He is also an accomplished actor, writer and musician, who launched his career in Australia in theatre, which he now returns to, making his UK musical debut penning the music and lyrics for the world premiere of Matilda, A Musical.
The adaptation of Roald Dahl’s famous children’s book, a Royal Shakespeare Company commission, has a book by Dennis Kelly, is directed by Matthew Warchus, choreographed by Peter Darling, with musical supervision by Christoper Nightingale and a cast including Josie Walker, Lauren Ward, Paul Kaye, Bertie Carvel and three teams of children.
Roald Dahl’s story is hugely uplifting, and I think our version is true to that upliftingness with the gifts of song and dance, and lighting and magic and stuff. In previews, people seemed to be walking out on air. In fact, I would defy anyone - even a 40-year-old, rugby-playing alcoholic - to come and see it with his eight mates and not cry a couple of times and laugh a lot of times.
It’s about this little girl, Matilda, whose awful parents don’t have any idea that she’s a genius. She finds a friend in her primary school teacher, Miss Honey, and then has to help Miss Honey vanquish a common enemy in the most evil headmaster ever (played by Bertie Carvel). Then later Miss Honey gets the opportunity to help her back.
It’s Dahl so it’s got this completely anarchic sense of humour. It’s silly and dark, but it’s also really touching, and in some ways quite moving. The fact is these kids are kind of victims, and they overwhelm their oppressors and get to be kids again. There’s a lot of rejoicing in naughtiness, and rejoicing in rebellion.
Back in the early Noughties, almost ten years ago, when I was still living in Perth and writing for theatre - which is what I really started out doing long, long before comedy overwhelmed my life - I was writing for a little children’s theatre company called Bark and Gekko who do theatre. I guess I read or reread the book, and I thought then it would make a great musical. I even emailed the Roald Dahl estate to ask about rights but I never wrote the score. So it seemed extraordinarily coincidental when the RSC called me in for a meeting, which I had no idea what it was going to be about, and the director Matthew Warchus, who I’d not even heard of at that stage, said “We’re doing a musical version of Matilda, have you heard of it?” “Heard of it, you idiot, mate!” I said and then I spent about 20 minutes orating what I thought a Dahl musical should be like. To an extent, I talked myself into doing it – and I think Matthew felt so shell-shocked by my enthusiasm that he thought he’d better let me do it or else face the ramifications!
Like many, many people, Roald Dahl was embedded in my childhood. There was a sense of naughtiness about his books that I loved. I find it very hard to disassociate Dahl with Quentin Blake – the sort of inkiness of those drawings and renderings of the character, the dirty messiness of it all, unrestrained by convention.
Dahl just made up words too and that had a big influence on me when I started writing poems and silly things as a child. However, I haven’t used a single one of Dahl’s words in the lyrics for Matilda. Of course, I was influenced by his style, but ultimately I didn’t respond to the book, I responded to Dennis Kelly’s script. Perhaps unjustifiably, I felt equipped to bring a Dahl-iness to the piece and I assumed that the RSC came to me, this untrained comedian, because they had confidence that I’d be able to do it. Now I’m not claiming in any way to have the gift that Dahl had, but I have a joy in words, a playfulness, and a darkness. I just had to write like me, but with a sort Dennis Kelly-ified Dahl filter across my brain.
The lyrics are typically me in that there are lots of them and there’s a huge amount of playing with words and language. It’s sort of lyrical games the whole time, and letters hidden in words and rhymes, and made-up words. But I was also very aware that Matilda is a children’s book, and that this is a musical we’re writing, and that they’re very different things. I think we’ve managed to retain the tone and everything in the story, but at the same time, it’s its own piece, with many layers and levels that wouldn’t have been appropriate in a children’s book but are appropriate to the stage.
My hopes for Matilda are enormous! I don’t think anything I make has any special right to do particularly well, nor do I set about writing things with an eye to any set goal, but I’ve worked particularly hard on this, and I’ve got an inkling that it might be quite special. So I guess I hope it runs for 30 years, gets made into a film and is projected on the moon. And before that a transfer to the West End next year, which would be ... well, not a dream come true because I don’t think it ever crossed my mind that it would be something I was capable of. When you quit piano in grade three, you don’t really think you may have a West End musical one day.
Without a doubt, Matilda has whet my appetite for more theatre, it’s been quite impactful in that way. I have absolutely loved the last five years of my life where I have discovered I can do this comedy thing, generate my own work and have lots of people come watch it. But in my head I write quirky songs for theatre - really, my comedy shows are just theatre shows with a single performer and I cast myself! If for the rest of my life I could do a solo show whenever I feel like it every couple of years and spend the rest of the time making or contributing to theatre projects, I will be a happy chap.
Matilda, A Musical receives its world premiere on 9 December 2010 (previews from 9 November) at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, where it runs for 12 straight weeks through to 30 January 2011. To view a trailer for the musical – including Minchin singing “When I Grow Up” - click here.