PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Matilda: Oh, You Beautiful Dahl
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of the London hit Matilda The Musical. Tim Minchin, Bertie Carvel, Rob Ashford, Megan Hilty, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Zachary Quinto were there — and so was Playbill.
Proof positive that juggernauts come in all sizes was demonstrated April 11 when a five-year-old little miss from England—Matilda, by name—settled into the Shubert for what looks like a leisurely stay, dragging her seven Oliviers (the most any show has won) behind her.
It's a great big grizzly of a part, so much so that it has been drawn and quartered for four girls who each get a night of their own in rotation. Opening-night honors were done by Sophia Gennusa, by virtue of a drawing, but director Matthew Warchus brought out the other three—Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro—to take their bows at the curtain call with the designated star.
These pint-sized pretties have a heavy load to carry in this musicalization of Roald Dahl's beloved 1988 children's story. Matilda, you see, is the downside of being born a genius into the ignorant British middle class who acquire everything they need to know from the "telly" and revile the child who reads.
Sensing an incipient intellectual in the house, her slacker dad and self-absorbed mum send her packing to a primary school, whose headmistress, Agatha Trunchbull, is a 1969 champion hammer-thrower only too happy to hammer all this book-loving out of her.
The only sources of light in Matilda's dark world come from a Jamaican librarian who listens to the tales she spins and a wonderfully sympathetic and supportive teacher, Miss Honey, who timorously defies the forces who bully and abuse her. Is it any wonder the child soon hits the library stacks, asking, "Where's the revenge section?" Eventually, her fevered brain develops telekinetic powers, which enable her to Carrie on accordingly, vanquishing the silly people who persecute her.
The production that the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Dodgers have installed on Broadway has been recast stateside from the ground up—save for Bertie Carvel, who reprises his hilarious Olivier-winning work as the evil Miss Trunchbull; Lauren Ward, the American actress who plays Miss Honey, and Ted Wilson, one of the British lads in the cast whose parents got a job-transfer to New Jersey.
At the after-party sprawled across the Westside Ballroom at the Marriott Marquis, everybody was downplaying Matilda's Olivier milestone. "We can't get bogged down in prizes," argued director Warchus. "We think of it as a little-engine-that-could type of show because it came from such small beginnings. When it opened in November of 2010 in Stratford-upon-Avon, we were thinking a Christmas show, maybe—y'know, just a run-off. It wasn't really designed and built as something that would find a home in the commercial mainstream, which it seems to be finding anyway, even though it is somewhat offbeat and quirky and different from that other stuff.
"I will tell you something you may find a little hard to believe: I think that we haven't really hyped this show. A lot of the hype gets done for you by other people, so you run the risk of people saying, 'I don't think that it lives up to the hype,' and you say, 'Well, hang on a minute. Whose hype are we talking about?' because I wasn't saying anything about it. It's sad that you can't control that level of expectation and hype."
Warchus usually contents himself with adult fun 'n' games (like his double Tony wins in 2009, God of Carnage and The Norman Conquests), but this return to a childhood world is hardly unprecedented for him. "I did a big production of Peter Pan two years ago with a lot of the same people—Rob Howell designed it, and Hugh Vanstone lit it and Paul Kieve did the illusions. Since then, I have actively looked for something that would work for young people and old people—have that kind of broad spectrum of an audience. I've got young kids of my own [ages 9, 7 and 5], so I really jumped on this. It's not a show that is in any way exclusively for children or in any way excludes adults. Quite the reverse: Adults get tons out of this show. I wanted something that would work for a whole cross-section of family. That—plus the fact I like Roald Dahl. I like the fantastical, spiky, brutal worlds he conjures up."
Lording majestically over the malevolent domain in Matilda is the formative figure of Miss Trunchbull, a former Olympic hammer-thrower turned headmistress who keeps her hand in, as it were, by flinging children out windows or, in the case of one poor pigtailed offender, high into the rafters of the Shubert. She has been so tightly wound by Carvel that her head seems ready to explode at any given point in the play.
Warchus' instructions to his casting director in London was to send him any tall guys who were great actors and could sing, and in walked Carvel, the veteran of one musical—but Olivier-nominated for it (Jason Robert Brown's Parade). In the first two readings, the part of Miss Trunchbull was played by a woman—indeed, a woman (Pam Ferris) played the part in the 1996 movie—but, Warchus recalled, "when it became apparent how much of the hammer-thrower we were going to be doing on the stage—twirling kids around and diving over things—I knew I wanted an actor who would tower over everybody else in this story."
Carvel filled that bill—and a lot more. "What we agreed is that we would take a psychological approach to this grotesque character. She wouldn't be a caricature, and she wouldn't flirt with the audience. She's almost at odds with the audience. In fact, she's downright hostile to the audience positively at the curtain call. This is a key factor because this is a character who does silly things and you do laugh at her and enjoy her company, but, as the story goes on, you discover a past and you discover, in fact, she's a killer. Bertie has created a performance that can take you on the whole journey. He kinda plays it like Richard III, a deranged grotesque."
A hero's welcome greeted Carvel when he made his fashionably late Star Entrance at the party. It was obvious he had enjoyed doing the devil's handiwork that evening. "I think Agatha is a pretty despicable person, but I think I understand her fairly well, and I certainly feel for her," he said. "I sorta get her, and I sorta feel I can bring her to life. The feeling that we're all reaching for as actors is the feeling that we've brought someone to life. It's like sports. Acting is like sports—it is a sport—and you kinda like varying the levels of pressure. You have to make sure you play a good game."
He tried not to put undue importance on the fact that he is now officially a Broadway actor. "Why is this more official than last night?" he wondered. "I don't know if anyone in the audience paid for their tickets, but the idea is that somebody did. And any given night, a lot of people paid a lot of money—and even if they didn't pay money, you want them to have the best night. You can't get confused by the occasion. It's like playing the final of the World Cup. You just gotta focus on the game, and that's what we did tonight. We've been doing that for five weeks , and I think we've played a really great game every night. It's a great team."
One member of the house staff revealed that Carvel is so focused when he makes his hurried exits through the theatre as Miss Trunchbull that he makes a beeline straight to the ladies' room downstairs. (It happens to be the fastest route backstage.)
Gabriel Ebert rates his share of boos, too, as Matilda's disinterested and belittling dad. Even the actor admitted, "At first, it was tough to get into the character because he sorta embodies the things I dislike the most—which are daftness and cruelty—but now I'm starting to really relish that, and I'm having a good time being cruel. He has a confidence I couldn't dream of having—just the conviction of the fact that he's right, and, of course, he's always proven wrong. Even with that, he manages to maintain this steadfast quality of pride, which I admire—from afar. Of course, I wouldn't want to hang out with him necessarily, but I admire that chutzpah."
But would he say that the marriage he makes with Lesli Margherita on stage is a happy one? "It's a happy marriage as actors because I think that Lesli is tops. On stage, and throughout the rehearsal process, we found we don't listen to each other much as husband and wife—but some people live their whole lives that way. It's a real thing."
As Matilda's librarian friend, Karen Aldridge is doing her first musical as well as her first Broadway show. She has her husband to thank for that: "My agent told me there was an audition for a musical, and I told her no. Then I listened to my husband. He encouraged me to put something on tape. I thought it was a shot in the dark. But no."
She didn't have to go far to research the role. "I have an aunt who's a librarian, and that's what I wanted to be up until grad school. I wanted to study library science."
The other bright spot in Matilda's life, Miss Honey, is played by Ward, who got sample reactions on both sides of the pond. "Audiences are more vocal here," she reported. "They're more eager to really laugh and clap. They're just louder."
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."
Celia Keenan-Bolger was happily surrounded by recent leading men: Zachary Quinto, who played her brother in the Boston revival of The Glass Menagerie, which is bound for Broadway next season, and Christian Borle, her Tony-winning nemesis in Peter and the StarCatcher.
Anita Gillette arrived with Barry Kleinbort, who directed her one-woman show, After All, at Birdland. (She will do it again in Cape May, NJ, in August). "And I'm in the finale of 'Modern Family,' with a recurring role—a new character named Annie Fitzsimmons. We haven't signed any contract, but it looks like she's going to be Fred Willard's new squeeze."
Jersey Boys book-writer Marshall Brickman came with daughter Sophie, and David Duchovny with daughter Madelaine. "I'm just a big Tim Minchin fan," confessed Duchovny. "He's been on our show all year [Showtime's "Californication"], and I can't wait to see what he's done tonight." Frankie Valli, an original Jersey Boy, showed, too.
"We had our first preview last night, and it opens on Saturday (13) officially," said RSC director Gregory Doran of his Julius Caesar at BAM. "It went really well. It sits fantastically in that space. BAM is such a beautiful theatre."
Songwriter Douglas Cohen had news, too: "I'm teaching at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and I have two new shows. One of them has been optioned by Larry Hirschhorn and Jason Wade called Nine Wives. It's based on Dan Ellis' novel. Dan did the book for 13. It's a fun show—three actors. And then I've done another show called Helen of Troy that has 15, 16 people. I'm writing music and co-lyrics for these. And a new play as well that was a finalist for The Arthur Laurents-Tom Hatcher Award. It's called Lovely—Send Anywhere."
Others in attendance: Jesse Tyler Ferguson, looking forward to another summer of Shakespeare in the Park, Fela's Bill T. Jones, working with The Dodgers on a show a year from now; record mogul Tommy Mottola with his Thalia; Cristin Milioti of Once; Peter Dinklage of "Game of Thrones"; Megan Hilty of "Smash"; Desmond Child and The Lion King's queen; Julie Taymor; with Oscar-winning composer-husband Elliot Goldenthal and an extra-real smile.
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