This month, we’re excited to introduce Behind the Scenes, a 3-part blog series from one of theatre’s most celebrated journalists and critics. In the same vein as Inside the Huddle, this series will provide an expert perspective that’s uniquely personal, focused around the stories and passion at the heart of fan experiences.
If you have brains, prepare to use them now.
That would be the battle cry from the Shubert Theatre on West 44th Street, where the 60-year war against intelligence-numbing television — “the telly” in this show’s British original — is being waged, irresistibly, by a rotating foursome of 11-year-old female children alternating as one 5-year-old stunner named Matilda Wormwood.
Their weapons, her weapons, are books — written words — like the intellectually militant 1988 children’s novel by the late Roald Dahl from which Danny DeVito crafted a 1996 film and the Royal Shakespeare Company created “Matilda the Musical” three years ago. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the WW II Australian marching song “Waltzing Matilda.”
Evidently there are a few intellects this side of the water too, judging by the way that “Matilda the Musical” has been packing them in since its opening this past April on Broadway.
“Wormwood” is the unfortunate but fitting name of Matilda’s father, a boorish London used-car salesman whose wife, the globe-trotting Mrs. Wormwood, Matilda’s mother, is of even lower intellectual caliber. But the main monster of the piece is school principal Miss Trunchbull, played to a tea by British comedian and female impersonator Bertie Carvel. If you can remember horrible Nurse Ratched of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” well, Miss Trunchbull is Nurse Ratched reborn.
Counterbalancing the fearsome Miss Trunchbull is, of course, a lovely, sympathetic book-reading teacher, Miss Honey, played by Lauren Ward. The four young actresses who give us Matilda herself are Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon, and Milly Shapiro. The real hero of this show may be its children’s musical director, Deborah Abramson. Certainly the enraptured witnesses would vote for her.
But everything begins with the book — not the Roald Dahl novel but the words and structure of the entire stage show. They and it are by the RSC’s Dennis Kelly, son of a North London bus driver.
Its music and lyrics are by British-born Australian comedian, composer, pianist, rock-’n'-roller, chief cook and bottle-washer Tim Minchin. Directing the whole shebang is the ever-busy Matthew Warchus. The choreography is by that Peter Darling who did such miracles with the rotating youngsters of Broadway’s “Billy Eliott” five years ago.
Performances of the musical begin June 11th at Shubert Theatre, the flagship theater of the Shubert chain, which opened October 21, 1913 with a London production of Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra.” It has since housed hundreds of hit plays and musicals, but none more telling than Joaseph Papp and Michael Bennett’s Public Theater transfer of “A Chorus Line,” which ran at the Shubert for 15 years, from October 19, 1975, to April 28, 1990.
So okay, call this “Matilda” the children’s crusade. There’s something of a child in the best of all of us, isn’t there? Just ask the lucky witnesses who get to see — and hear — the show-and-tell at the Shubert these nights.
Roger Maxwell is the pen name of a journalist and critic who has been writing about theatre for more than 50 years. He was one of the founders of The Village Voice, where he created the Off-Broadway “OBIE” awards and was an early recipient of the George Jean Nathan award in drama criticism. His beat now is culture and politics for The Villager.