'Matilda' Brings Beloved Book To Broadway Roald Dahl's beloved children's novel is set to hit the stage as a Broadway musical. The musical's creators say the show skews closer to the beloved book than to Danny DeVito's 1996 movie, leaning more on the original's naughty charm.
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'Matilda' Brings Beloved Book To Broadway

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'Matilda' Brings Beloved Book To Broadway

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The children's book "Matilda" by Roald Dahl is about much put-upon little girl with a tremendous gift. Now, "Matilda" has been turned into a hit musical that opens tonight on Broadway. It's an import from Britain where it won last year's Olivier Award. And as Jeff Lunden reports, it features a revolving cast of four girls in the lead role.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: A couple of days before their big Broadway opening as Matilda, Baily Ryon, Oona Laurence, Sophia Gennusa and Milly Shapiro - all between the ages of 9 and 10 - gathered in the lounge of the Shubert Theatre to reflect on the remarkable experience they've shared and sing a bit of their big number, "Naughty."

OONA LAURENCE: A five, six, seven, eight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAUGHTY")

LUNDEN: If these four girls have any notion that a $16 million musical is riding on their tiny shoulders, they're blissfully unaware of it. Sophia Gennusa is 9 years old and from New York City.

SOPHIA GENNUSA: Sometimes people say, oh, you're going to work. And I'm like, it's not work, it's a hobby because it's something you like to do, so you don't get really bored of it. And I think that's what made me want to do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAUGHTY")

(LAUGHTER)

LUNDEN: Director Matthew Warchus says there are very pragmatic reasons for the quadruple casting of the lead role of Matilda, a brilliant little girl, who's ignored by her parents and sent to a school run by a tyrannical headmistress, where, by sheer force of will and a little telekinesis, Matilda saves herself, her teacher and her classmates.

MATTHEW WARCHUS: It's a very demanding role and can only be played full on if the girl is fresh. And so by having the four of them share it through the week and - it's always delivered with a level of intensity that wouldn't be possible if it was just one girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I GROW UP")

LUNDEN: "Matilda the Musical" had its premiere two years ago at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon as a holiday entertainment. But it was so successful there, the RSC transferred it to London's West End. The show features a script by playwright Dennis Kelly and a score by Australian comedian and musician Tim Minchin. Both are known for their very adult writing, says Kelly.

DENNIS KELLY: Asking either one of us, let alone both of us, to adapt a children's book for actual children to see is probably just irresponsible in a way I can't even describe.

LUNDEN: And Tim Minchin, whose cabaret act features profanely funny songs that are unplayable on public radio says...

TIM MINCHIN: What I guess the RSC figured is that Dennis is a fantastic storyteller with a great sense of humor, and I'm a sort of rhymy, playful songwriter. And those were the attributes that, I guess, they took a risk on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELLY")

LUNDEN: There's a great deal of whimsy and satire in Matilda as well as clever staging, which has a cast of adults and children breaking the fourth wall and running through the audience. But it also explores the darkness that Roald Dahl was known for. And the biggest repository of darkness in the story is Matilda's arch-nemesis, Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress of Crunchem Hall. Director Matthew Warchus initially cast women in the role for the show's first two workshops.

WARCHUS: But it became, you know, clear to me that the sort of monster that Roald Dahl had drawn and one who is an Olympic class hammer thrower as well, hugely strong, intimidating, nasty, repellent, monstrous person, isn't particularly female or male.

LUNDEN: So Miss Trunchbull is played by Bertie Carvel, an actor who's over six-feet tall, says Dennis Kelly.

KELLY: There was a practical reason as well.

MINCHIN: Yeah.

KELLY: We needed someone who could pick up a child and swing her by the hair.

MINCHIN: Swing her by the hair, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SMELL OF REBELLION")

LUNDEN: Ultimately, director Matthew Warchus says "Matilda" is a David and Goliath story.

WARCHUS: It's sort of about unfairness. And this is something that children and adults really feel strongly about, I think. It seems like quite a small subject - unfairness, injustice, or whatever you want to call it - but kids hate it. They're always saying that's not fair, and they get enraged by it. And I think that side of us as adults never really goes away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REVOLTING CHILDREN")

LUNDEN: Songwriter Tim Minchin says Matilda has been written and staged to appeal to all ages.

MINCHIN: You desperately want children to come out absolutely buzzing and having learned something and having laughed and been invigorated and inspired and having had a great time. But you also want adults to come out feeling like they've been challenged and have had all those same emotions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REVOLTING CHILDREN")

LUNDEN: "Matilda" opens at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway tonight. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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