Tim Minchin on doing Roald Dahl justice in Matilda the Musical
PUBLISHED: 15:34 09 July 2019 | UPDATED: 15:41 09 July 2019
Theo Bosanquet spoke to comedian Tim Minchin about bringing Roald Dahl's timeless tale to the stage ahead of Norwich show.
Before he was asked to write the music and lyrics for the stage adaptation of Matilda, Australian funny man Tim Minchin had already built a reputation around the world for his musical comedy.
His writing and composing for the show, which opened in the Cambridge Theatre in London's West End in 2011, has brought his talents to a whole new audience.
The musical, which was written by Dennis Kelly and staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, follows the extraordinary Matilda who uses her sharp mind to fight back against evil headteacher Mrs Trunchbull and unloving parents Mr and Mrs Woormwood to shape her own destiny.
Ahead of Matilda The Musical heading to Norwich Theatre Royal from July 16 to August 17, Tim Minchin spoke about doing Roald Dahl justice and why he can't wait to bring a new lease of life to the show on a nationwide tour.
How did you first get involved in Matilda The Musical?
Back in 2008 I was beginning to get some traction as a comedian.
The Royal Shakespeare Company called me in for a meeting and I didn't know what it was about, so I sort of walked in blind.
Matthew Warchus, who was so unassuming I didn't realise he was a giant of his field, asked if I knew Roald Dahl's work.
I said yes, of course, and he said they were thinking about making a musical of Matilda.
I told him the same thought had occurred to me a few years earlier and I'd even tried to get the rights, so it was a moment of huge convergence, but because things were going well in my comedy career, when they first offered me the job I hesitated.
Fortunately I ignored my doubts when I realised what an amazing opportunity this was.
What were your priorities when it came to writing the music?
Writing musicals is hard, because it's really easy for them to be cheesy nonsense and with Dahl it felt especially important to avoid this.
He was the king of my childhood, and he wrote with this holy trinity of humour, heart and darkness.
The humour and the heart only work with the darkness to offset them; without it you're not doing him justice.
There's a lot of stuff you can't put cherries on, especially in Matilda. So primarily I wanted to make sure that when the actors started singing the songs, the audience didn't feel compelled to slap them. I passionately wanted to avoid a 'Disneyfication' of the story.
What difference does it make to have child actors at the heart of the show?
The extraordinary thing about watching Matilda is that you're watching a show about a miraculous child being performed by seemingly miraculous children.
I wrote the songs for children and always crossed my fingers that we could find young performers with the talent to deliver them.
It soon became very apparent that we could.
I especially love it when people come with quite low expectations of how good a show performed by kids can be and then have their minds blown.
When did you first realise you had a hit on your hands?
I think it was incremental. I knew it was special the moment I read Dennis [Kelly]'s draft, and then I saw Rob [Howell]'s design and Peter [Darling]'s choreography and just knew I could trust these people.
Then Chris [Nightingale] did such an amazing job with the orchestrations.
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I'll never forget when I heard the songs performed by an orchestra for the first time - it remains one of the happiest days of my life.
The first night was incredible and I was already in a pretty heightened state because I'd just opened my first arena tour the night before!
I always knew it was special but I never allowed the idea to enter my head that it would run for so long.
Do you have a favourite moment in the show?
It depends on the performance, but if I had to pick one I'd say 'Quiet'.
It is just this amazing moment when a small child stands in a spotlight with her eyes closed and her arms out, after this freefall of ideas has gone through her brain and there is total silence.
It comes at the point in the musical where typically you get a big, belting song but we put two fingers up at that, because at that point in the story our character just needs peace. It always makes me feel very special.
What does it mean to be taking Matilda The Musical on tour?
I think it's brilliant that there's going to be another production and it's such a good production too, with lots of great Matilda alumni in the cast.
The show has been seen by millions of people, and feels like it's become a part of our culture but there are many people who haven't managed to get to London or New York to see it.
I think it's great that they now have the chance and the fact this production will open the show out to a whole new audience is very gratifying.
Is the show just as relevant now as when it opened?
Matilda is a love letter to the power of stories, imagination and kindness in the face of cruelty, greed and superficiality.
I think it's become even more relevant in recent years.
Combine Miss Trunchbull and Mrs Wormwood and you basically have the current President of the United States.
But on top of that, it tells kids that reading is cool, and that changing your story and standing up to bullies is possible.
That is a timeless message and the RSC is running a brilliant education scheme around the tour, which makes me even more proud to be a part of making this production happen.
One of the songs you wrote for the show is 'When I Grow Up'. When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a farmer, which was a bit weird because I was asthmatic and allergic to hay but my grandad had a farm we loved, so my brother and I naturally wanted to be farmers.
Later on I wanted to be a teacher, partly because I never really thought you could be a poet or a songwriter - it took me a long time to work out that could be a genuine career path.
If you could have a magical power, like Matilda, what would it be?
I would like her ability to read so many books in a week and especially now I've got kids attending new schools I feel I have a lot to catch up on.
Matilda The Musical tickets cost £10 to £58.50 and are available in person at the box office, by phone on 01603 630000 or online at theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk