Roald Dahl's classic 1988 book Matilda — a favorite of little girls everywhere — has already been a 1996 movie. In 2011, the Royal Shakespeare Company's stage version Matilda: The Musical opened to rave reviews, and even won seven Olivier Awards. And just last week, the popular show debuted on Broadway, effortlessly bringing the charm and spunk of the British children's book to American audiences.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Matilda is a 5-year-old girl prodigy with a penchant for learning, and especially reading. But her unsupportive parents hate this hobby, and she resorts to pulling pranks on them to discipline their rude behavior. She finally starts school, where her loving teacher, Miss Honey, fosters her desire for knowledge and in essence becomes the mother she never had. During the year, Matilda discovers she has telekinetic powers that are a result of her pent-up anger having grown up in such an emotionally abusive home. She also deals with the bully headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, who hates children and locks up the particularly naughty ones in a torture device called The Chokey. Matilda's keen intellect and bravery prevails in the end, but I'll refrain from saying how!
"Matilda" spotlights four talented girls cast as the title role, each of whom deliver a different intensity to the production. Director Matthew Warchus says the role is incredibly demanding, and with several shows a week, he found that casting four Matildas brought a vitality to the musical that wouldn't be possible with just one actress.
Fun fact: Miss Trunchbull, the former hammer throw Olympic champion and insane headmistress, is actually played by a man in drag: Bertie Carvel.
The show features music by Australian comedian and musician Tim Minchin, with the script by playwright Dennis Kelly. Neither were used to working with children's material, especially as the show is a family production.
"Asking either one of us, let alone both of us, to adapt a children's book for actual children to see is probably just irresponsible in a way I can't even describe," said Kelly.
But unlike traditional children's musicals like "Annie," "Matilda" brings a certain unpredictability to the stage. Said the Guardian's Emma Brockes, "It moves between silly and sharp to satirical and serious, with an aggressive pro-literacy agenda. How can you fail to love a show that contains both a kid doing an epic burp and the line, delivered by Matilda's philistine father: 'Ian McEwan/feel like spewin'?'"
During one of the show's first performances in New York, people could be seen wiping away tears and mouthing, "Oh my God, this is so good."
Entertainment Weekly said, "[The show] captures the wonder and innocence of childhood, but also the frustrations that face kids confronting the bitter unfairness of the adult world."
I think this is exactly what Dahl wanted to get across to the masses. Matilda itself was billed as a children's book, but it contains a lot of lessons that apply to those of all ages. From time to time, I reread it to remind myself how much I've grown since I was Matilda's age. And it seems like the Royal Shakespeare Company, and now Broadway, conveys these themes with ease.
Soon enough, show tunes like "Naughty" and "When I Grow Up" will make their way from New York's Shubert Theatre to America's listening ears, and it seems clear already that this show will attract eager viewers of all ages. Matilda is invading America — again — and we are just as ready as ever for her arrival.