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There's Something About 'Matilda'

Dec 27, 2011
Originally published on December 27, 2011 4:31 pm

While pantomime performances of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are traditional English holiday entertainment fare, there's a new hit in town. Londoners are flocking to Matilda the Musical, a souped-up version of Roald Dahl's well-known children's novel, playing in London's West End.

The production by The Royal Shakespeare Company has been proclaimed the best British musical in years. But despite most of the cast being under 16, this show is certainly not just for kids.

Matilda is an unusual girl. She's a bookworm, her parents are abusive and her school headmistress is a battle-axe. That could make for a depressing story, but London audiences have been wowed by Matilda's determination not to be repressed.

To help tell her story, the Royal Shakespeare Company engaged British playwright Dennis Kelley to adapt the novel and Tim Minchin, one of Australia's top comedians, to write the music and lyrics.

If you're familiar with Minchin's work, you'll know that music is an essential part of his comedy. But there's a big difference between an hour-long comedy routine and a full-length musical that tells a story. Minchin says he was ready for the challenge.

"The idea of spending two years trying to make a children's story into something that makes kids and grownups laugh and cry ... I love it," he says.

As Minchin wrote the 17-song score, he realized he had a lot in common with Roald Dahl.

"He liked mucking around with words, doing stupid rhymes, being a bit naughty — all those things I do in my comedy," Minchin says.

Matt Wolf, a writer for the International Herald Tribune, says Tim Minchin's approach was just what London audiences and critics were looking for. He says theater-goers were tired of Andrew Lloyd Webber revivals.

"With Tim Minchin, that was totally out of left-field — looking toward the world of comedy and Australian comedy, too — to write a show that in many ways is so quintessentially English," Wolf says. "I think his score is a major achievement. It's not imitative or suggestive of anyone else. It has its own flavor, texture, wit, energy."

From songs about growing up and carrying heavy burdens to being a child and making mischief, the score captures both 5-year-old Matilda's precocity and her very child-like inability to express her feelings, especially when she realizes she has psycho-kinetic powers.

"I had this build up because I wanted to talk about the moment when she does magic with her eyes," he says. "She has this realization that maybe she's not normal."

In that moment, Minchin says, Matilda's in a panic. Someone's shouting at her and he says her brain is fizzing.

"She's trying to work through this idea that everything's relative and she can't be objective about her own mind," he says. "I wrote the first half and then I thought, 'What is it? What does she feel?' And then I stumbled on this idea that actually what she craves in her life is for everyone to just shhhhh."

Anyone who wants to adapt Dahl's work for stage or screen must get permission from his widow, who sets strict criteria. Despite Matilda's success, the estate's managing director, Amanda Conquy, says the estate was initially cautious about saying yes.

"There were films being developed over the past 10 years and we were very occupied, happily, on those," she says. "We've steered rather clear of musicals because we know they have an incredible capacity to go wrong."

Conquy says she's glad that the production has been so successful. There's even talk of taking Matilda to Broadway.

London audiences can get their Dahl fix with another musical adaptation of his work next year, when filmmaker Sam Mendes directs the stage adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

One of the biggest hits in London's West End this season is "Matilda the Musical." It's based on Roald Dahl's best-selling children's novel about a very smart five-year-old who comes to realize that she has psychokinetic powers. The production, by The Royal Shakespeare Company, has been proclaimed the best British musical in years.

And as Nik Martin reports, "Matilda" is not just for kids.

NIK MARTIN, BYLINE: Matilda is an unusual girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MATILDA THE MUSICAL")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Sometimes you have to make a little bit of mischief...

MARTIN: She's a bookworm, her parents are abusive and her school headmistress is a battle-axe. That could make for a depressing story, but London audiences have been wowed by Matilda's strong convictions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MATILDA THE MUSICAL")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Just because you find that life's not fair, it doesn't mean that you just have to grin and bear it. If you always take it on the chin and wear it, you might as well be saying you think that it's OK. And that's not right...

MARTIN: To help tell her story, The Royal Shakespeare Company engaged British playwright Dennis Kelley to adapt the novel, and one of Australia's top comedians to write the music and lyrics.

TIM MINCHIN: This is a love song.

MARTIN: If you're familiar with Minchin's work, you'll know that music is an essential part of his comedy.

MINCHIN: (Singing) Your love for me is not debatable. Your sexual appetite's insatiable. You never ever make me waitable. Delectable, inflatable you...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: There's a big difference between creating an hour of humorous songs for a comedy routine and a full-length musical to tell a story. But Minchin says he was ready for the challenge.

MINCHIN: The idea of spending two years trying to make a children's story into something that makes grownups and kids laugh and cry is - I love it. I love getting thorough on stuff.

MARTIN: And as he wrote the 17-song score, Minchin realized he had a lot in common with Roald Dahl.

MINCHIN: He liked mucking around with words and doing stupid rhymes and being a bit naughty and being quite dark, and all those things that I do anyway in my comedy and stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MATILDA THE MUSICAL")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. So they say, their subsequent fall was inevitable. They never stood a chance; they were written that way. Innocent victims of their story...

MARTIN: But there's one thing that Minchin says he couldn't do.

MINCHIN: The journey was a lot about me getting over the fact that I write ironically. Like, there's a lot of comedy in "Matilda" but it never mocks itself. It never turns inward on itself in that sort of personal - in the way "The Book of Mormon" does, where it's constantly mocking the genre. It's very sincere. And yet, at no point is it saccharine, ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MATILDA THE MUSICAL")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.

MARTIN: Tim Minchin's approach was just what London audiences and critics were looking for, says Matt Wolf, who writes for the International Herald Tribune. He says people here were tired of Andrew Lloyd Webber revivals.

MATT WOLF: But with Tim Minchin, that was totally out of left-field. You know, looking toward the world of comedy and Australian comedy, as well, to write a show that in many ways is so quintessentially English. And I think his score is a major achievement. It's not imitative or suggestive of anyone else. It has its own flavor, wit, energy. It's a very energetic score.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MATILDA THE MUSICAL")

CHORUS: (Singing) When I grow up. When I grow up. When I grow up, I will be tall enough to reach the branches that I need to reach to climb the trees. You get to climb when you're grown up...

MARTIN: Matilda can already articulate most things like a grown-up because she's so well-read. But like any five-year-old, she has a hard time expressing her feelings, especially when she realizes she can do things other kids can't.

MINCHIN: Just at the moment when she does magic with her eyes. She has this realization that maybe she's not normal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MATILDA THE MUSICAL")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) I'm trying to say, I'm not sure, but I wondering inside my head, I'm not just a bit different from some of my friends...

MINCHIN: She's in this panic and her brain is fizzing, fizzing, fizzing trying to work through this idea that everything is relative and that she can't be objective about her own mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MATILDA THE MUSICAL")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) It seems like shouting. The noise in my head is incredibly loud...

MINCHIN: I wrote the first half and then went, what is it? What does she feel? And then I stumbled on this idea that actually what she craves in her life is for everyone to just shush.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MATILDA THE MUSICAL")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) And my heart is pounding, and my eyes are burning. And suddenly everything, everything is - quiet...

MARTIN: Anyone who wants to adapt Roald Dahl's work for stage or screen must get permission from his widow, who sets strict criteria. And the estate's managing director, Amanda Conquy, says they were cautious about saying yes to "Matilda the Musical."

AMANDA CONQUY: We've steered rather clear of musicals. We've been nervous of them, because we know they have an incredible capacity to go wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONQUY: There were films being developed over the last 10 years and we were very occupied on those. So, I'm just glad the first one has been so wonderfully successful.

MARTIN: There's talk of taking "Matilda" to Broadway. But London audiences will see another musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's work next year, when filmmaker Sam Mendes directs the stage version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

For NPR News, I'm Nik Martin in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MATILDA THE MUSICAL")

CHORUS: (Singing) And that's not right. And it is not right. You have to put it right. But nobody else is going to put it right for me. Nobody but me is going to change my story. Sometimes you have to be a little bit...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Maggots.

CHORUS: (Singing) ...naughty. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.