"Matilda," the Roald Dahl children's novel about a neglected girl who finds refuge in the world of books and imagination, turns a new page with the stage musical adaptation that opened to widespread acclaim at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway this spring, after taking London by storm nearly three years ago.
Playwright Dennis Kelly and songwriter Tim Minchin are making celebrated—and now Tony nominated—Broadway debuts with their darkly comic musical, which makes the antics of Annie's Miss Hannigan seem like acts of charity when compared to the child-tossing sportsmanship of Miss Trunchbull, Matilda's fearful headmistress.
"These days we don't worry that we're going to psychologically damage children," laughs Kelly, who authored the musical's libretto. "Dahl is very dark and quite irreverent."
Both writers cite a childhood connection with the late children's author known for "James and the Giant Peach" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"—both of which are also taking on new life as stage musicals. "Dahl's my childhood, I read all the books before I read anything," Minchin says.
This personal through line with Dahl made Kelly and Minchin ideal, if unlikely, candidates to write the stage production. Minchin, also a celebrated actor and comedian, has traversed some pretty non-PG territory—he played a drug-fueled rock star on the Showtime series "Californication" 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. For his part, Kelly has also charted dark and deep waters with his play Love and Money—a tale of marital murder, and the controversially titled Osama the Hero about terrorism.
"I think the RSC were quite brave," says Kelly. "They approached me, and it was kind of an unusual thing to do. I think, also, Tim is a very unusual choice. If you sit through one of Tim's shows, apart from being hilarious, you know he has a love of language. If you're a sensitive viewer, you would realize there was a connection between Dahl and Tim."
It was the musical's director, Matthew Warchus, who first brought Minchin into the fold. "[He] asked me if I'd heard of 'Matilda' 'cause they were considering me to write songs for a musical version," Minchin recalls. "I said, ‘You're f***ing joking! Awesome!'"
Kelly, however, is forthcoming about not being the biggest fan of musicals. "I'll admit to being a bit of a musical cynic before," he says. "I'd probably seen a couple of dodgy musicals and had wrongly judged the entire form on that."
Minchin, whose comedy acts are punctuated with theatrical story songs, was also slightly skeptical about his own aspirations to write for the stage. "I didn't know whether I was that engaged in theatre and the telling of stories, [but] as it turns out I am and always have been," he says.
Both writers say their collaboration on bringing Matilda to life ignited a new passion for the musical form. "The funny thing about theatre is, you hear people say, 'I went to see a play once and I didn't like it'—you never hear that with a film," Kelly says.
"What I've grown to understand about musicals," he adds, "is that you're working with a much broader pallet because you're playing to 1,500 people and the emotions are being sung. But just because the pallet is more colorful, or broader, or the brushes are thicker, it doesn't mean that the work itself is any less profound—if anything it's more."
Coloring Matilda's world are Minchin's songs, which the cast doles out to the audience like a series of tart lollipops. Among these musical delights is "When I Grow Up," a ballad that holds a mirror up to the child in all of us—especially the adult theatregoers in the audience. "I just wanted to write a song that captured the vibe of the show, and wasn't to be sung by any one character, but was a chorus number," Minchin says. "‘When I Grow Up' is sort of the song that people remember most now.… It just places a sort of blanket of un-sentimental sentimentality across it."
Without getting too sentimental, Kelly says he hopes audiences can find inspiration in the tale of a little girl with a powerful imagination. "It's a sort of celebration of creating things," Kelly says of Matilda. "All stories are about getting your imagination going. I think that creativity, no matter which way it comes out is, by and large, a really positive force in our lives."