ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Broadway has a new family-friendly musical. "Matilda" opened earlier this month. While it is a brand new show, it jogged critic Bob Mondello's memory all the way back to his very first commentary for this program, 29 years ago today. It was about two other family-friendly musicals. And Bob says he can't help seeing "Matilda" through them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BOB MONDELLO: April 25, 1984, a revival of "Oliver!" is in previews on Broadway, and that gives me an excuse to share one of my pet theories with the world, that the musical "Annie" is actually "Oliver!" in drag.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: Think about it. Both shows feature lovable middle-class orphans surrounded by scruffier, lower-class orphans. Both groups of kids have an adult caretaker, a Fagin or a Miss Hannigan, who is really a nemesis. Both title characters have unrelated adults around who want to protect them. And then there are the remarkably similar sentiments expressed in song. Here's how I put it in my first NPR commentary.

And the songs, back in 1960, Oliver was looking for his parents and asked the musical question...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE IS LOVE?")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (as Oliver) (Singing) Where is love?

MONDELLO: And more than a decade later, Annie was pondering the same question.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAYBE FAR AWAY")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (as Annie) (Singing) Maybe far away or maybe real nearby...

MONDELLO: And as I noted back then, it goes on, song after song, the two shows mirroring each other as they follow a kind of kiddy-show playbook. Child escapes from oppressive environment, has adventures in, let's say, Oz, and ultimately finds stability and happiness. In Oliver's case, Oz was gritty, grimy London; in Annie's, it was New York during the Depression. But the story is basically the same, except for a gender-switch for all the main characters.

Put Oliver and Fagin in dresses and except for the accents...

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "ANNIE")

MONDELLO: ...they might as well be Annie and Miss Hannigan.

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "ANNIE")

MONDELLO: So now, along comes Matilda, another lovable tyke who can belt to the rafters.

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "MATILDA")

MONDELLO: And like her predecessors, she's surrounded by slightly less adorable kids, has a school headmistress who is a nemesis and a teacher who wants to protect her. So I'm expecting more from that same "Oliver/Annie" kid-show playbook, especially when I hear that the evil headmistress is being played by a male actor.

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "MATILDA")

MONDELLO: If "Annie" is "Oliver!" in drag, then "Matilda" is "Annie" and "Oliver!" with real drag, right? But there are some significant differences. Oliver and Annie are orphans plagued by the absence of parents; Matilda has parents, they're just awful.

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "MATILDA")

MONDELLO: And that marks a change in the kid-show playbook since "Matilda's" predecessors held sway. Understandable, of course, because while the musicals followed each other pretty quickly, their source material spans a century and a half, from the Victorian novel "Oliver Twist" through the Depression-era comic strip "Little Orphan Annie," to the Reagan-era novel "Matilda."

Each of those, let's note, is the product of its author's own time, and of that time's view of children. "Oliver Twist" was a helpless orphan because Dickens wrote the book as an expose about how children were mistreated during the Industrial Revolution, forced into child labor, recruited by criminal gangs.

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "OLIVER!")

MONDELLO: Oliver is just luckier than most as he gets buffeted by social forces. By the 1920s, Annie could be more proactive. She'd been brought up to respect her elders, but had also figured out how to talk them into doing what she wanted, even FDR, who declares a New Deal for Christmas.

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "ANNIE")

MONDELLO: Annie still has to recruit adults, but she's no more helpless than the pre-World War II greatest generation kids who read about her exploits in the comics. Matilda, who is the child of self-absorbed baby boomers, has learned that she needs adults not at all. Like Harry Potter, or Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games," she's a model for the kids in the audience who've been taught to think green, have a social conscience and make things better.

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "MATILDA")

MONDELLO: Matilda dispatches the headmistress, punishes her parents for bad behavior, and even ends up protecting her supposed protector. She is today's child triumphant, empowered with full agency and a very sure sense of self. Can't wait to see how her kids turn out. I'm Bob Mondello.

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