Kim and I get by with a little help from our friends. And we have of few of them to thank (you know who you are) for getting us in the doors of the opening night of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new Broadway musical, Matilda. On the way in, I suggested to Kimmie that we repay them with a drink or two. By the end of Act 1, I was prepared to purchase them the Napa winery of their choice.
The deal: Matilda is the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book. The book is by Dennis Kelly, who also cowrote the Brit series Pulling with the hilarious Sharon Horgan, with music and lyrics by comedian/genius Tim Minchin. This production opened in the West End in November 2011, after a 12-week tryout in Stratford. It set a record at this year’s ceremony by winning 7 Olivier Awards (British Tonys), the most ever won by a single show.
Clearly, expectations were high.
Especially mine. I grew up on Matilda, my favorite of the Dahl novels. His sensibilities spoke to me, especially his perspective on children and childhood. His books refuse to romanticize either, to put it mildly, and I hoped and prayed that the musical would preserve the source material’s touch of darkness.
Director Matthew Warchus told us at curtain call that the names of the four actresses who rotate in the title role were written down on pieces of paper and dropped in Mr. Wormwood’s hat. Little Sophia Gennusa was the name pulled that very day at Sardi’s, and so was the leading lady for the big night. Sophia is about as big as a minute, but brought to life a Matilda who is steely and determined. Matilda’s parents are pretty mean, but mostly stupid. (The Dursley’s owe much to the Wormwood’s.) They didn’t want her, and so do their best to pretend she doesn’t exist. To raise their ire, the 5-year-old Matilda insists on reading classic novels in the living room while the rest of the family watches TV. She’d probably get in less trouble if she hid her library books away in her room, but how tremendous is it that she’s not that kind of girl?
Matilda doesn’t get by by batting her eyelashes at adults. Unlike the other children we meet in the opening number (“My mummy says I’m a miracle.”), Matilda hasn’t been handed self-worth on a silver platter, and she doesn’t expect life to do her any favors. She’s not wasting time looking for a savior. Matilda is cunning enough to have her parents’ number before she even starts the first grade and to know that the only person she can rely on 100% is herself.
“Even if you’re little you can do a lot, you
Mustn’t let a little thing like ‘little’ stop you.
If you sit around and let them get on top, you
Might as well be saying you think that it’s OK,
And that’s not right.”
Was Matilda born with the potential for the genius (plus a little extra) that she shows or did she develop her extraordinary skills to escape her miserable life? To me, Matilda is an allegory for abused and neglected children and the inner strength they have to maintain just to make it through.
Still, she charms grown-ups without even realizing it. Mrs. Perkins (Karen Aldridge), the town librarian and the biggest #gpoy in the entire show (“WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?”), is a Matilda superfan. She has to BEG the child to keep telling her the beautiful stories that seem to materialize in her head. Sophia has a beautiful voice, but I was most impressed with her when she climbed onto that alphabet block and delivered her wordy, sweeping monologues about the loves and losses of the escapologist and his wife, the acrobat. Those sequences were long, and would probably have been cut by a producer too intent on a tidy, marketable product. But they were some of my favorite scenes in the show, especially one that brought in an animation element that very literally took my breath for a second. They also have an interesting effect on Matilda’s teacher, the gentle and oppressed Miss Honey (Lauren Ward.)
Bertie Carvel plays a Ms. Trunchbull plucked my 11 year-old imagination, from her cartoonish proportions to the way she calls for “Cooo-oooook.” He balances the performance with the perfect amounts of menace and goofiness. After all, Trunchbull is the rare children’s story villain who poses a real physical threat. Despite her terrifying backstory and brutish behavior, the audience is completely in love with the hammer-throwing headmistress. That’s the sneaky genius of Dahl and this production.
And the songs! Tim Minchin, composer of my most very favorite “Fuck the Pope” song, is, let’s just say an unlikely choice to adapt a children’s book, but a perfect choice to translate the quirky and subversive work of Roald Dahl. He loves WORDS, clearly, when they rhyme and when they’re repeated over and over again and when come out in streams so fast you can hardly keep up. Fittingly, the songs in the show are very literary. You have to respect the delectable cleverness in rhyming “miracle,” with “mirror ball” and “empirical,” not to mention referencing both Ian McEwan and the TARDIS in the same show. (I knew the TARDIS lyric was coming, but that did nothing to stifle my glee hearing it sung live.)
Act 2 opens with Mr. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert), who is half Vaudeville performer/half British Jean Ralphio, breaking the 4th wall and apologizing directly to the audience for exposing them to all these horrible, book-reading children. And then he launches into a perfectly charming performance of the Head Over Feels national anthem, “Telly.” Please rise.
“All I know I learned from telly,
This big beautiful box of facts.
If you know a thing already,
Baby, you can switch the channel over just like that.
Endless joy and endless laughter…
Folks living happily ever after…
All you need to make you wise
Is 23 minutes plus advertisements.”
You might argue that the telly is a villain in this story, but, you know, everything in moderation.
The stand-out number in the show, and what the cast will most likely perform at the Tonys, is the soaring “When I Grow Up.” Here’s the Olivier performance of the song:
Don’t let the carefree kids and buoyant melody fool you. This is the SADDEST SONG ON BROADWAY. If you miss it in the lyrics, the staging should drive it home: we spend our childhoods dreaming of getting big and of all the things we’ll do when we’re in charge of our own lives. But, once we get there, we’ve forgotten all those things that we wanted. And some kids, like Matilda, don’t have the luxury of gradually growing “strong enough to carry all the/heavy things you have to haul around with you/when you’re a grown up.” They have to be that strong from the beginning.
But a kid is a kid is a kid, whether she is beautiful, talented, brilliant, or none of the above. The closing song (before a neat and funny epilogue) is “Revolting Children.” A woman at the after party referred to it in conversation as “the Spring Awakening number,” and I agree with her. The similarities don’t end with the uniformed children stomping on wooden desks. I saw the correlation in the rebellion and acceptance, with “revolting” serving as both an adjective and a verb. ¡Viva la Revolución!
I’d like to log a few last notes of appreciation for the ensemble members, both big and small; the exhilarating choreography by Peter Darling (Billy Elliot); and the jaw-dropping set and effects.
Not very often does a show come around that is this widely appealing AND this damn interesting. This is one for the tourists and the theater snobs, alike. Matilda isn’t an impossible ticket to get, but it will be an expensive one. If you have the means or the right friends in the right places, GO.
Notes from the after party:
- Celebrity sightings: 1) Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Zacharay Quinto, and Celia Keenan-Bolger pal-ing around. We caught Jesse from across the room being very sweet to a tiny Modern Family fan. 2) Sci-fi/fantasy god Neil Gaiman and his lovely partner Amanda Palmer. They were waiting to say hello to Tim Minchin, and we didn’t want to bother him, so this happened:
- Trunchbull’s cake was untouched, as of about 11pm. Bruce Bogtrotter unavailable for comment.
- This photo was taken by the sweetest couple on the planet, Ruth and Merv. We shared a cocktail table with them and talked Tony Nominating Committee and the fact that they met when they were 13, got together at 23, and have been married for 41 years. Can you stand it?
- The Matildas and friends were WEARING US OUT on the dance floor. They were going strong long after we had already given up and grabbed a seat. They might still be there, actually.
Hopefully, our lucky Broadway streak will continue. If the stars align, we should be able to bring you another extra special theater exclusive soon…