Roald Dahl’s darkly comic children’s novel Matilda is an extremely difficult work to adapt into a visual medium, but this musical managed to avoid the pitfalls of the previous adaptation, the disappointing 1996 film version, and emerge as the toast of the London theater scene and a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
The movie version was an extremely vivid dramatization of the events from the book, but that was the fundamental problem with it: it was entirely too real. Remember, the original Roald Dahl novel is, in effect, a comedy about child abuse, and thus is only funny if you make it so over-the-top and insane that it doesn’t feel fully real, as Dahl did. The movie makes the whole thing feel frighteningly realistic, especially given Pam Ferris’ utterly terrifying performance as Miss Trunchbull, so it’s more disturbing and nightmarish than funny.
The musical, like the book, makes everything surreal and dreamlike, with the Trunchbull played by a male actor in drag, the violence presented symbolically, and even some deliberate contradictions thrown in to create a sense of dream logic. There are a few genuinely terrifying moments, but even they have the feel of a surrealist horror story rather than the disturbingly authentic cruelty presented in the film.
However, while it certainly captures the spirit of Dahl’s work, the musical actually manages to improve upon the original novel, creating a work of more sophisticated wit and far greater depth. This is accomplished partly by expanding the story, making it far more dramatic and elaborately plotted, particularly regarding Miss Honey’s tragic backstory, and partly by the addition of the show’s brilliantly distinctive score.
The opening number, “Miracle” takes Dahl’s introductory chapter to the book (where he philosophizes on parents’ views of their children) and turns it into an elaborate, ten-minute sequence of superb music and lyrics that establishes not only the themes of the show and the circumstances of Matilda’s upbringing, but the personalities of the children that make up the ensemble, too. Matilda’s establishing number, “Naughty”, is exceptionally clever (‘Just because you find that life’s not fair it/Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it’) and perfectly sets up her motivation and her philosophy of taking control of her own destiny.
The music is at times breathtakingly beautiful, such as on the tender “When I Grow Up”, with its winning combination of charming naivete and out-of-the-mouths-of-babes wisdom, or the wistfully contented “My House”. Each of Matilda’s awful parents gets a showstopper: her mother performs “Loud”, a dance showcase with a very cynical (but not entirely inaccurate) message about style over substance, while her father opens Act Two with one of the cleverest songs ever written about stupidity, “Telly”.
The villainous Trunchbull gets a highly amusing establishing number, “The Hammer”, and a truly epic showstopper in the second act, “The Smell of Rebellion”. And then there’s one of the greatest atmosphere numbers in Broadway history, the exquisitely spine-tingling “Quiet”, for when Matilda’s powers first manifest, and “Revolting Children”, an outcry of freedom that could be described as a child-friendly version of the uptempo numbers from Spring Awakening. The lyrics throughout are dazzling, although due to their immense complexity and heavy use of approximate rhymes, they can be hard to catch on a first listen.
This is one of the most uniquely creative shows ever seen on the musical stage, and one of the finest items to result from the current renaissance taking place on Broadway…there is literally no other show like it, and it clearly demonstrates that, whatever the ‘Broadway-is-dead’ contingent may say, there are still new directions to pursue in the Musical Theater art form.