I have been planning for some time to do a series of Double Feature reviews of Broadway hits from the current decade that have themes, techniques or background elements in common. To inaugurate this series, I thought I’d look at the standout hits of the ’12-’13 and ’13-’14 seasons…Matilda and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Both shows have quite a bit in common…they both are set in England and have a very British sensibility to them (even if the latter was written entirely by Americans). They both specialize in highly sophisticated humor that avoids the vulgarity prevalent in most Musical Comedies at the time (mostly due to the influence of then-recent smash hit Book of Mormon). Most of all, they both tell stories that would be far too dark for a Musical Comedy if presented realistically, and they both get away with this fact by making their stories feel entirely unreal.
Roald Dahl’s darkly comic children’s novel Matilda is an extremely difficult work to adapt into a visual medium, but the 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 the villainous Miss Trunchbull, so it’s more disturbing and nightmarish than funny.
The musical, like the book, makes everything surreal and dreamlike, with Miss 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 the tragic backstory of Matilda’s mentor figure Miss Honey, 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 Miss 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 of the decade, the exquisitely spine-tingling “Quiet”, for when Matilda’s powers first manifest, as well as “Revolting Children”, an outcry of freedom that could best 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. Still, if that’s the closest thing the show has to a flaw, you must admit it’s doing pretty well.
A Gentleman’s Guide featured an even darker story premise. This show’s uncanny resemblance to a modern-day Gilbert and Sullivan operetta would probably get it called on the carpet for being too derivative if it wasn’t just about as good as most of Gilbert and Sullivan’s actual shows. That said, Gilbert and Sullivan probably wouldn’t have been comfortable making a serial murderer into an unambiguous hero. Fortunately, the show does an extremely good job with the balancing act of making us sympathize and even cheer for this ruthless protagonist. It does this partly by making his motives feel justified and portraying his victims as aristocratic slime who deserve what they get, and partly, like Matilda, by emphasizing the unreality of the whole story.
The stiffly formal prologue by the chorus and the functional, expository opening song “You’re a D’Ysquith” make the show seem a little dull on first entrance, but once the coquettish romantic lead Sibella enters with the irresistible charmer “What Would I Do Without You?”, the show never flags again until the final curtain, even managing to throw in one last creative in-character gag after the curtain call is over. The lyrics are Sondheim-level witty, especially the bitingly satirical “I Don’t Understand the Poor” and the risqué double-entendre duet “It’s Better with a Man”, and the sophisticated Semiclassical music is often lovely, particularly on the delicate ballad “Inside Out”, the hauntingly sensuous “Sibella”, and the dazzling trio sequence “I’ve Decided To Marry You”.
It also contains the most varied and virtuosic star part since Little Me for the actor who plays all eight of the aristocratic idiots, male and female, that the hero has to murder to inherit the Earldom he’s after. Like Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull, this tour-de-force role calls for a Shakespearean-level theatrical ham (in the original cast, the role was gloriously filled by breakout star Jefferson Mayes). And the fact that the show’s hero is shown to be literally killing the same person over and over, combined with the deliberately unconvincing drag used in several of these parts, helps to make the action feel unreal and thus allows us to be amused and delighted by a premise that would otherwise come across as a gruesome horror story in the vein of Sweeney Todd.
To clarify my comments above, I have no real objection to the incorporation of more vulgar humor in Broadway shows, especially since it’s by no means impossible to becrude and witty at the same time (see Avenue Q or Book of Mormon for proof of that). However, Broadway should never be allowed to rely too heavily on any one formula, and these shows’ old-style sophistication and restraint does provide some nice variety from the more shocking and explicit hilarity of shows like the two I just mentioned. Not only were these two shows the best efforts of two very good Broadway seasons, they are among the most uniquely creative shows ever seen on the musical stage, and rank among the finest items to result from the Broadway renaissance of the 2010s. There is literally no other show like either of them, and they clearly demonstrate that, whatever the‘Broadway-is-dead’ contingent may say, there are still new directions to pursue in the Musical Theater art form.