper story and parody, this production was more explicit in its absurdity — Sauron was defeated by tying his shoes together (delayed spoiler alert), for one.

Alas, there’s no opportunity for StarKid fans to see a video of the “Lord of the Rings” adaptation, but the show succeeded in developing a working relationship among the StarKids-to-be and making an impression on those who weren’t directly involved with the play.

“I’m a year behind, so my freshman year I saw the show and thought, ‘Holy shit, that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen,’ ” said 2011 alum Joey Richter, who would go on to play Ron Weasley in the “Potter” musicals.

At this point, there was no conception that the actors were in some sort of troupe — they just took classes and were friends with each other in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Walker and Richter described the theater program as a “small fraternity” where everyone, if not friends, at least knew each other.

Meanwhile, the concept of a “Harry Potter” musical had been bubbling in the minds of brothers Matt and Nick Lang (graduates in 2010 and 2008, respectively) for years. Some of the key gags that would appear in the musical were jokes they had been floating around, and these ideas eventually drove the creation of a definitive script. The writers — the Lang brothers and Holden — were savvy of the acting skills of close friends and classmates and often wrote the parts to fit the strengths of the actors they had in mind, a tactic they often practice in current productions.