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Composer Tim Minchin on adapting Roald Dahl's 'Matilda' for the stage

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Multi-talented artist Tim Minchin strung together various gigs for several years before he was asked to write music and lyrics for the stage adaptation of "Matilda."

"Matilda the Musical" debuted to rave reviews when it opened in London in 2011, winning seven Olivier Awards, England's most prestigious theater awards. And the fanfare didn't cease when the musical moved across the pond to Broadway, as it racked up four Tony Awards in 2013.

But growing up in Perth, Australia, composer Tim Minchin did not have Broadway aspirations. The musician, comedian and actor played in cover bands and strung together comedy and musical theatre gigs for several years before he was asked to write music and lyrics for the stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s "Matilda."

With the success of “Matilda,” Minchin has no problem getting work these days. He’s working on a stage adaptation of Danny Rubin’s script for "Groundhog Day," and he’s also scoring an animated feature for DreamWorks — fittingly set in the Australian Outback.

When Minchin sat down with The Frame's John Horn, he talked about his long-held interest in Roald Dahl's story, the challenges of turning the classic book into a musical, and the importance of musical satire in his approach to "Matilda the Musical."

Interview Highlights:

A long, long time before you co-wrote "Matilda" for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010, you tried to do it on your own. What happened?

Yeah,'s a lovely coincidence. Back in 2000, when I was writing music for theater in Perth, while I was playing in bands and trying to act, I was writing music for a children's theater company. And some point during that time, I got it into my head that "Matilda" should be a musical.

So I wrote to the Dahl estate and said, "How do I get the rights?" And they wrote back very quickly with a very charming response, saying, "We're interested in adaptations. Send us a sample of your score and we'll consider it."

And I realized they thought I was proposing to write the musical, when really I was asking if I could put it on in the local hall, because I writing 10 songs in four weeks and put them on for eight shows — my head was on a different scale.

It remains the only time I've written to a literary estate about rights for anything, so it's significant. But then eight years later when they called me in and said, "Have you heard of 'Matilda?'" my jaw dropped. "Yeah, I think so, yeah."

You collaborated on "Matilda" with Dennis Kelly, who wrote the book. What were the biggest challenges in adapting Roald Dahl's story for the stage?

The challenges of "Matilda" are the challenges of all musicals, which is trying to make it not suck and trying to retain a sense of truth, because musicals have that slight problem where you're breaking into song all the time and it can make people feel removed from the intent.

Particularly with Roald Dahl and "Matilda," the big challenges were that his tone is very unique — he somehow treads this line between dark and light, where he manages to talk about quite dark subjects but with such a light touch. "Matilda" is really a story about a mistreated child, and it's quite dark.

The other big challenge is that it's a children's story, an episodic novel with little chapters that are designed to be read to your kid on a nightly basis. Before I'd even gotten there, Dennis had written this adaption, which solved so many of those problems in the most ingenious way: he created a whole subplot where Matilda tells a story, and she's trying to create adult figures that are not as awful as her parents and trying to find a way out by telling this story. Of course, there's a big twist at the end, which reveals the story is actually something else altogether.

Do you think there's a natural path from what you did as a standup comedian to what you wrote musically for "Matilda"?

Without a doubt, partly because my comedy is really just cabaret, writ large and gone wrong, because I come from a background of writing music for theater. My comedy is not musical parody — it's not Weird Al Yankovic, bless him — but my songs are fully formed songs, though the intent of the lyrics is to satirize and criticize.

Dahl had a really strong line in social criticism, so this story was ripe for me because the whole musical starts with a 10-minute song called "Miracle," which is just a complete piss-take of parents thinking their kids are special. It acts as a counterpoint to the fact that there then becomes this kid who is clearly special.

You're incredibly busy these days. Do you miss something about being a struggling artist who didn't know where his next gig or paycheck was coming from?

I don't miss the insecurity of it, but I miss and will never get again — and young people should appreciate it — that making art with no further aim than making it good is the only way to make art, and certainly the only way to do the apprenticeship of making art. I think it's a great joy of coming from West Australia where there was no ladder in sight, no link between writing theater in West Australia and having a Broadway musical — it was totally not on my mind.

When I was writing something in Perth, I was writing because in three weeks we wanted to put it on and we wanted people to love it. There was no sense that an agent would come and whisk me away. It was just the work for the work's sake, and I was earning literally no money off of it.

I was washing dishes to sustain my habit of making stuff, and the joy of that in contrast to the political complexity of trying to make a $100 million film at a studio where there's a lot of fear and financial impotence and stuff ... the contrast is massive. I like the challenge I've got now, but man, making stuff because you like making stuff is something you shouldn't wish away.

"Matilda the Musical" is at the Ahmanson Theatre through July 12. 

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