PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Songwriter Tim Minchin on Making Matilda Sing

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06 Apr 2013

Tim Minchin
Tim Minchin

Sharp-tongued renaissance man Tim Minchin turns a page in his Broadway debut as the composer of Matilda, the hit London musical that debuts on Broadway this spring at the Shubert Theatre.

To look at his best-known credits, Minchin's name might not be the first to come to mind when considering who might be the proper songwriter for a musical based on Roald Dahl's children's novel about a schoolgirl with magical powers. The Australian comedian, songwriter, actor and musician has traversed some pretty non-PG territory — he played a drug-fueled rock star on the Showtime series "Californication" and Judas Iscariot in the U.K. arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, and penned songs that bluntly address hot topics such as sex scandals within the Catholic church ("The Pope Song"), religion ("Thank You God") and prejudice ("Cont"), each number subverting expectations of the listeners by the final note.

Minchin's ability to deliver these songs with a cheeky charm — a disarmingly innocent directness — made him a perfect collaborator for book writer Dennis Kelly on the musical that took London by storm. spoke with Minchin about his inspirations, his children, his love of Dahl and his singular world view that shapes the world of Matilda.

Was Dahl a big part of your childhood?
Tim Minchin: Yeah — huge. At varying ages I suppose I read them all, and I didn't read "Matilda" as a kid because it was very late [in my childhood]. Although I'm always slightly loathe to attribute things to influences because it's always — I think it's a simplification of the truth — but he was a big influence on me. And I really loved his poetry as well, people forget about "Revolting Rhymes" and "Dirty Beasts." I think I always got a huge thrill out of good rhyme and meter, you know? Something about well-constructed poetry makes my brain fizz, and I think that comes very early on, and Dahl was certainly a part of that. Huge fan.

You mentioned you were a bit older when "Matilda" was published. Had you read it prior to the start of the musical?
TM: Yeah, I definitely had — it just wasn't a part of my childhood because by the time he wrote "Matilda" I was 13 or something. But I read it subsequently — I always read children's books and still do. I read it probably when one of my sisters got it, or something. I guess I read it in my teens. Then, in my early 20s, I asked the Dahl estate about the rights for it because I thought it would make a good musical, and then totally coincidentally it came back to me.

You had an inspiration for the musical prior to the Royal Shakespeare Company production?
TM: Well, I was still in Perth and I was writing children's theatre with a little theatre company. It was at a period when I was acting one week, playing in bands the next, and doing all the things I now do, but on a much smaller scale. I would get these projects, and to write a score for one of these shows, it takes four weeks or something. I'd get paid a thousand bucks and then they'd [run] a couple of weeks, and they'd be done. So that was the sort of scale I was thinking about. My intention was to gain what permission I had to get to write a small show for a local production. I was so thinking on that [small] scale that it wouldn't have crossed my mind they would say, "Oh you could send us a score and we'll consider it..." Being someone who can't read or write [music] — the very word "score" scared me away at that stage, 10, 12, 13 years ago. That was enough to make me just move on to the next project.

That story's become a bit apocryphal, and people say, "Oh he'd been trying to write Matilda for 10 years and then the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company]…" That's not the case at all. I just wrote one e-mail. But it remains the only time I've ever written an email to anyone about the rights to the book. So, I guess I thought it was a good idea, and then when [Matilda director] Matthew Warchus got me into a meeting, and asked me if I'd heard of "Matilda" cause they were considering me to write songs for a musical version. I said, "You're f***ing joking! Awesome!"


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