Classical Music Piece Enhances Roald Dahl's 'Dirty Beasts'

On Sunday, the London Philharmonic debuted a new piece of music based on Roald Dahl's Dirty Beasts. With Matilda playing to sold-out crowds on Broadway and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory running in London's West End, this is just the latest work by the author to get a musical soundtrack.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The children's author Roald Dahl died almost 25 years ago and yet today, you can find more musical adaptations of his work than ever.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

"Matilda" is a hit on Broadway. A musical version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is running in London's West End.

GREENE: Over the weekend, the London Philharmonic Orchestra debuted the newest adaptation of Dahl's work, a classical piece for children based on a collection of poems called "Dirty Beasts." NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on why musicians keep coming back to Dahl's work.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY")

GENE WILDER: (As Willy Wonka) (Singing) There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination...

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: While Roald Dahl was alive, there were very few musical adaptations of his stories. One exception was the original movie of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," starring Gene Wilder.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY")

WILDER: (As Willy Wonka) (Singing) Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world, there's nothing to it...

SHAPIRO: This film has become a beloved classic. Roald Dahl hated it. Donald Sturrock was friends with the author and now works with the Dahl estate.

DONALD STURROCK: He really disliked the music and the lyrics, and I think thought they were very cheesy.

SHAPIRO: Dahl's aesthetic is anything but cheesy. From "The Witches" to "The Twits," Roald Dahl wrote stories for children that are dark, bawdy, violent and profoundly funny. Sturrock says Dahl's writing was also very musical, even though he never crafted a tune.

STURROCK: Quite a lot of the books have songs in them. He quite liked to write these rhyming couplets, and I think that whole thing of comic verse was something he was very interested in and wrote quite a lot of.

SHAPIRO: Dahl also used music as inspiration when he sat down to write, though the pieces he listened to were not exactly comic verse. Here, the author spoke with the BBC in 1979.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

ROALD DAHL: I never used to start writing in the morning before putting on some very great music, like a Beethoven quartet, and sit and listen to it in hopes that some of this greatness would rub off on me and that I would write better. As a matter of fact, it helped a lot because it is impossible, after listening to great music, to write absolute rubbish.

SHAPIRO: After Roald Dahl died, the estate actively sought out people who would make musical adaptations of his work. On top of the musicals, there are about a dozen classical pieces. There's an opera of the "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and one of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," called "The Golden Ticket."

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE GOLDEN TICKET")

UNIDENTIFIED OPERA SINGER: (Singing) I hope he's joking. Don't you?

OPERA CHORUS: (Singing) Ha-ha. Ha-ha. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Augustus Gloop, Augustus Gloop...

SHAPIRO: Sturrock says some of these projects were successful; others, less so. He thinks it has taken time for musicians to really absorb Dahl's sensibility.

STURROCK: Its taken 20, 25 years since his death for other people to catch up to the fact that kids' musicals, kids' - you know, pieces for children needn't be sweet and safe, and saccharine and straightforward.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MATILDA")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD ACTOR: (As character) (Singing) Will I be bullied? And never again will I doubt it when my mummy says I'm a miracle...

UNIDENTIFIED CAST MEMBERS: (As characters) Miracle...

SHAPIRO: Take the musical "Matilda." One of the songs uses a double entendre that you would never hear in "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." The tune is called "Revolting Children."

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "MATILDA")

OPERA CHORUS: (Singing) We are revolting children living in revolting times. We sing revolting songs using revolting rhymes. We'll be revolting children till our revolting is done. And we'll have the Trunchbull bolting, we're revolting...

SHAPIRO: Here's one important difference between the musicians who adapt Dahl's work today and the ones who did it 25 years ago. The people writing the tunes now grew up with these stories. Ben Wallfisch is a classical composer in his 30s, best known for writing film scores. He vividly remembers the excitement of reading Dahl's "Dirty Beasts" as a kid.

BEN WALLFISCH: I mean, it came out in the early '80s. And it was all the rage, I seem to remember, because there was something extremely naughty about these poems and I think as a young kid, it just appeals to that side of mischief.

SHAPIRO: Each poem in "Dirty Beasts" is a sort of cautionary tale featuring a different animal. There's the scorpion, the crocodile, a lion. As often as not, the poem ends with a child getting eaten. Wallfisch was hired to turn a few of these into pieces for an orchestra. The London Philharmonic debuted the first one, "The Porcupine," at a concert for children on Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL PERFORMANCE, "THE PORCUPINE")

SHAPIRO: "The Porcupine" tells the story of a greedy girl who runs into the forest to gobble a bag full of chocolates. The girl sits on a porcupine and dashes to her mother in pain. The mother sends the girl to a sadistic dentist with pliers, who pulls out the prickles one by one. Wallfisch says he was inspired by Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," another piece of classical music that uses a narrator and instruments to tell a story.

WALLFISCH: The key thing, for me, was to make it an incredibly exciting and vivid experience for the audience because this is directly aimed at young people. In this case, it was all about finding a way to introduce this quite overwhelming sight of a symphony orchestra, to people under the age of 7.

SHAPIRO: The music does not talk down to kids. It's complicated stuff. Parts of the piece are atonal, chaotic, even scary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL PERFORMANCE, "THE PORCUPINE")

CHRIS JARVIS: (As narrator) I shouted, not the dentist! Nooooo...

SHAPIRO: The narrator is Chris Jarvis, who has spent his career doing children's TV in Britain. He acknowledges that this is much darker than his typical material.

JARVIS: And I'm not sure whether you'd get away with it now. It's a bit like cartoons, like "Tom and Jerry." I'm sure if you pitched "Tom and Jerry" now to the commissioner of a children's channel, they'd say what? And you'll say, and he bashes him over the head with a hammer. What?

SHAPIRO: But the kids eat it up. Nine year-old Alice Sanders-Garcia came to the concert with her family.

ALICE SANDERS-GARCIA: I really liked it 'cause it expressed - the music expressed the feelings of the story, and it helped me understand the story better.

SHAPIRO: Like, which parts?

SANDERS-GARCIA: Like, when she sat on the porcupine, it sort of like, went all scary and active. So you understood that she was - without even knowing the story, you understood she was sitting on the porcupine.

SHAPIRO: Alice Sanders-Garcia says she has never seen an orchestra before. Now, she is eager to return.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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