The Broadway company of Matilda the Musical

Sly, Antic Humor Meets Heart in Matilda

When Dennis Kelly was a child, growing up one of five children born to Catholic family in a North London suburb,  his favorite time was the moment just before he went to sleep.

“When my head hit the pillow, my mind just went crazy,” he recalls. “I went into a fantasy world, which I thought was as real as the real world. So the opportunity to tell the story of Matilda is really liberating. I get to be silly, ridiculous, and dark as well.”

Kelly won a Tony Award for his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel about a 5-year-old girl who finds in books salvation from a life of abuse, first from her vulgarian parents and then from Miss Agatha Trunchbull, the tyrannical headmistress of Crunchem Hall. Matilda has been one of the most unlikely success stories in recent theatrical history, from its beginnings in 2010 as a Royal Shakespeare Company Christmas show at the company’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, to award-winning acclaim on London’s West End, and, last season, to a triumphant opening on Broadway.

It would seem incredibly difficult to strike a balance between the sly antic humor and the cruel underpinnings of a story about a clever but mistreated young girl. But director Matthew Warchus knew what he was doing when he tapped Kelly to join a team that included Tim Minchin, an iconoclastic comedian and musician who signed on as the composer. At that time, the writer was then best known for dramas, including the controversially titled Osama, the Hero and The Gods Weep, a play inspired by King Lear and starring Jeremy Irons. Kelly said he felt up to the challenge of Matilda.

“Dahl doesn’t pull his punches but he’s also writing with a lot of heart,” says the writer. “It’s difficult but he does it very well. And like him, I don’t see the difference between something being tragic and something being funny. The danger in adapting Matilda was figuring out when and how to pull back from going too dark. Adults like to cry in the theatre. Children do not. If they do, they’re in genuine distress. We knew we had to avoid that.”

What’s remarkable — and ingenious — about Kelly’s libretto is that in one crucial moment in the show, he chose to solve that problem by actually doubling down on the sadness. The scene is a total invention of Kelly’s, not in Dahl’s novel. In an attempt to escape her own miseries, Matilda tells her friend Mrs. Phelps, the librarian, a series of fantastical stories about an acrobat and his wife. In the course of one of them, much to the horror of the librarian, the acrobat’s wife dies in a terrible fall, and Mrs. Phelps then wants to know more. Matilda simply replies, “And then things got worse.”

Says Warchus, “It gets a huge laugh. Instead of lightening the darkness, Dennis used humor to diffuse it. Dennis and Tim have worked miracles tonally by being faithful to Dahl in putting very dark things next to absurdly funny things.”

Those contrasts become even more apparent when Matilda squares off with her nemesis, Miss Trunchbull, a dictatorial gorgon and former hammer-throwing champion who terrorizes her charges at Crunchem Hall. In Dahl’s episodic structure, the two never faced off until the end. But Kelly says that he knew that they’d have to size each other up early on in the musical for dramatic and emotional clout. In Dahl, he says, the people with power are idiots, such as Matilda’s family, and those without are clever and sensible. Children are invariably put in bad positions and they have to fight their way out.

“Adults think they can protect children from harsh realities, but that is a fantasy they create to make themselves feel better,” says Kelly. “As a kid, I never felt that I could go to my parents or my teachers with a problem. I had to sort it out for myself. Children become people very quickly, as soon as they have language. And they start figuring things out for themselves. We forget that. But Dahl never did.”

Kelly says that writing the Wormwoods came fairly easily, as did Trunchbull: “I could easily write a sequel to her, she’s so appalling.” The potential pitfalls came with writing the character of Matilda. For starters, there was the refuge she takes in books. “After a while, that could get boring. You want to say, ‘Will you stop banging on about books, for chrissakes?’” he says. Matilda was also rather passive in the novel. Adds Kelly, “And Tim solved that quite brilliantly in ‘Naughty.’”

Indeed. Matilda gets comical revenge on her family during that song, while also questioning why characters in her beloved literature, such as Romeo and Juliet, do not empower themselves to change their tragic fates. In the course of the musical, Matilda takes that lesson to heart and teaches it to her classmates who, at a critical juncture, rise up in rebellion.

Another pitfall that the team was eager to avoid was the trap of sentimentality. “It was important that Matilda never, ever feel sorry for herself,” says Kelly. “And in a musical, that is quite difficult because they are emotional and characters are always feeling sorry for themselves: ‘Oh, why is the world like this? Why am I having a terrible time?’ And that can be great because we want to share in their emotions, but we knew we couldn’t do that with Matilda.”

In fact, admits Kelly, there is a moment near the end of the first act when the play allows Matilda to register just how difficult life may be for her. At Crunchem Hall, her one ally is Miss Honey, a young teacher who offers her a bit of sympathy and understanding. In grateful response, Matilda gives her a hug.

“Here’s a little girl who has never once said, ‘I’m being treated very badly,’ who quietly takes all that abuse and finally expresses a need we all feel. When we get to that moment in the show, it always breaks my heart.”

Photo by Joan Marcus.