The Dark Side of a Musical: Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly Bring Matilda to Life

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27 May 2013

Tim Minchin
Tim Minchin

The unusual duo that gave Roald Dahl's young heroine her voice discuss bringing Matilda The Musical to life on stage.

"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!'"


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