A Love Letter to “Matilda The Musical”

This is long overdue, as I saw “Matilda” on Wednesday, April 17, 2013, right after it opened at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway.

My sister was the one who alerted me to the fact that “Matilda” by Roald Dahl had been made into a musical and who suggested that we go together. I’m the theatre gal in the family and she’s the art gal, so this was a fun role reversal for us. I’m usually the one who has new shows on the radar, but my sister is a fan of Tim Minchin and knew that he had written the score.

Well, Tim Minchin has not just written the score, he has written THE SCORE for me right now. And I want to thank him, and the team of talented people who brought this project to life, because as the drag queens say, it is giving me life.

At the ripe old age of 48, I would have thought myself past the stage of playing an original cast recording over and over until the tape starts to warble and the orchestra sounds like it’s playing underwater. Good thing we’re in an era of new technology, because I have both the London and the new Broadway cast recording (yay!) on frequent rotation. OK, constant rotation.

 

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“Matilda The Musical” is one of those rare moments in theatre history where original source material, creative team, cast and zeitgeist come together to make something marvelous, magical and deeply moving.

Pardon me, Mr. Minchin, if I get any of your droll lyrics wrong here, as I am quoting from memory.

The show is about children, parents, schools and teachers. It is about families, generational trauma and abuse, and redemption. The most miraculous thing to me about this miraculous show is its ability to shift with total grace and humor between biting mockery of the gospel of every child’s exceptionalism, the stupidity of pop culture (the Kardashians and those who love them should be sent a complimentary copy of Gabriel Ebert and Taylor Trensch moronically celebrating television and the inanities of reality TV in “Telly”) and the comedic aspects of bad parenting (Lesli Margherita, in a kind of blonde Marge Simpson glamour wig, is simultaneously scary and adorable as a brash, neglectful mother without one ounce of maternal instinct) and the depths of the soul.

That may sound a bit much, to claim that “Matilda” addresses the depths of the human soul. It may especially sound so to the composer, Tim Minchin, who is famously and entertainingly atheistic. I hope I won’t offend him by saying that for me, the show’s willingness to spend just as much time on quiet, contemplative moments featuring nothing more spellbinding than a small child telling stories to a rapt librarian (Karen Aldridge as a wonderfully sympathetic Mrs. Phelps) as it does on clever numbers performed by a drill team of preternaturally talented children is what makes it one of the great all-time musicals, and certainly the best I have seen in at least twenty years.

I don’t know how the writers (Minchin and Dennis Kelly, who wrote the book), director (Matthew Warchus, and I’m bowing down to you, sir), brilliant choreographer Peter Darling, design team, and cast managed to channel the complex, slightly macabre, melancholic and outrageous world of Roald Dahl, but they did. They did, and along the way they also managed to achieve something I would never have thought possible, which is to absolutely preserve the integrity of the star character:  a small, bookwormish and sombre little girl who is neither cute, nor winning, nor optimistic. It is impossible not to compare “”Matilda” to another show with a young girl star running right now on Broadway in a successful revival (which I have also seen twice). I love the musical “Annie,” but Matilda is no Annie. Annie is a winning, extroverted little ray of sunshine bringing love to the heart of a big tycoon and to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The sun’ll come out tomorrow!

Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow/there’ll be sun!

Matilda is a smart child who is very much aware that her parents can’t stand her, and who  makes no attempt to be cute about reality. She introduces herself with this hilarious sample of Minchin’s talent for comic poignance:

My mummy says I’m a lousy little worm.

My daddy says I’m a bore.

My mummy says I’m a jumped up little germ/that kids like me should be against the law.

My daddy says I should learn to shut my pie hole/no one likes a smart-mouthed girl like me.

Mum says I’m a good case for population control/Dad says I should watch more TV.

You’ll never catch Matilda tap dancing in the finale. I am sure I am not the only one who found her character revelatory: she is a child who is allowed to face reality head on, to stand up for herself, and to bond with an adult who treats her as an intellectual equal. “Matilda” is radical because it allows a little girl to be angry. It shows a little girl as one who calls out truth in a powerful and demanding way rather than in the culturally-approved dimpling manner we have become used to in female characters.

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As a woman who was once a serious little girl with precocious reading habits, a difficult and painful home life, and many teachers who became cherished mentors, I relate to Matilda. Her wonderful first act number, “Naughty,” is one of the most delightful character songs I have heard in years (another is Miss Trunchbull’s first act tour de force, “The Hammer”).

I loved “Naughty,” and I was impressed that Minchin would have given such a challenging number to his very young leading ladies (I saw the wonderful Bailey Ryon, who shares the role with three other actresses, as Matilda).  Having assumed that “Naughty” was Matilda’s biggest song, I was wholly unprepared for her second act aria, “Quiet,” a shockingly intense dramatic counterpoint to Matilda’s mother’s raucous declaration of the value of empty flamboyance, “Loud.” While “Naughty” calls on Minchin’s Matilda’s to wrap their mouths around several verses of intricate lyrics coordinated with Peter Darling’s delightful ninja moves, “Quiet” is Matilda’s moment alone in the spotlight, concentrating very hard on blocking out the noisy, emotionally violent and abusive adults around her and trying to explain to us what she is experiencing. It is worth quoting the song in its entirety, as it is a remarkable achievement. The first section is a rushed recitative:

Have you ever wondered, well I have.
About how when I say, say red, for example.
There’s no way of knowing if red
Means the same thing in your head
As red means in my head, when someone says red.

And how if we are travelling at, almost the speed of light
And we’re holding a light
That light will still travel away from us
At the full speed of light, which seems right in a way

But I’m trying to say, I’m not sure
But I wonder if inside my head
I’m not just a bit different from some of my friends
These answers that come into my mind unbidden
These stories delivered to me fully written.

And when everyone shouts like they seem to like shouting
The noise in my head is incredibly loud.
And I just wish they’d stop, my Dad and my Mum.
And the telly and stories would stop just for once.

I’m sorry, I’m not quite explaining it right.
the noise becomes anger and the anger is light
And its burning inside me would usually fade.
But it isn’t today.
And the heat and the shouting.
And my heart is pounding.
And my eyes are burning
And suddenly everything, everything is…

Here, Matilda becomes connected to her telekenetic power and brings us into what she is experiencing:

Quiet
Like silence, but not really silent.
Just that still sort of quiet.
Like the sound of a page being turned in a book.
Or a pause in a walk in the woods.

Quiet
Like silence, but not really silent.
Just that nice kind of quiet.
Like the sound when you lie upside down in your bed.
Just the sound of your heart in your head.

And though the people around me.
Their mouths are still moving.
The words they are forming.
Cannot reach me anymore!

And it is quiet.
And I am warm.
Like I’ve sailed.
Into the eye of the storm.
Well, excuse me Tim Minchin, but for all your atheistic protestations, I would nevertheless like to thank you for putting a child’s mystical experience to music. I think you have written one of the most deeply spiritual musical numbers I have ever heard on the musical theatre stage.

I was a child who had mystical experiences, and I know what I’m talking about. Apparently, Tim Minchin, so do you.  You captured it, you gave it music and words and you gave it to me as a gift that I will always cherish (and hopefully perform myself) and love you for.  So there, with your sarcasm and sexy eyeliner and messy hair and huge heart.

I should say, if I haven’t already, that this show has a huge heart. I can’t think of another musical that connects the emotional lives of children and adults so beautifully, and with such courage. The anthem, “When I Grow Up” could easily have become a saccharine moment in the hands of a lesser creative team. But Minchin dosed it with just enough slyness to save it from that fate, and Peter Darling and Matthew Warchus staged it with their amazing child actors on swings, flying through the air with wistful little faces and crazy hair (Rob Howell is responsible for the fantastic set and costume designs). Apologies again to Mr. Minchin, who is virulently anti-religion, but I have already sung “When I Grow Up” in church. I may as well mention lighting designer Hugh Vanstone here, because the number is lit so beautifully it will make your throat ache.

When I grow up/I will be tall enough to reach the branches that you need to reach/to climb the trees you get to climb when you’re grown up.

When I grow up/I will eat sweets every day on the way to work/and I will go to bed late every night. And I will wake up when the sun comes up/and I will watch cartoons until my eyes go square/but I won’t care/’cause I’ll be all grown up.

 

There is so much to praise about this production. I am sorry that I can’t personally thank every single person who contributed to making it the perfect theatre-going experience that it was. I want to throw handfuls of glitter on Chris Nightingale for his orchestrations and to assure him that some of us noticed, and appreciated, the subtle improvements between the London and Broadway versions (I love both cast recordings — they both have their own virtues, so buy and enjoy both! Support the arts!). I want to send the wig shop a case of champagne (the design for the character of Amanda is especially brilliant). I want to hug Paul Kieve for what he managed to do with the magical effects in the Escapologist sequence.

But I really have to thank the cast for what they did to bring this whole thing to life. The children (and the older “children,” who are a mini ensemble of their own, and completely hilarious), first and foremost, for their jaw-dropping level of commitment and fabulousness in every moment, every lyric, every turn of the head, every scream of terror (“Chokey!”) and up to the delightful curtain call. You awed me. I imagine that it must be an honor to share the stage with you, because you are all amazing pros with huge buckets of talent. If I could see the show dozens of times so that I could fully appreciate what each one of you adds to this production, I would. If I win the lottery, maybe I’ll move to New York for the rest of the run and do just that.

Lesli Margherita, Gabriel Ebert, John Arthur Greene, Phillip Spaeth, Taylor Trensch, Ben Thompson (thanks to you and Tim Minchin and Chris Nightengale for TOTALLY making me cry with “I’m Here” — my father died when I was a girl, and that song was almost unbearably hard for me), Karen Aldridge were all completely enchanting, in that they gave themselves over completely to incarnating Roald Dahl’s world as interpreted by the “Matilda the Musical” team.

Lauren Ward made it look easy to bring Miss Honey to life, but the character has a series of very tricky musical sequences and an emotional arc that is much more complicated than it first appears. Miss Honey is very special to me and to anyone else who knows that sometimes teachers are better chosen parents to children than are their biological parents. Her aria, “My House” is one of my favorite songs on the show, and Lauren Ward has the honey voice to go with her character’s name. I wish her well as she departs the cast this month.

Bertie Carvel, who has also just left the show, made what I think is a unique contribution to American musical theatre history with this performance. Although I thought Billy Porter was wonderful in “Kinky Boots,” it seems to me a shame that we didn’t award Bertie Carvel the Tony (The same goes double! triple! for Tim Minchin). It may be that those of us who saw the show were so dazzled by the magic of “Matilda,” we may not have fully appreciated the technical and physical demands of playing Miss Trunchbull. Carvel’s Trunchbull is one of the most bizarre yet strangely charming characters ever created for the Broadway stage. She was truly and actually frightening — deranged, abusive and hateful – but Carvel somehow managed to invest her with a hilarious primness that made her forgivably human.

And you may bet your britches

this headmistress finds this vile odiferousness

wholly, olfactorally insulting. [My apologies to Tim Minchin for misquoting this last line -it's fixed now! - PB]

Delicious. Here at around 5:00 is some video footage of Carvel recording the original Broadway cast album. You can experience a few moments of the madness yourself.

My old Northwestern schoolmate Craig Bierko goes on as Trunchbull any day now (he may have already debuted), and I wish him the very best filling the enormous brogues left by the inimitable Mr. Carvel. He was simply a marvel, mincing around terrorizing children while spitting out patter songs in perfect diction and escalating levels of menace. I loved the way he even brought a bit of humility to his curtain call, maintaining character and taking his bow (curtsy, actually) with a slightly defensive air — just a bit miffed at have been bested by one of the “little maggots” but gracious enough to receive her due round of wild applause. Brilliant from first entrance to last second on stage. Bravo (brava?).

I am a very lucky one of the Revolting Children as I have a ticket to see the show again this coming weekend, October 12th at 8pm. Having already seen Miss Bailey Ryon triumph in the role of Matilda Wormwood, I hope to be able to see one of the other gifted leading ladies, but I will be thrilled if it’s Bailey again.

I will be the beaming lady at the stage door waiting for autographs. Since I could never fully express to you all how much your work and this show has meant to me, I have been determined to write it out. So here it is, with my deep thanks for this beautiful contribution to the musical theatre genre and to me personally.

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 Love and Revolt,

Victoria Weinstein

Photo on 2013-10-08 at 16.21 #2

 



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2 Responses to A Love Letter to “Matilda The Musical”

  1. EmJay says:

    Just booked tickets to take my soon to be 10 year old son to New York for the first time in February. He is a theatre kid stuck in the midwest and has already presented me his list of shows he wants to see. I’m hoping I can convince this little “director” to add Matilda to the list. I probably just need to inadvertently leave the cast recording playing in the car soon. THANKS!!! [Oh, DO! He'll love it!! - PB]

  2. Pingback: Charisma, haunting churches, “arrest activism,” life-changing experiences, and more « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

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