Roald Dahl’s stories are among the most memorable in all of English literature. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, James and the Giant Peach, his stories are handed down through generations, and are often a key part of our childhoods. Many of his stories have been adapted into different forms, primarily films, but one of the best of all is the musical adaptation of Matilda.
I saw it a few years ago in London, and completely fell in love with it. I had been looking forward to it since it was announced and I found out who was to be the composer and lyricist (but more on that later). When my family was in town for the Christmas and New Year’s break last year, we saw it again and I was reminded just how amazing this show was and wanted to share my thoughts with you! It’s the perfect musical for both nostalgic adults and families, and it never fails to make me cry.
The book of the musical was written by Dennis Kelly, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. Minchin is one of my absolute favourite comedians and musicians, and a local icon back in Perth. Though born in England, he was raised in Perth, and his work alongside Kelly as earned Matilda numerous Tony Awards and Olivier Awards; and in my personal opinion, the title of the best family musical show made thus far.
Matilda is the story of a little girl who adores books and has been gifted with genius-level intelligence and telekinesis. Sadly, she’s born into a home where they value television and T.V. dinners. Her used-car salesman father constantly belittles her, and her vain mother would rather watch T.V. than connect with her. She starts school under the monstrous rule of the principal Miss Trunchbull, who treats the students like the scum of the earth. But her classroom teacher is the wonderful, but very shy Miss Honey, who notices her gift and tries to cultivate her talents. It’s my personal favourite among Dahl’s stories, and this musical is a masterful adaptation.
In the musical, Matilda not only has a love of books, but a love of stories. The show is peppered with scenes where she’s telling pieces of a grand story to her local librarian, Mrs. Phelps, who enthusiastically listens to her every word. Another change is the character of Matilda’s mother, Mrs. Wormwood. In the book, her father is much more of a focus, but in the musical she’s expanded into a bombastic competitive ballroom dancer, with a slick-haired dance partner named Rudolpho (which makes for a dazzling, loud musical number in the middle of the show). One of the other, smaller changes is the expansion of Trunchbull’s character. While they still maintain her deliciously evil character, they mention much more of her background as an Olympic hammer throwing champion. Some of her lines in the show are superb, and leave the audience in stitches at just how wickedly awful they are.
In terms of creative choices, the stage design is sheer brilliance. They use minimal sets, that rise or flip out of the floor of the stage, or stark white shapes that contrast with the bright colours of the background and lights. The costumes and character designs feel just like Quentin Blake’s original illustrations from the book, especially in the case of Mr. Wormwood, Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull.
The physical effects are very well done, such as playground swings coming down from the ceiling for the children to swing out over the front rows of the audience. Or the infamous ‘pigtail hammer throw scene’, which was brilliantly done with flashing lights and quick timing. The seats in the stalls of the theatre are low, making the adults nearly equal height with the children beside them. Often in the play, characters will come down from the stage and move through the aisles, and they instantly make you feel like a small child again. This is especially true with the choice for the casting of Miss Trunchbull. In a brilliant move, they cast a man in her role, (I’m assuming they have a minimum height requirement of 6” and above), the effect of this is the actor towers over the rest of the cast, particularly the highly talented child actors/actresses, and truly makes him a terrifying presence onstage.
I’d highly recommend checking out the soundtrack if you can’t see the show live. My personal favourite songs are ‘When I Grow Up’, ‘School Song’, ‘Quiet’ and ‘Loud’. The lyrics are pure Tim Minchin comic and poetic brilliance, and the music can set your heart racing, or make you truly reflect on what it means to be a child again.
Read the book, listen to the music, and never forget the power of a masterfully told story.