Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical

Matilda, published in 1988, was Roald Dahl’s 14th children’s novel. Like many of his books, it features a child protagonist surrounded by unpleasant adults. The supernaturally precocious five-year-old Matilda Wormwood finds herself thwarted and oppressed by her cruel parents and her school’s Draconian headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. It’s one of Dahl’s best-known books, thanks in part to the 1996 film adaptation, and Americanized version starring Mara Wilson and Danny DeVito.

From early on, Dennis Kelly, the playwright for Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical, was very clear that would be was an adaptation of the novel, not the film. The accents are British and the aesthetic is late-eighties, with big phones and bigger hair.

When I found out that Tim Minchin was writing the music, I went from “intrigued” to “I need to see this.” Minchin is an Australian musician/songwriter/comedian. Not only is he musically talented, his lyrics are stunningly clever and funny. I think Dahl, who often included humorous poems and songs in his novels, would have approved.

Fast forward to this past Saturday. “Will you be embarrassed if I cry during this?” I asked my husband while we waited in line outside the Schubert Theater. “I might cry.”

“Yes, I’ll be embarrassed,” he said. “Don’t do it.”

“Okay, I’ll try. Maybe if I keep talking about crying then I won’t.”

I really only cried a little the first time I listened to the soundtrack, during the songs “This Little Girl” (teacher feelings) and “When I Grow Up” (reluctant adult feelings). The tickets were a sort-of-surprise Christmas present from my husband. I don’t think he was initially as enthused about Matilda as I was, but he generally likes musicals and making me happy, so there we were.

My biggest concern going in was that it would be difficult for a child actor to carry so much of the show. There are some meaty adult parts, but it really is Matilda’s story, and there are a lot of scenes that rely on her. The character is five years old, but the actresses who play her range in age from around eight to eleven, and there are usually three or four of them who share the role.

The night we went to the show we saw Mattea Conforti as Matilda. As soon as she came onstage at the end of the opening number, all my doubts were gone. Her Matilda has a big voice and a bigger stage presence, and she completely stole the show from her adult counterparts. Matilda is, as the song says, “A little bit naughty,” but she’s breaking the rules to show adults how unfair they are. It’s a message that young girls in particular don’t often hear: that it’s okay for them to speak up if they feel something isn’t right.

Actually, all the kids in the show’s company are great. They open the show with “Miracle,” a chaotic number that has plenty of opportunity for great comic acting and dancing. “Revolting Children” and “When I Grow Up,” arguably the show’s most dynamic numbers, also give the kids an opportunity to shine.

Chirstopher Sieber is hilarious as Miss Trunchbull. She is every nightmare of a child-hating teacher while also being the subject of pranks and pratfalls. My only regret is that in the 21st century people are writing new musicals in which fat and unpleasant woman characters need to be played by men. It’s done for laughs, but I think the underlying message that women who don’t conform to a certain standard of femininity are grotesque is damaging. Besides, I bet there are tons of actress-comediennes who could have sunk their teeth into the role.

Roald Dahl also usually has at least one good adult in his books to help the child hero fight the bad guys. In Matilda it’s Miss Honey, the kind schoolteacher who does her best to protect her students from Miss Trunchbull. She befriends Matilda and helps her learn to use her powers. In the musical, her character’s story is mostly the same, but we see the effects of her traumatic childhood more clearly. She’s a survivor of childhood abuse who has to face her own abuser in order to protect more children. It’s dark, but so are a lot of Dahl’s books. Maybe I was just too young to understand this layer of the story when I read the book, but to me, that version of Miss Honey seemed like a long-suffering, uncomplaining angel. The stage version paints her as an anxious, unhappy woman with complicated feelings towards her family and her past. I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling it, but Miss Honey’s character development was the most satisfying part of the musical.

Visually, this show is just fun to look at. The set is decorated with giant Scrabble-style letter tiles, which move around for different scenes. The dancing is very acrobatic. Dancers scale gates, throw around furniture, and bounce on trampolines. During “When I Grow Up,” giant swings descend from the ceiling, and for “Revolting Children” the kids in the company are literally climbing on their desks. Mrs. Wormwood, Matilda’s mother, is reimagined as a competitive ballroom dancer (at least I think this is new, I don’t remember that part from the book at all) basically as an excuse to have some very sequin-y costumes and truly impressive dancing, especially during the number “Loud.” There’s even a segment of the story told with shadow puppets, narrated by Matilda.

I can’t recommend Matilda: The Musical enough. If you have kids, you should take them. If you have students, you should take them. This show would be a spectacular field trip destination. If you like musicals, and you were a bookish kid who loved Roald Dahl, treat yourself.

Unrelated to the blog, but perhaps of interest: I had an article published on xoJane this week! It’s about my time studying abroad in Italy, and some possible reasons why more women study abroad than men. If you’re into that, go check it out!