Matilda: The Musical had nearly nothing going for it when I first heard of the little show, then performing in Stratford-upon-Avon. After its twelve-week trial run staged by the Royal Shakespeare company, Matilda moved to the Cambridge Theatre in West End. Perhaps some would consider this upgrade a significant development, but I continued to ignore the show.
As I often do when an adaptation of a beloved childhood favorite gains traction, I despaired at the prospect of people in power massacring the sacred. Go ahead, call me melodramatic, but do any of you remember Mike Meyers’ The Cat in the Hat? I sincerely hope you don’t.
Not Roald Dahl too! I mourned. He could made me laugh, retch, and believe in myself, all in one tight paragraph. He bounced words around like putty, or slime, or whatever helped them ooze between the bounds of typical use. And yet he always managed to bring the story around to a place that taught me something beyond how to be ridiculous. The BFG reminded me it’s possible to be kind even when surrounded by brutes. I loved Fantastic Mr. Fox for its creativity. And from The Witches I learned that victories are often bittersweet and incomplete—but still victories.
So yes, I stayed very far away from any news on the Matilda Musical. Until it made its way to Broadway in 2013 and I, by blessed luck, happened to be watching the Tonys:
I should have known. Tim Minchin, who wrote the songs for the musical, already shared several traits with Dahl, including the skill of blending charm and nuttiness to make some sort of point:
If I’d only realized that Canvas Bags man was behind the musical, I would have checked it out sooner.
The Magic of Matilda in Three Songs:
I only need three songs to prove this to you: one to demonstrate the tone’s successful translation, one to prove the musical is also its own thing (Lookin’ at you, Disney), and one that blends the two. I’d still highly encourage you to give the rest of the soundtrack a listen. I’m heartbroken this post has no room for “Bruce,” though we all know Bruce would have enough room for us—wait, that sounds weird. Forget I said that.
The source material shines through.
Matilda’s opening chapter pokes unabashed fun at parents who insist their children are all perfect specimens:
“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.
Some parents go further. They become so blinded by adoration they manage to convince themselves their child has qualities of genius.
Well, there is nothing very wrong with all this. It’s the way of the world. It is only when the parents begin telling us about the brilliance of their own revolting offspring, that we start shouting, “Bring us a basin! We’re going to be sick” (1)!
Compare this with Minchin’s lyrics to the opening song, “Miracle,” sung by the revolting offspring themselves:
My mummy says I’m a miracle
One look at my face and it’s clear to see
Ever since the day Doc chopped the umbilical cord
It’s been clear there’s no peer for a miracle like me!
God bless the partly posthumous partnership of Dahl and Minchin. The song opens with off-key, sputtering musical instruments struggling to pull it together. Exactly how you always feel reading a Dahl book. With a few short measures, anyone listening knows they’re in good hands.
Then, the children and begin singing and the audience discovers how whiny, atrocious people frequently get what they want—very Dahlish. When the parents join in, our stomachs squirm. How can adults be so blind? All this while setting up Matilda’s introduction, with dramatic reversal of the song’s chorus: even while you gag at overly-doting parents spoiling their perfectly normal children, how much worse to see parents actively neglect their child simply because she wasn’t what they expected?
“It is bad enough when parents treat ordinary children as though they were scabs and bunions, but it becomes somehow a lot worse when the child in question is extra-ordinary, and by that I mean sensitive and brilliant. Matilda was both of these things, but above all she was brilliant […] but Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood were both so gormless and so wrapped up in their own silly lives that they failed to notice anything unusual about their daughter. To tell you the truth, I doubt they would have noticed had she crawled into the house with a broken leg” (6).
One tune will echo in your ears for the rest of your life.
At the beginning of the second act, the children sing “When I Grow Up,” a hopeful song that turns wistful when older students, and later Miss Honey join in.
One of the only songs that still works out of context, it exists solely for theater, to dramatize a theme in Dahl’s story. “Naughty” was oh, so close to snagging this spot, but it actually has the second job of showing us Matilda’s pranks on her parents. “When I Grow Up” stands on its own, surpassing a literal adaptation, and stirs our hearts.
The lyrics transcend the theater—who hasn’t dreamed of glorious, unattainable adulthood? Each time the dream returns, it hits us: Adulthood has already arrived, but of course we never stop growing up.
The Fusion of Source and Stage:
Yet the real sucker-punch comes at the story’s most climactic moment: a song that embodies the darker side of Dahl’s work but also showcases the disguised profunidty underneath the absurd.
“Quiet” dramatizes the moment when Matilda, in a moment of humiliation and frustration, harnesses her untapped potential into telekinesis.
We’ve had songs interpreting scenes from the book (“Bruce” and “Revolting Children”). We’ve had character songs (“Loud” and “Telly”) and introductory songs that speak to deeper, more universal themes (“The Hammer” and “Naughty”). We’ve also had songs that are plain wordplay fun (“School Song”) and draw us deeper into the schools’ (and Dahl’s) dark aesthetic.
But “Quiet” song serves as a poignant value-change. With a stormy beginning , rolling chords and low, furious notes warn us something’s coming. Matilda is angry, really angry. No longer satisfied with getting her mischievous revenge, she explodes into a moment of silent clarity:
Her villains may try to contain her power, but her power is her soul. With that realization, Matilda can stride into the turbulence, rescuing herself and her friends from people whose only real power is stamping out what they don’t understand.
Between this and “When I grow up,” the show rises to a more mature level of art, one that moves the soul long after the curtain falls.
And so I beg you all:
Do not be the fool I was.
Do not dismiss Matilda the Musical as a lazy effort to get kids to see a live stage performance. Rather, look forward to a beautiful fusion of musical theater, a comedian, and an author who teetered between astute and insane.
Text cited from:
Dahl, Roald. Matilda. Penguin, 1988.
Cover image: http://www.writerslabb.com/review-matilda-the-musical/
Other images: Playbill.com; http://www.tntmagazine.com/london/stage/matilda-the-musical