Tim Minchin: The man behind Matilda’s musical magic

by Linda Herrick / 16 August, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Matilda

Tim Minchin with an earlier cast of Matilda. Photo/Darren Thomas

A Roald Dahl fan from an early age, Australian composer Tim Minchin has helped turn a children’s classic into a hit musical. 

Of all the charming tunes in Matilda the Musical, When I Grow Up is surely the sweetest, with a bunch of kids on swings singing about a glorious future when they’ll be free to eat sweets all day and go to bed late every night. It’s the essence of innocence and hope, and invariably, it makes grown-ups in the audience weep.

“Adults find it really upsetting,” says Matilda’s Australian composer/lyricist, Tim Minchin, in Auckland for a publicity marathon. “It’s a happy-sad song. There’s a sadness that comes from our knowledge that, first, our expectations of adulthood and all the power were wrong and, second, we have let the child inside us die.

“You hear that song and it’s like, ‘Wah, why am I crying? It’s a happy song.’”

Minchin, 41, whose CV lists him as a musician, actor, writer, director and comedian, is smart and congenial, but he rather likes making people cry. When Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) artistic director Matthew Warchus was looking in 2008 for someone to set Roald Dahl’s classic novel about a super-gifted, neglected little girl to music, he went to a Minchin show in London but almost walked away. Then Minchin sang White Wine in the Sun, a wistful celebration of Christmas, a longing to be with his family in Australia. Warchus knew he had his man.

White Wine is a good example of the thing I am interested in doing, which is just because I want to make people cry doesn’t mean the text has to become heavy or mawkish. White Wine has laughs, but it pulls the rug out from under everyone. I learnt a lot from that.”

A bemused Minchin got called to a meeting at the RSC with Warchus, who had a simple question: “Do you know of Roald Dahl?”

Yes, he did. You could say Minchin, who grew up reading Dahl, had been preparing all his life for the job. In fact, he had once pitched the idea of adapting Matilda for a children’s musical theatre in Perth to the British writer’s estate but withdrew when they asked for a sample of a score. He didn’t know what a score was.

He told Warchus, “Yeah, you’ve gotta get me, I know Dahl. Anyone else will screw it up.” “But then when they offered me the job,” he says, “I had a serious chat with my agent about why would I go back to writing children’s theatre – that’s what I did in the old days. My shows were getting serious, I was travelling all over and starting to get gigs in New York. But I didn’t hesitate for long. It was the RSC.”

Since its 2010 debut, subsequent international West End and Broadway seasons and tours, Matilda has won huge acclaim and many awards. It has also changed Minchin’s life.

In 2014, he and his family – wife Sarah, his childhood sweetheart, and kids Violet and Casper – moved to Los Angeles and his career took a surprising spin into the world of acting.

He had played British rock star Atticus Fetch in season six of Californication with David Duchovny. “When I did the audition, I still had my makeup on after a charity gig the night before and I did it like I was off my face on drugs. I always thought I wouldn’t have an acting career because I don’t look right. Then I did nine episodes of a stupid show, so it can happen.”

Alongside that he has developed a highly regarded stage adaptation of the movie Groundhog Day, with its co-writer Danny Rubin.

And he has spent “about 70% of this year away from my kids”, playing Friar Tuck in a new Robin Hood movie.

Tim Minchin. Photo/Getty Images

But Minchin’s major focus over the past four years has been the development as director of Larrikins, an animated DreamWorks film set in the Australian outback, which was to have the voices of Hugh Jackman, Ben Mendelsohn and Naomi Watts. In March, it was abruptly cancelled after a company takeover. So now it’s goodbye, Hollywood.

“I am devastated,” he says. “I moved to Los Angeles to direct the film and dedicated my life to it and they have f---ed me and I couldn’t be more cynical. Now I want to burn the place down.”

A recent appearance on The Late Late Show with James Corden had him reworking the lyrics of When I Grow Up into Donny the Musical. Minchin played Donald Trump, but he thinks the skit was far too polite.

“I do want to write about Trump, and in fact Matilda has everything I want to say about it, because if you’re watching it as an adult, Mr and Mrs Wormwood [Matilda’s horrid, TV-obsessed parents] and Miss Trunchbull [the authoritarian headmistress of Crunchem Hall school] together form a Trumpian figure – incredibly anti-intellectual.

“Mrs Wormwood says, ‘What you know matters less than the volume with which what you don’t know is expressed.’ Content has never been less important. Dahl himself railed against anti-intellectualism. We are in the peak – well, I hope we are in the peak – of this contempt for education, contempt for truth.”

Matilda the Musical, the Civic, Auckland, August 18-October 8.

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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