PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Matilda: Oh, You Beautiful Dahl

By Harry Haun
12 Apr 2013

Tim Minchin
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Songwriter Minchin proved to be as far-out and fortuitous a catch as Carvel for this project. "Matthew happened to catch my act—I was pretty established as a comic songwriter in England—and we had a meeting," the composer recalled. "I told him how I felt about Matlida. Dahl was a huge part of my childhood—just totally embedded. I know everything he has ever written. I've read all his adult novels—I'm reading one at the moment, which is amazing—but all his children's books I'd read ten times each, so I was very opinionated. I kept wondering, 'Why don't they get a proper composer to do it?'—but, otherwise, I felt qualified because I know how to make people laugh with songs. I can make them cry with songs, and I know Dahl."

Book-writer Kelly said he came aboard because "I liked the idea that Matilda was a bit of a rebel. She didn't pander. I liked the idea she genuinely fought the Powers That Be herself rather than wait for someone else to come and solve it for her.

"And also just because Dahl is dirty. It's all kinda messy. That's a gift for a writer, because he loves every single moment he's writing. Which makes it very easy and very difficult to adapt. What was easy is that you have such a strong base from the source that it doesn't feel like it's very hard to take those characters into some places. You could write those characters all day long. What was difficult was getting the whole thing together to work as a whole. You end up with a lot of little bits, and you think they work individually but you got to make them work as a whole."

The set that frames the play is an epic clutter of alphabet blocks, designed by Rob Howell, who also designed costumes. The school uniforms were easy for him, looking not unlike the ones his two sons wore in school. What becomes a manish headmistress most, however, presented a quite different challenge.

"I suppose Miss Trunchbull's costume presented the biggest challenge," he allowed. "It's a man playing a woman, so there's some sort of underpinning that's going on there. I'm trying to tread a medium line in between a male and female silhouette.

"There are quite a lot of challenges with this show because a lot of the characters are grotesques and quite vulgar. One challenge is trying to get that across to audiences without going too far, so I don't want to underdo stuff, but I don't want to overdo it."

A couple of director-choreographers were in attendance to cheer on players they had given breaks. Kathleen Marshall was for Ward, whom she'd cast as the heroine in Stephen Sondheim's very first musical, Saturday Night, and Rob Ashford was there with congrats for Carvel, whom he brought to musical theatre via Parade.

"We fought to get him for Parade, actually," Ashford remembered. "He hadn't done a musical before—although he sings fine, a great natural voice—but his acting was so profound. I was so moved by his audition that I just knew he was the guy. I just knew. He was playing from the truth. He's a hard, hard worker. He's, like, in the trenches with you. All I could think of was Leo Frank in Parade and that woman-man up there tonight, and I thought, 'He can really do anything.' He was brilliant at both."