Performing Arts
12:14 pm
Tue December 27, 2011

There's Something About 'Matilda'

While pantomime performances of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are traditional English holiday entertainment fare, there's a new hit in town. Londoners are flocking to Matilda the Musical, a souped-up version of Roald Dahl's well-known children's novel, playing in London's West End.

The production by The Royal Shakespeare Company has been proclaimed the best British musical in years. But despite most of the cast being under 16, this show is certainly not just for kids.

Matilda is an unusual girl. She's a bookworm, her parents are abusive and her school headmistress is a battle-axe. That could make for a depressing story, but London audiences have been wowed by Matilda's determination not to be repressed.

To help tell her story, the Royal Shakespeare Company engaged British playwright Dennis Kelley to adapt the novel and Tim Minchin, one of Australia's top comedians, to write the music and lyrics.

If you're familiar with Minchin's work, you'll know that music is an essential part of his comedy. But there's a big difference between an hour-long comedy routine and a full-length musical that tells a story. Minchin says he was ready for the challenge.

"The idea of spending two years trying to make a children's story into something that makes kids and grownups laugh and cry ... I love it," he says.

As Minchin wrote the 17-song score, he realized he had a lot in common with Roald Dahl.

"He liked mucking around with words, doing stupid rhymes, being a bit naughty — all those things I do in my comedy," Minchin says.

Matt Wolf, a writer for the International Herald Tribune, says Tim Minchin's approach was just what London audiences and critics were looking for. He says theater-goers were tired of Andrew Lloyd Webber revivals.

"With Tim Minchin, that was totally out of left-field — looking toward the world of comedy and Australian comedy, too — to write a show that in many ways is so quintessentially English," Wolf says. "I think his score is a major achievement. It's not imitative or suggestive of anyone else. It has its own flavor, texture, wit, energy."

From songs about growing up and carrying heavy burdens to being a child and making mischief, the score captures both 5-year-old Matilda's precocity and her very child-like inability to express her feelings, especially when she realizes she has psycho-kinetic powers.

"I had this build up because I wanted to talk about the moment when she does magic with her eyes," he says. "She has this realization that maybe she's not normal."

In that moment, Minchin says, Matilda's in a panic. Someone's shouting at her and he says her brain is fizzing.

"She's trying to work through this idea that everything's relative and she can't be objective about her own mind," he says. "I wrote the first half and then I thought, 'What is it? What does she feel?' And then I stumbled on this idea that actually what she craves in her life is for everyone to just shhhhh."

Anyone who wants to adapt Dahl's work for stage or screen must get permission from his widow, who sets strict criteria. Despite Matilda's success, the estate's managing director, Amanda Conquy, says the estate was initially cautious about saying yes.

"There were films being developed over the past 10 years and we were very occupied, happily, on those," she says. "We've steered rather clear of musicals because we know they have an incredible capacity to go wrong."

Conquy says she's glad that the production has been so successful. There's even talk of taking Matilda to Broadway.

London audiences can get their Dahl fix with another musical adaptation of his work next year, when filmmaker Sam Mendes directs the stage adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Related program: