What a thrilling summer it was atThe 5th Avenue Theatre! Over four weekends in July and August, The 5th held its first-ever New Works festival–NextFest! Circles donors had the opportunity see and hear eight new musicals at various stages of development—from a first read-through to a fully staged studio presentation. The festival allowed our donors a chance to see and hear the work of established and up-and-coming writers, lyricists, & composers while fully engaging in the development of new musicals.
This holiday season, The 5th will present a sumptuous production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. Two of the principal actresses in the show are also former students and participants in 5th Avenue Education programs, one of whom has become one of the hottest young stars in Seattle and the other who is ready to break out onto the scene. I took a moment to catch up with each of them about the ways our programs have impacted them as people and as artists.
“I’ve been associated with Waterfall from its initial reading around a coffee table in Manhattan in 2011,” says Thom Sesma, the Broadway star who plays the role of Chao Khun, Katherine’s older husband in the romantic new musical. Sesma fell in love with the work and participated in several subsequent readings and workshops in the years that followed, leading finally to a collaboration between Pasadena Playhouse and The 5th Avenue Theatre this year.
“I’ve been associated with Waterfall from its initial reading around a coffee table in Manhattan in 2011,”
…says Thom Sesma, the Broadway star who plays the role of Chao Khun, Katherine’s older husband in the romantic new musical. Sesma fell in love with the work and participated in several subsequent readings and workshops in the years that followed, leading finally to a collaboration between Pasadena Playhouse and The 5th Avenue Theatre this year. The musical is a unique collaboration between Broadway greats and Thai entertainment powerhouses, from Tony Award-nominated writing duo Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire to media mogul Tak Viravan and pop superstar Bie Sukrit. “It’s not without its challenges,” Sesma laughs. “There’s language and cultural differences that need to be bridged within the very distinct context of creating an American musical. But given that the show, at least on one level, is about cultural distinctions, the challenges are always worth it—for the piece itself, and for each individual artist. Broadening one’s horizons intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, if you will, is nourishment for a creative person. It’s even more so for a creative team, and invaluable for a piece like this.”
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!
MATTHEW WARCHUS (Director)
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.
DENNIS KELLY (Book)
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
The 5th Avenue Theatre believes that the arts are fundamental to a rich life and we want to be sure that young people have access to theatrical performances. When Matilda the Musical composer Tim Minchin visited Seattle recently, we asked him about why he thinks the arts are important for children. Hear what he says:
This is a topic near and dear to us at The 5th. We serve more than 74,000 young people annually through our education programs. In addition, we offer thousands of free and discounted tickets to young people and families who otherwise would not be able to afford a show. Donations to The 5th help support these efforts.
In 1940, a young British fighter pilot awoke in a war hospital. His plane had crashed in the North African desert. Somehow he crawled away from the burning wreckage, then lost consciousness. The last thing he remembered thinking was, “I’m dead,” but he was rescued and flown to safety.
His nose was smashed, almost severed, his skull was fractured, and his face swollen so badly he was blind. For two months he lay immobilized, sightless. He later came to believe that his brain injury somehow made him more creative and turned him into a writer.
This month, The 5th Avenue Theatre is celebrating the life of a great man—a pillar and patriarch of the Seattle community, a pioneer in Seattle sports, a philanthropist, and a patron of the arts: Herman Sarkowsky.
Nancy Harris has been an usher at The 5th Avenue since the doors re-opened in 1980 and in those 35 years, she has collected plenty of backstage memories, some good and others not so great.