Viral virtuosos: From 'Potter' musicals to online magazines, 'U' students become web stars

Salam Rida/Daily
Viral video stars Thomas Roltsch, Chaz Cox, and Danny Lysz. Buy this photo

Daily Arts Writer
Published January 31, 2011

Correction Appended: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Danny Lysz's company and the number of YouTube videos he has been a part of. Lysz's company is called University-Studios, and he has participated in the making of over 40 YouTube videos.

Click. Watch. Copy. Paste. Send. With the variety of online networking websites available nowadays, that’s all it takes to make someone’s entertaining or informative Internet presence, thought or video reach millions.

According to Charles Severance, clinical assistant professor in the School of Information, a simple idea is a key for an online video to become viral.

It’s not necessary for one viewer to send the video to a thousand other people for it to be considered viral. Though it wouldn’t hurt, it ultimately comes down to a small responsibility: Each person that receives the video needs to keep sending it along the chain, passing the responsibility on to a few others and watching as the viewing numbers soar.

Severance said he created a viral video to further explore this theory. The video in question features him at the steering wheel with an iPad mounted on it as he drives and reads the newspaper. In the video he claims this invention is “much safer than other forms of in-car driver distraction.”

After initially sending the video to his students and observing the statistics YouTube offered him, Severance saw the video grow in popularity across the world. He found his video was most appreciated by 40- to 50-year-old car-fanatic men in England, New Zealand and Australia. The video now has roughly 150,000 hits.

“Viral videos are like a virus,” Severance said. “Once it hits a population that is susceptible to the virus, it spreads until (the population) consumes it.”

The general markings of a successful viral video, Severance said, are the length and general content. It should be roughly less than three minutes, with a comical element introduced in the first 30 seconds. Adding cute animals and young attractive males and females never hurts, either.

More often than not, however, a video’s success is really hit-or-miss.

“My hypothesis is the ones that have the best chance are the ones that don’t try to plan too much,” Severance said. “It’s more luck than planning.”

For instance, Music, Theatre & Dance junior Thomas Roltsch was interviewed back in November on "The Daily Show” about Chris Armstrong and the incidents with former Michigan Assistant Attorney General Andrew Shirvell.

Shortly after the interview’s airing and subsequent posting online, Roltsch said he was recognized everywhere and even received a free tequila drink from the bartender when he would go out. As more and more viewers saw the clip, Roltsch’s fame increased — fans on the streets would spot him when he was out enjoying a meal with friends once or twice a day for the following month.

“(The whole situation) made me think about how people are becoming famous nowadays from what can be construed as no reason,” he said. “Like Paris Hilton — she’s just famous for being known. People really glorify fame in our culture, regardless (0f) the reason behind it.”

From 'U' to Internet universe

Many viral videos birthed here at the University started as live performance. A prime example is the playful and creative work of Team StarKid. Originally an offshoot of Basement Arts, StarKid became its own company following its growing success.

After creating a campus-wide fanbase, the group’s musicals grew to worldwide appreciation with StarKid’s online presence. “A Very Potter Musical” and its sequel currently have more than four million and one million hits on YouTube, respectively, since being uploaded in July 2009 and July 2010.

MT&D senior Joey Richter, who played an always-snacking Ron Weasley in the Potter-spoof musical, said StarKid's popularity started skyrocketing due to the sharing options of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

StarKid actors who held key roles in the wizard musicals are recognized for their beloved characters, which Richter said still surprises him.

“It happens at the strangest times,” Richter said. “I was walking to Angell Hall once and it happened. It always catches me off guard, but it’s great that it happens. I’m happy that people have seen the musicals and enjoyed them. That’s what's so cool about it.”

MT&D senior Devin Lytle, known for her role as Cho Chang, was recognized multiple times during her study abroad program in England this summer and has been picked out at many coffee shops around campus. MT&D senior Brian Rosenthal — the show's bumbling professor Quirrell — has experienced personal requests from customers asking for him to visit their table at the restaurant he works at.

Since its popularity was born online, it would make sense for the majority of StarKid’s fanbase and fan interaction to exist online as well. Group members often receive an unmanageable amount of Facebook messages, friend requests, photos, online fan art and fan-created websites honoring both them as people and their onstage personas.

Many of the actors have also received fan fiction stories written about the characters they play — and sometimes even based on their fans’ perception of them as people.

The messages Richter receives exceed the typical adoration and appreciation for his work. A few messages have even have shown concern for his well-being.

“I got an e-mail once of someone telling me that they thought I was going to die,” Richter said. “They had a dream or had some way of knowing that something bad was going to happen so they kind of said, ‘Be careful when you’re driving on ice,’ or whatnot. That was the weirdest one I received.”

Last summer Richter and a few other of his co-workers went to the Infinitus convention in Orlando, Fla., a large “Harry Potter” gathering for fans of the series.

“The conference was amazing,” he said. “We witnessed mass fandom all around us. We signed autographs, got interviewed — it was a blast. We had a line that was practically wrapped around the corner of the convention center and lasted for two straight hours.”

StarKid productions aren’t the only popular YouTube videos started by University students. Just as “Harry Potter” was one of the main inspirations for the StarKids, for the G-Men it was “The Lion King."

Back in Dec. 2007, the G-Men uploaded a live performance of their a cappella version of the “Lion King Medley.”

All clad in blue jerseys and jeans in the video, the members bring to life the well known songs “Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” and “Hakuna Matata” as they occasionally act like the beloved animal characters.

This video, along with a few others done by the group, is now at roughly 200,000 hits. As in the case with the “Very Potter” musicals, networking sites aided in its spread.

LSA senior Chaz Cox said he realized just how popular "The Lion King" video had become when his boss at his summer internship found it and shared it with the entire company.

Though the group posts videos of its performances after every live show, the ones that have received the most praise and attention are the 2007 “The Lion King” medley, its Nickelodeon medley, which was recorded the same year and has roughly 180,000 hits currently; and a “Billie Jean” cover, which was recorded the following year and now has approximately 250,000 hits.

“When it first started happening, a cappella, though not necessarily a new thing … was becoming more mainstream and something that people were seeing on YouTube more,” Cox said. “It’s a very interesting art form, so going to YouTube and looking for a cappella videos initially is what sparked interest in those videos.”

Somehow, though, interest in the videos exploded from there. Nowadays, people who watch videos like the “Lion King Medley” are introduced to the world of a cappella through YouTube videos, instead of discovering the videos through a prior passion for their subjects.

Team StarKid reiterates this idea.

Though its musicals were originally marketed toward “Harry Potter” followers, fans of the production company’s other musicals found themselves gravitating toward the “Very Potter” series as well, uniting these two unlikely audiences into one definitive fan base.

But that’s the virtue of virality: It can unite completely different demographics together.

Infinite opportunities on the web

Going beyond live performances that started on campus and flourished on the internet, LSA senior Danny Lysz has produced, sketched or been part of hundreds of videos on YouTube through a variety of partnerships.

Many of the videos he’s worked on are parodies — like an alternative take on an Axe commercial and a spoof of “Man v. Wild.”

The Axe video features Lysz putting deodorant on in the mirror — but instead of being bombarded with skimpily dressed women, like in the original commercial, he finds himself surrounded by a few shirtless men. Lysz described the video as one that draws on the anything-goes mentality of college, as he acted out the mannerisms he portrays in it.

Though he doesn’t give much thought to the actual people watching videos he’s worked on, Lysz is fascinated by how many people around the world have seen his work.

His creativity and never-ending supply of material have led him to the creation of his new company, University Studios. The company is planning to officially launch at the University this semester and later expand to other Big Ten schools.

The biggest problem in the media world is attaining some form of representation to get you through the door — it’s something that usually takes many connections to achieve. Lysz’s company aims to solve that problem by giving University students the all-access pass to entertainment representation through viral video fame.

People who want to get this representation have to first upload their video to Lysz’s website and have it approved by him and his team.

“We don’t want to be a YouTube,” Lysz said. “We don’t want to be something where there is such a magnitude of crap up there that you can’t find anything worthwhile. Our goal is to have a smaller amount of videos, but only for people that are gearing towards being in the business.”

The Internet provides a limitless medium for ideas and thoughts, and it’s only growing with each passing day and next big thing. Lysz thinks his site could be next.

“The Internet is using two percent of its potential right now,” he said. “We have all this ability to link things together and we’re just not doing it. (My website) could be one of the first steps to really understanding that. It’s bridging the whole nation and even the whole world together.”

Having access to the Internet truly makes a small world even smaller, connecting you to people you’d probably never meet walking the streets of Ann Arbor. Rackham student Ben Saunders was connected through Twitter to thousands of Netherlanders who believed him to be a beloved pop star from their version of “American Idol.”

Every Friday, Saunders received more and more Twitters followers, as his name-twin grew in popularity on the reality show. Once people in the Netherlands started to realize Saunders was not the pop sensation they thought him to be, things got even more complicated for him.

“A lot of random people started complaining that I was pretending to be this guy,” he said. “They said I was trying to get some of his Twitter fame, which is sort of silly, since all my posts are in English, and it’s a label on my account that I am an American student — not a reality show singer.”

So, who’s the real Ben Saunders? The semi-famous Netherlander covered in tattoos and clad in glasses and hats, or the brunette and brown-eyed graduate student you might see walking around campus?

Saunders even received Internet messages from the rising star about his frustration over the situation.

“Which is crazy because he has many thousands of followers and I had a couple hundred,” Saunders said. “I don’t think he has anything to worry about. Who is the official person though? On his Twitter he has the ‘official Ben Saunders,’ which is strange because I have that name too. Who gets the claim of some official status on the Internet?”

Viral fame can give a platform to people with a voice and opinion dying to be heard. University alum Lauren Herskovic, who graduated in 2006, created such a space — College Candy, an online lifestyle magazine especially designed for college women. Besides Herskovic, there are two writers for the website who currently attend the University.

Before the website started up, there was a pronounced gap between magazines for the lovesick teen and the city-dwelling, career-driven woman. There was Seventeen — with a large appeal to high school students — and Cosmo — with a large appeal to working women. But what about the women caught in between? There seemed to be a void when it came to college-specific concerns, like finals, dorm life, senior year, sex and relationships.

“We want girls who are students,” she said. “That’s what makes College Candy different. We’re not some 40-year-old women who haven’t been in college for 20 years. We have girls who are living it. Their problems are your problems, and what you’re learning, they’re learning.”

To get your voice heard a mere 10 years ago, you had to have a way into the media — a close connection to the celebrity world. Now, with the vastness of the Internet, as long as people are willing to find a space to speak, they will find an audience for it.

“A lot of people think the media and written word is dying,” Herskovic said. “But there’s infinite space online. It used to be an elite group of people that could voice their opinions via magazines and newspapers. Now, if you know what you’re doing and you say it well, you can be successful. It’s really inspiring.”

So, what’s the next big thing to peruse through or chat about during boring lectures? As long as you have a bit of luck and just the right elements, it could easily be something you created.