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There's Something About 'Matilda'
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There's Something About 'Matilda'

Performing Arts


One of the biggest hits in London's West End this season is "Matilda the Musical." It's based on Roald Dahl's best-selling children's novel about a very smart five-year-old who comes to realize that she has psychokinetic powers. The production, by The Royal Shakespeare Company, has been proclaimed the best British musical in years.

And as Nik Martin reports, "Matilda" is not just for kids.

NIK MARTIN, BYLINE: Matilda is an unusual girl.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Sometimes you have to make a little bit of mischief...

MARTIN: 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 strong convictions.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Just because you find that life's not fair, it doesn't mean that you just have to grin and bear it. If you always take it on the chin and wear it, you might as well be saying you think that it's OK. And that's not right...

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

TIM MINCHIN: This is a love song.

MARTIN: If you're familiar with Minchin's work, you'll know that music is an essential part of his comedy.

MINCHIN: (Singing) Your love for me is not debatable. Your sexual appetite's insatiable. You never ever make me waitable. Delectable, inflatable you...


MARTIN: There's a big difference between creating an hour of humorous songs for a comedy routine and a full-length musical to tell a story. But Minchin says he was ready for the challenge.

MINCHIN: The idea of spending two years trying to make a children's story into something that makes grownups and kids laugh and cry is - I love it. I love getting thorough on stuff.

MARTIN: And as he wrote the 17-song score, Minchin realized he had a lot in common with Roald Dahl.

MINCHIN: He liked mucking around with words and doing stupid rhymes and being a bit naughty and being quite dark, and all those things that I do anyway in my comedy and stuff.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. So they say, their subsequent fall was inevitable. They never stood a chance; they were written that way. Innocent victims of their story...

MARTIN: But there's one thing that Minchin says he couldn't do.

MINCHIN: The journey was a lot about me getting over the fact that I write ironically. Like, there's a lot of comedy in "Matilda" but it never mocks itself. It never turns inward on itself in that sort of personal - in the way "The Book of Mormon" does, where it's constantly mocking the genre. It's very sincere. And yet, at no point is it saccharine, ever.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.

MARTIN: Tim Minchin's approach was just what London audiences and critics were looking for, says Matt Wolf, who writes for the International Herald Tribune. He says people here were tired of Andrew Lloyd Webber revivals.

MATT WOLF: But with Tim Minchin, that was totally out of left-field. You know, looking toward the world of comedy and Australian comedy, as well, to write a show that in many ways is so quintessentially English. And I think his score is a major achievement. It's not imitative or suggestive of anyone else. It has its own flavor, wit, energy. It's a very energetic score.


CHORUS: (Singing) When I grow up. When I grow up. When I grow up, I will be tall enough to reach the branches that I need to reach to climb the trees. You get to climb when you're grown up...

MARTIN: Matilda can already articulate most things like a grown-up because she's so well-read. But like any five-year-old, she has a hard time expressing her feelings, especially when she realizes she can do things other kids can't.

MINCHIN: Just at the moment when she does magic with her eyes. She has this realization that maybe she's not normal.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) I'm trying to say, I'm not sure, but I wondering inside my head, I'm not just a bit different from some of my friends...

MINCHIN: She's in this panic and her brain is fizzing, fizzing, fizzing trying to work through this idea that everything is relative and that she can't be objective about her own mind.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) It seems like shouting. The noise in my head is incredibly loud...

MINCHIN: I wrote the first half and then went, 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 shush.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) And my heart is pounding, and my eyes are burning. And suddenly everything, everything is - quiet...

MARTIN: Anyone who wants to adapt Roald Dahl's work for stage or screen must get permission from his widow, who sets strict criteria. And the estate's managing director, Amanda Conquy, says they were cautious about saying yes to "Matilda the Musical."

AMANDA CONQUY: We've steered rather clear of musicals. We've been nervous of them, because we know they have an incredible capacity to go wrong.


CONQUY: There were films being developed over the last 10 years and we were very occupied on those. So, I'm just glad the first one has been so wonderfully successful.

MARTIN: There's talk of taking "Matilda" to Broadway. But London audiences will see another musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's work next year, when filmmaker Sam Mendes directs the stage version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

For NPR News, I'm Nik Martin in London.


CHORUS: (Singing) And that's not right. And it is not right. You have to put it right. But nobody else is going to put it right for me. Nobody but me is going to change my story. Sometimes you have to be a little bit...


CHORUS: (Singing) ...naughty.

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