Three Heads are Better Than One

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TIM MINCHIN (Music and lyrics)

Before writing the songs for Matilda The Musical, Tim Minchin was a successful cabaret comedian with a loyal fan base who loved his musically complex songs that, in his words, “just happen to be funny.” He also had a résumé in classical theater, musical comedy, TV and films.

Minchin was raised in Perth, Western Australia. He began piano lessons at the age of eight, but quickly revolted against tedious formal study, preferring to invent his own eccentric keyboard style through solo experimentation.

Now 40, he still performs at the grand piano, barefoot, with mad-genius hair and heavy eye makeup, barreling through X-rated (yet likable) songs about touchy topics like religion (a favorite target), politics, outré sex habits, and his own neuroses and failed rock star ambitions.

Just the guy to write the songs for a beloved children’s story, don’t you think? That’s what the Royal Shakespeare Company decided when they were putting together the Matilda team. (Unknown to them, Minchin had wanted to adapt Matilda back in 2000, but abandoned the idea when the rights holders asked for a score. Minchin doesn’t read music.)

Working with the RSC team, some of the Matilda songs came easily. A character like headmistress Miss Trunchbull would have no problem belting out her horrible view of life. Her “I am” song (“The Hammer”) reflects her former glory as an Olympic hammer throwing champion. Minchin learned that one fundamental rule of hammer throwing is that you can’t step outside the circle—a perfect metaphor for her bureaucratic personality: “If you want to have success, you don’t need happiness or tenderness, you just need to keep your feet inside the line!”

Tim Minchin is especially delighted that “Revolting Children,” the big end-of-show anthem, encourages kids to seize power through their “child-ness,” to be what adults might call “a bit naughty” and take their own self-defined place in the world. After all, that’s what worked for him!


Of all the members of Matilda The Musical’s creative team, Director Matthew Warchus was the surest bet. One of England’s busiest in-demand directors since the 1990s, he had already enjoyed international commercial and critical success. After helming the nearly 4-hour musical version of Lord of the Rings, which took years to bring to the stage and only months to close, Matilda seemed like a relief.

Warchus knew from experience that fighting to be heard requires a big personality. As the son of a vicar, his family moved from a small, isolated coal mining village to a larger town where they sought acceptance. When the casting process started for Matilda, he looked for “the kind of personality that you don’t feel pity for.” He said, “Matilda’s got to make you feel that she could look after you.”

He also wanted the audience to feel the power of the forces Matilda is up against: “The idea of having a little tiny person carrying a show and doing more on stage than any other child role like Oliver! or Annie — it was an experiment. But we found that the more you pile on, the more results you get. She’s got huge speeches and songs. She does a lot. The lighting and music would create focus for those moments when we needed very little to be happening and just one small person to be holding the theater. It was exciting to try to give this tiny urchin status and authority.”

This fall Warchus takes over as the Artistic Director the Old Vic, one of London’s most venerable theaters. He is working with Tim Minchin on a musical version of the film Groundhog Day and he wants a crack at directing the film version of Matilda The Musical in the future. From an outsider to the ultimate theater insider, Matthew Warchus’s ambitions seem to be as big as Matilda’s.


For the book of Matilda The Musical, the producers turned to Dennis Kelly, a British film, television, and theater writer. Kelly, like Tim Minchin, was another “risky” choice. Known in the theater for dark, though sometimes humorous, plays like Debris, Love and Money; DNA and The Gods Weep, Kelly is hardly a household name. He had never written a musical (the producers liked that), but along with most of his generation he had been raised on Roald Dahl’s books, and he was especially attracted to the character of Matilda.

“What I like about Matilda,” he says, “is her strong sense of justice. Kids don’t like something not being fair, they don’t like compromises, and Matilda personifies that. Our idea for the show was not to be childish, but to show the world though the eyes of a child. It’s quite nice to see people coming out of the show with huge smiles on their faces. That’s something that doesn’t happen with the rest of my shows!”

Kelly’s Matilda script brings its central character into focus as one of a long line of classic child protagonists who are mistreated by hostile adults but emerge with a moral epiphany that makes them winners. Think of Alice confronting the Wonderland big-shots: “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” Or Huck Finn, defying the Bible-thumpers to help Jim escape: “All right, I’ll go to Hell!” Or Dorothy as she “liquidates” the Wicked Witch, proving herself far braver than the spineless Wizard.

Thanks to Dennis Kelly, Matthew Warchus, Tim Minchin and, of course, Roald Dahl, Matilda joins this child Legion of Honor, giving the kid inside all of us an extra shot of courage as we face the terrible Trunchbulls of the world.

By ALBERT EVANS, Music & Artistic Associate

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