Theater
12:40 pm
Thu April 11, 2013

'Matilda' Brings Beloved Book To Broadway

Originally published on Thu April 11, 2013 4:49 pm

Matilda is a well-loved book by Roald Dahl, who's been called the greatest children's storyteller of the 20th century. It's about a much-put-upon little girl with tremendous gifts. Now, Matilda has been turned into a Broadway musical.

The British import, which won last year's prestigious Olivier Award and features a revolving cast of four little girls in the lead role, opens in New York tonight.

A couple of days before their Broadway debut as Matilda, Bailey Ryon, Oona Laurence, Sophia Gennusa and Milly Shapiro — all either 9 or 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."

If these four girls have any notion that a $16 million musical is riding on their tiny shoulders, they seem blissfully unaware of it.

"Sometimes people say, 'Oh you're going to work,' " says Sophia, a 9-year-old New York City native. "And I'm like, 'It's not work, it's a hobby!' Cuz 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."

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.

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

Matilda the Musical had its premiere two years ago at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, where it was billed as holiday entertainment. But it was so successful there that 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 some very adult writing, says 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," he says.

Minchin, whose cabaret act features profanely funny songs that are unplayable on public radio, agrees.

"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," Minchin says. "And those were the attributes that, I guess, they took a risk on."

There's a great deal of whimsy and satire in Matilda, as well as clever staging that has a cast of adults and children breaking the fourth wall and running through the audience.

But the musical also explores the darkness that Roald Dahl was known for. And the biggest repository of darkness in the story is Matilda's archnemesis, Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress of Crunchem Hall. Warchus initially cast women in the role for the show's first two workshops.

"But it became clear to me that the sort of monster that Roald Dahl had drawn — and one who is an Olympic-class hammer thrower, as well --[this] hugely strong, intimidating, nasty, repellent, monstrous person, isn't particularly female or male, really," Warchus says.

So Miss Trunchbull is played by Bertie Carvel, an actor who's more than 6 feet tall, says Kelly, the librettist.

"There was a practical reason as well," he says. "We needed someone who could pick up a child and swing her by the hair!"

Ultimately, Warchus says Matilda is a David and Goliath story.

"It's sort of about unfairness," he says. "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, um, 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, actually."

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

"You desperately want children to come out absolutely buzzing and having learnt something and having laughed and been invigorated and inspired and having had a great time," he says. "But you also want adults to come out feeling like they've been challenged and having had all those same emotions."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

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")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (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, nothing will change. Even if you...

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")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) You have to put it right.

(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")

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

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) All I know I learned from telly. This big beautiful box of facts. If you know a thing already, baby, you can switch the channel over just like that. Endless joy and endless laughter, folks living happily ever after, all you need to make you wise is 23 minutes plus advertisements.

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")

BERTIE CARVEL: (as Miss Trunchbull) (Singing) The smell of rebellion.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) One, two, three, four.

CARVEL: (Singing) The stench of revolt, the reek of insubordination.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) I can't take it anymore.

CARVEL: (Singing) The whiff of resistance, the pong of dissent, the funk of mutiny in action. Before a weed becomes too big and greedy, you really need to nip it in the bud. Position two.

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")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Revolting children living in revolting times. We sing revolting songs using revolting rhymes. We'll be revolting children 'til our revolting's done and we'll have the Trunchbull vaulting. We're revolting.

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")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) We'll find out where the chalk is stored and draw rude pictures on the board. It's not insulting. We're revolting.

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

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