PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Songwriter Tim Minchin on Making Matilda Sing

By Adam Hetrick
06 Apr 2013

Dennis Kelly

What were some of your first inspirations when you sat down to set music to Dennis' treatment?
TM: I read the script, and sat down and played the piano for a bit, which is what I do. I just play and play and play, and half the time I'm just playing blues and mucking around and wasting time, and eventually I'll sort of stumble toward some kind of audio color. And with Matilda, the real thing that Dennis did — which had nothing to do with Dahl except obviously Dennis was aping Dahl's style of storytelling — was that Dennis wrote a subplot that doesn't exist in the original story at all. [This] backstory, [he] drags it out across the musical in a very very clever magical way that solves the problem of the sort of children's book reveal that Matilda has. The musical is a lot more mature than the book, in that it suits adults as much as it suits children, and that's actually the thing we got right somehow. I think that's the thing we've stumbled on, is that it's genuinely a piece of theatre that a 65-year-old truck driver will enjoy as much as a six-year-old girl. But Dennis' acrobat and escapologist subplot was actually the first thing I went to, because it had a circusy old-worldy thing, and so I wrote that sort of circus theme first because it was just the thing that came easiest.

The second thing I wrote was "When I Grow Up," because again, before I get into the detail of the story, I'm thinking [about] what the character's going to sing, how are we going to express what that characters worldview is, and all those chores that musicals have to do. I just wanted to write a song that captured the vibe of the show, and wasn't to be sung by anyone one character but was a chorus number. "When I Grow Up" is sort of the song that people remember most now because it does float above the narrative a bit. It just places a sort of blanket of un-sentimental sentimentality across it. And it is also structurally, harmonically, exactly the same as "The Naughty Song," so eventually I took those chords and that pace, and pretty much the same feel, and re-wrote the melody and lyric,s and put them in the hands of Matilda, so by the time it comes along it's harmonically familiar even though you don't consciously know the derivative of it.

The vocal harmonies in that song are so beautiful. It's such a fantastic song.
"Awww, thanks. I like it. I'm still fond of it. It's pretty dominant in my life now, I don't mind not hearing it for a while! I'm proud of "When I Grow Up" because it does what I want to do as a songwriter. In all my stuff, not the sort of harder-edge satire, but even in you know "Not Perfect" or "You Grow On Me Like A Tumor" or "Beauty," one of my not so clearly funny songs, is to find an interesting way to express a common sentiment — and "When I Grow Up" has that kind of honesty without being twee. It's kind of innocent... Anyway, yeah, we could bang on about that but that'd be kind of boring.

Regarding Miss Trunchbull, did you know you were writing it for a man to play the role, or did that come out much later in the process?
TM: "I was, how can I say, I was writing it for a man to play rather stubbornly because I thought it should be played by a man. So I just wrote it with that in mind without really consulting anyone. But, it wouldn't have mattered, because either way her kind of way of being is a certain thing. So, if it was a woman we might've had to change the keys. But she wouldn’t sing floaty notes or anything because that wouldn't be right for her character."

You previously said that you have to trust your gut and not second guess when writing. There's a lot of momentum behind the show as it hits New York, were you tempted to make tweaks for New York, or did you have to say, "No, let it play."
TM: Well the one thing about working with Matthew Warchus is that he leaves no stone left unturned, so how much we were going to take the American audience into account was addressed and continued to be addressed. There was a decision about whether it should be English or American, and I think it would sustain itself perfectly well everyone did American accents, there's nothing inherently parochial about the story. However, there is an English-ness to it that is best served by staying English, so that decision was made. [There are] about four changes in the whole musical. Like the start of [the song] "Bruce," "I can see that a slice is" and just because of the accent and the kids' mouths, we changed it to "I know a slice…" We believe in the show. It's got very dense lyrics, and if you un-densify my lyrics it's not my thing anymore. The lyrics are so dense that the English audiences miss half of them - that's the nature of the theatre, you always miss half of everything [because] your eye is attracted by this and that. It's an incredibly sensory or sensorially dense experience going to a musical.

We want is our audiences to have the best time. So if there's a moment that used to get a laugh in England and it doesn’'t get a laugh in America consistently over several weeks of shows, we need to examine and go, "Oh it's a pity they don't laugh there because that's funny. Is there a way we can say that, a phrase or a word?." We are trying to maintain the artistic integrity of it entirely, but we're not being obtuse about. We're not being stubborn. If we think there's a better way to help this different audience with the same stuff. We're not being purists to the extent that we refuse to change a single word simply because we think we're untouchable or something.

Check out this video about Matilda's journey to the stage.