PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Songwriter Tim Minchin on Making Matilda Sing

By Adam Hetrick
06 Apr 2013

Roald Dahl

When I look at a picture of Dahl, he doesn't really look like the guy who's writing children's books. He looks a little imposing, smoking a cigarette. Similarly, I might not say, "Tim Minchin, the eye-liner-smudged performer who sings 'The Pope Song' — I bet that guy would want to write a show that would appeal to kids!" At the same time, Matilda has its darker, more vicious moments, and you can't be afraid to go there as a writer — which ultimately, makes you ideal for the project. Tell me about your early inspirations when you started to write.
TM: I had written a lot of music for theatre on a small scale in my life. I never dreamed I would get to write a show that'd become what this has become. But I had written music for theatre long before I became a comedian. In fact, even my comedy is very theatrical in its songwriting style, isn't it? It's not pop parody. It's just using theatrical sort of devices, musical theatre, to get a point across. So, in a way I don't think the job is different. There's a sort of almost tacit assumption that if you swear, or have anger, or at least express anger about things — if you say, "F*** the Pope," or can call God a "c***" in a song, that means you have some sort of compulsions, Tourette Syndrome-like compulsions, as opposed to [realizing] they're clearly devices in those songs.

In both cases they're placed to make a point. In the case of "The Pope Song," to say something outrageous, and then reverse-engineer a kind of trap to make people think about what they find ethical. [Here's a video of the song; warning — it contains material that may offend some listeners.] And you know, my comedy's not a spasm — it's designed. That's the great thing about the Royal Shakespeare Company and other subsidized theatre groups who aren't totally profit-driven — they can take risks, and every now and then those risks can really pay off. The risk was that I didn't know whether I was engaged in theatre and the telling of stories. As it turns out, I am and always have been. But they sat down, and talked to me, and were obviously convinced by my rants on how I think this story should be told. I neither had to try and be dark or pull back from darkness, because I just felt like I was bathed in Dahl as a child — marinated in Dahl — and so I didn't even go back and read any of his books again or go and research him. I just thought, "Oh yeah, I know what Dahl's like, Dahl's like — well he's like me." I mean, he's a genius and I'm an idiot, but in terms of his sort of humor, I just sort of thought, "Oh, well, he loves funny words, and it's a bit dark, and it's funny, and I'll just have a crack at." All I did was, I sat down with the script adaptation and wrote what I thought was needed at the time, you know. And I had no problem not swearing, just like I don't have a problem not swearing when I'm parenting or talking to a journalist on the phone!

Bertie Carvel in Matilda The Musical.
Photo by Manuel Harlan

Speaking of parenting, did you test any of this out on your kids first? What did they think of the show?
TM: They like it. They were too young, really, during the writing process [to try material on]. Violet has just got to the age where I think it's a good age to see it. She just turned six and is starting to enjoy it. But I guess the music in various forms has been a big part of her life. So it's completely pedestrian to her. She's got a lot of friends at school who are obsessed by the songs and can sing the whole thing through. And so Violet is one of the least interested people I know. But that's fine. She's seen the show a few times and she gets very worried by it. She's an interesting and emotionally quite sensitive little kid, so she gets this stricken look on her face the whole time [at the show]. I said to her at interval when I took her on her sixth birthday — which she requested — I said, "Are you not enjoying this? You know you don't have to stay, baby." And she said, "I do like it. It's just very worrying." And she's just worried, you know, Mr. Wormwood is really mean. And I think that's appropriate. As a six-year-old, you should be a bit worried, and you should be leaving the theatre overjoyed and full of excitement because the ending is happy and all that. But yeah, I think six-year-olds and twelve-year-olds should be asking questions about revenge and cruelty, and it's fine. That's why Dahl's brilliant because it's all there but it's treated sort of lightly.

Was that something that guided you as you wrote, this notion of cruelty handled in a way that children can witness it without being brutalized by it?
TM: Yeah, I think so. It's interesting because although I had this background [with] Dahl it was [book writer Dennis Kelly's] adaptation that I was writing for, and I was very much guided by him. I think I reacted quite instinctively, and I know Dennis did. I think overthinking is something that musical theatre makers do a lot. I can't speak for other musical theatre makers, I'm just trying to say something about my process, but I think there is a risk, probably. I'm not very experienced, but there is a risk with musical theatre because it takes so much work, and they're so rarely hits, that when you're in the business of making one, you can really try and just figure out what the formulas are. Those are naiveties to Dennis' and my approach, I think, [that] probably helped us in hindsight. Neither of us were loaded up with any particular investment to it. We had a little commission, we really wanted it to be great, and we reacted to the story. What does the protagonist need to be doing now? How do we make it funny, and entertaining, and snappy, and how do we stop it lulling? How do we make it both silly and sincere without the sincerity being saccharine? All those sort of more basic sort of storytelling concerns. Of all the doubts about myself, which of course are many and varied about my credentials to do a project like this, I never even considered that I didn't know what Dahl was. It just didn't cross my mind that I should worry because Dahl is Dahl. Dahl's my childhood, I mean I read all the books before I read anything.

Was the Dahl estate actively involved in this? Did they provide guideposts along the way? Or were the totally hands off?
TM: A couple of people from the estate were involved, Dominic Gregory [director of Dahl & Dahl Limited] being the primary one. He would come in and give notes periodically. But you always have to try and get a good balance between taking notes from something like the estate of the source text, or producers, obviously. You don't want to bury your head in the sand and ignore the experience of producers and estates, but you need to – sort of like what I was saying a minute ago about process — you just need to unclutter. All you can do is be creative and try to tell a story based on the resources you have, and you've got to be really careful. But the Dahl's were absolutely brilliant. You know they were nervous, as they are with all projects that are licensed, because they want Dahl's tone and reputation to remain as it is. There were times when we had to sort of fight for things, and times when we took their advice, and they fought and won, but it was certainly not a heavy-handed thing.