Ghost the Musical

Theatre Royal, March 18 & 19

Ghostwheel

Rob Mills and Jemma Rix as Sam and Molly. Photo: Jeff Busby

Based on the hugely popular 1990 film starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, Ghost the Musical has a lot to live up to – but happily it has been translated to the stage with plenty of whiz-bang flair. It’s certainly not the greatest musical ever written but it’s great entertainment.

Adapting his own Academy Award-winning screenplay, Bruce Joel Rubin sticks fairly faithfully to the film with a few minor changes to the supernatural love story-cum-thriller.

High-flying banker Sam Wheat (Rob Mills) and his sculptor girlfriend Molly Jensen (Jemma Rix) have just moved into their dream loft apartment in Brooklyn. Returning home from a romantic dinner, Sam is killed in a street mugging but finds himself trapped between this world and the next as he tries to save Molly from mortal danger.

Directed by Matthew Warchus (Matilda the Musical), the production creates a tangible sense of the gritty New York world where the story is set. The show has a cinematic feel, not just in its use of Jon Driscoll’s dynamic video projections – which help establish the different locations and support a number of the illusions including the subway scene – but in the way Warchus keeps the action flowing swiftly and seamlessly.

Stage illusionist Paul Kieve does an ingenious job of creating spectacular supernatural effects on stage, from Sam passing through a solid door to departed souls being whisked to heaven or hell.

Having Sam in a white shirt under pale blue lighting, with a slight reverb on his voice, works well to differentiate him from the living characters. Bobby Aitken’s sound effects heighten the supernatural aspect, while Hugh Vanstone’s coloured, rock concert lighting is also integral to the visual wizardry.

And, yes, the iconic pottery wheel scene with its wet, slippery clay is there but at a different point in the story when Sam is already dead. It’s much less erotic, which is a sensible, tasteful decision, but the scene is so short you can sense disappointment from the audience.

The book and lyrics are humdrum at times and the pop rock score by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and heavyweight producer Glen Ballard isn’t wildly memorable. Nor do the songs always move the action forward. However, they are catchy enough, while the best – such as Molly’s lyrical ballads With You and Nothing Stops Another Day – have lovely melodies. The Righteous Brothers’ iconic Unchained Melody from the film is used effectively as a motif through the show.

Too often, Ashley Wallen’s uninspiring choreography looks as if the ensemble members are dancers in a music video clip rather than their movement supporting and adding to the scene. However, the physical language used for Sam as he starts to negotiate the world as a ghost is cleverly done. Accompanied by swooshing sound effects that seem to slice the air, the movement creates a believable illusion of Sam passing through bodies and being unable to grip objects. Mills, David Denis as the subway poltergeist and David Roberts as Carl all handle the physicality convincingly as they are thrown around in supernatural fight scenes.

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Wendy Mae Brown and ensemble cast. Photo: Jeff Busby

The musical really takes off with the appearance of Oda Mae Brown, the phony psychic who is astonished to discover she can hear Sam. British actor Wendy Mae Brown almost puts Whoopi Goldberg in the shade with her larger-than-life, sassy, gloriously comic characterisation. She has a rich, honey-smooth voice, nails every comic moment and raises the roof with her gospel-infused numbers.

Rob Mills and Jemma Rix have a nice rapport and work well together vocally. Rix conveys Molly’s heartache without becoming soppy and her voice is gorgeous whether she’s unleashing a powerhouse belt or touching the heart with a pop ballad.

Mills has always been hugely likeable on stage but here he matches it with a performance that delivers dramatically and emotionally. We share his frustration and his shock at Carl’s betrayal, while his grief and love for Molly feel real. His singing is also stronger than ever, and he really rocks his big number I Had a Life.

David Roberts plays Carl with just the right mix of easy charm and ruthlessness without overdoing it in a strongly acted performance. Ross Chisari is suitably thuggish as hood-for-hire Willie Lopez and David Denis exudes plenty of agro as the hip-hop subway ghost.

For all its flaws, Ghost the Musical is cleverly staged and extremely entertaining. It sweeps you up in its story-telling and while the flashy staging ramps up the wow factor, the emotional story still shines through. Clearly some remained untouched but to my surprise I was in tears at the end, and I wasn’t alone.

Ghost the Musical plays at the Theatre Royal until May 14. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au 136 100

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 20

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Make Believe with Stage Illusionist Paul Kieve

SPOILER ALERT: No illusions are explained in the making of this story but some plot details and special effects are described so if you want to go to see Ghost the Musical without knowing anything about it, avert your eyes.

Stage illusionist Paul Kieve has collaborated with director Matthew Warchus on a number of projects over the last 20 years including Ghost the Musical, Matilda the Musical and Tim Minchin’s forthcoming musical Groundhog Day.

Paul Kieve

Stage illusionist Paul Kieve. Photo: supplied

“I’ve worked with him many times and I always say to him, ‘Matthew, if you want to do great stuff, you’ve got to put the magic in really early,’” says London-born Kieve.

That was certainly the case with Ghost the Musical. In fact, the entire set design was built around the show’s most famous illusion, which sees the deceased Sam Wheat walk through a closed door.

“It’s one moment in the story. It lasts 45 seconds in our version but although you wouldn’t know it, everything about the set was dictated by it,” says Kieve.

“We had to put that in first and work everything else backwards. It’s very unusual for the design to be worked out backwards. And to be worked out backwards from an illusion is almost unheard of. It was a long and not always easy process. As the original set designer Rob Howell – who also did the West End and Broadway productions – said at the time, normally as a designer you want your best ideas on show and in this, in some respects, the best ideas are hidden because there is all this other stuff going on that you don’t know about.”

Based on the blockbuster 1990 film starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, Ghost the Musical premiered in Manchester in 2011 then moved to the West End and Broadway. It was redesigned for a UK tour, and it is that touring version, which is now being used in Australia where the show arrives in Sydney this week after seasons in Adelaide and Melbourne.

“There’s no difference to what you see, it’s just some of the technical side and some of the engineering is reduced but it looks the same,” says Kieve.

Kieve’s mother was an actor so he was taken to the theatre regularly from a young age. He began doing magic as a 10-year old when he was given a magic set as a birthday present and by his teens was performing as a professional magician.

“Then a local theatre – the Theatre Royal, Stratford East where Joan Littlewood started out – asked me to work on The Invisible Man, which had never been done on stage before. I was slightly terrified and threw myself in the deep end and worked on it for four months. We did all these daft things like bicycles cycling about by themselves and the Invisible Man unwrapping the bandages from around his head and smoking a cigarette. They became quite famous effects and the show went into the West End and launched me into that side of things. Before I knew it people were asking me to do other stage effects so I pretty much learned on the job,” says Kieve.

He first worked with Warchus in 1995 on a production of Peter Pan for West Yorkshire Playhouse and is now an associate artist at the Old Vic where Warchus is artistic director. They are currently collaborating on Groundhog Day: The Musical, which previews at the Old Vic from July. Kieve’s many other credits include the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Kate Bush’s 2014 tour Before the Dawn.

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Wendy Mae Brown as Oda Mae Brown, Rob Mills as Sam Wheat and Jemma Rix as Molly Jensen in Ghost the Musical. Photo: Kan Nakanishi

For anyone who doesn’t know about Ghost, it’s a supernatural love story between high-flying banker Sam Wheat and his artist girlfriend Molly Jensen. They have just found their dream loft apartment in Manhattan. Walking home from a restaurant, Sam is killed in a street mugging. However, his spirit is trapped between this world and the next as he attempts to save Molly from mortal danger by communicating through a shyster psychic called Oda Mae Brown, who to her astonishment can actually hear Sam from beyond the grave.

“When Ghost came along, Matthew wanted it to be this beautiful love story but he also wanted to have this juxtaposition of the beautiful soft story and a bit of a rock concert feel to some of the lighting,” says Kieve.

“He also wanted it to be like a magic show and for the magic to be really central to it. We didn’t really know if it was going to work but there was something about this story that completely lends itself to illusion because I suppose it’s asking the audience to believe – and magic questions what you believe and what you’re seeing.

“The reason I think the magic works very well in it – and I’m not talking myself up, I’m talking about the actual context and why an audience enjoys the magic in it – is because the whole story you’re wanting Molly to believe that Oda Mae really is in contact with Sam. You want Molly to listen to Sam from beyond (the grave). You want that moment to happen, so I think that whenever anything magical happens you are on the side of it happening,” says Kieve.

“There’s that famous scene in the movie where Demi Moore dances with Whoopi Goldberg (who played Oda Mae) and then Demi Moore closes her eyes and feels Sam there. The show is a lot about that. It’s about what people are feeling and what they are sensing – and at its best, magic encourages that. It should be about a sense of wonder, a sense of astonishment, a sense of amazement. So it’s a great vehicle because it is asking these very profound questions about if someone dies will you ever see them again?

“I saw it in Adelaide and there was a woman in front of me who was absolutely sobbing (when they dance) and I think it’s because it’s such a beautiful idea that comes true; that in the end Molly does believe and she does see Sam.”

The show contains various illusions besides Sam passing through a solid door including subway passengers being thrown through the air and spirits leaving dead bodies. It also features dynamic video projections.

“Technically it’s a very interesting piece because it really was a collaboration between the video and the movement and the acting and the storytelling,” adds Kieve. “Bruce Joel Rubin (who wrote the original Academy Award-winning screenplay and the book and lyrics for the musical) was around and he wrote parts of the script to help make the illusions work because we had to set things up without (the audience) knowing.”

Kieve cites the sequence in the subway with a poltergeist as a good example of how all the various departments collaborated, with choreography, illusion and video all playing their part.

“It’s really inventive. It’s like you are looking through the train like an X-ray and you see what’s going on inside it and you see it from different perspectives. At one point you are looking down the train as if you are standing at one end of the carriage and then it’s as if you are seeing through the side of it and it keeps shifting perspective,” says Kieve.

The show also uses a lot of imagery around shadows to suggest the spirit world. “Even in the opening scene in (the song) Here Right Now, Sam and Molly are dancing and there’s a shadow of them dancing in the air almost. It’s not just to make it look pretty. It’s the idea that all the time there is this other world, a secondary ghost world going on,” says Kieve.

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Wendy Mae Brown and ensemble cast in Ghost the Musical. Photo: Jeff Busby

Though Kieve is hardly going to reveal how any of the illusions work, he admit that state-of-the-art lighting is crucial to some of it – though many of the effects use time-honoured magic techniques.

“I love the history of illusion and some of the effects that appear to be state-of-the-art are drawing on techniques that are over 100 years old. We are combining them with modern lighting, and the way that we can get into the and out of them so precisely, and the way they can be cued by computers – but the essence of some of them are ideas that have been around a long time.

“I’m also using psychological techniques – (guiding) where you are looking and where your eye is drawn,” says Kieve.

One of his favourite illusions in the show is also one of the least flashy. “It’s simply a letter that Molly reads. Sam has written it to her but the medium can somehow read it because Sam is reading it to her and then the letter just folds itself up in Molly’s hands. It’s really the pivotal moment when she realises that Sam is really there. It’s such an important moment because it’s the moment that she does believe. It’s not really a technological moment but it’s where the story and the effects combine and that’s when you get this gold dust when magic carries the weight of the story behind it.”

Casting his mind back over a career spent creating illusions, Kieve says that “it’s fun but it can be extraordinarily frustrating as well and you can get things wrong. You don’t always know if it will work, especially with something that hasn’t been done before like walking through the door.

“I can remember very distinctly being quite anxious about it because it was so audacious. You go, ‘what happens if (it doesn’t work)? But then you go, ‘we’re not brain surgeons. What happens if? You find another way to tell that part of the story.’ It’s risky but playfully risky as long as you’ve got a director who’s got the nerve and trusts you. I have to say that 99 percent of the time I find a way.

“In Ghost some of the trickiest moments were when someone dies and the spirit splits from the physical body. We’d worked it out and had got to the last death – of Carl – and we realised we couldn’t do it in the same way just because the body couldn’t be left in the middle of the stage. So we had to restage it in about five minutes – and that’s the version we use. Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention.”

Ghost the Musical plays at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, March 18 – May 14 and at the Crown Theatre, Perth, May 21 – June 12. Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

Matilda The Musical

Lyric Theatre, August 20

Matilda's "revolting children". Photo: James Morgan

Matilda’s “revolting children”. Photo: James Morgan

Her philistine parents consider her “a jumped-up little germ” and “a good case for population control”. To her monstrous headmistress Miss Trunchbull she’s “a maggot” like all children.

But a brave, book-loving, five-year old genius called Matilda Wormwood has been winning the hearts and minds of musical theatre audiences in London, New York and beyond, not to mention rave reviews and umpteen awards.

Based on Roald Dahl’s book, the hotly anticipated Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda The Musical, which premiered in 2010, has finally arrived in Sydney, triumphantly weaving such a powerful spell it has us rejoicing with its “revolting children”.

Written by Dennis Kelly (book) and Tim Minchin (music and lyrics), Matilda is one of the most thrilling new musicals of recent years: a show that isn’t afraid to be dark, sophisticated or smart, while at the same time pulsing with a gloriously funny streak of child-like, anarchic naughtiness.

There is a perfect synthesis between Kelly’s book and Minchin’s lyrics, both brilliant, which share a similar cheeky irreverence and wickedly clever wit but which also touch the heart without becoming sentimental.

The opening number, Miracle, instantly illustrates how wonderfully well Kelly and Minchin have been able to work together, setting the show up perfectly. Not only do we have Dahl’s tart observation about how most parents think their own children are little angels but a flashback to Matilda’s birth and a quick summation of her less than rosy situation. Interwoven through one song, it’s a very clever opening.

Celebrating the joy and solace of books as well as the power of words and the imagination, Kelly has added a new narrative strand to the show in which Matilda tells a story about an escapologist and an acrobat.

This beautifully staged tale (which uses dolls and shadow puppetry as well as actors) proves magically prophetic, filling out Miss Honey’s story and revealing Matilda’s yearning for loving parents without spelling it out.

Minchin’s charmingly offbeat, catchy songs are refreshingly different to so many of the pop scores we hear in contemporary musical theatre. Highlights include the bittersweet “When I Grow” in which the children sail out over the audience on swings, the uplifting, bolshie “Revolting Children” and the moving ballad “My House”, exquisitely sung by Elise McCann.

"When I Grow Up". Photo: James Morgan

“When I Grow Up”. Photo: James Morgan

Matthew Warchus’s superlative production (staged here by associate director Nik Ashton) is a total delight. Rob Howell’s ingenious design integrates alphabet tiles and building blocks throughout the set. He has a wonderful way with colour, contrasting the garishly bright home and costumes of the Wormwoods with the forbidding grey of the school, while the drag costume he gives Miss Trunchbull with hunched shoulders and pendulous bosom is both terrifying and a hoot.

Peter Darling’s energetic choreography, which draws on kickboxing and karate, has the spot-on feel of kids stomping in the playground. His routine for School Song – in which two school boys (played here by adults) leap around in fleet-footed fashion up and down the school gate as alphabet blocks are pushed into place through the metal grille – is breathtaking. The kids powering downstage during “Revolting Children” is exhilarating.

The show makes huge demands on its child actors, particularly the young girl playing Matilda. Bella Thomas (aged 11) who starred on opening night (in a role she shares with Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin) is extraordinary, giving Matilda a touchingly solemn yet feisty, determined demeanour. Her singing voice, meanwhile, is strong, true and clear.

Bella Thomas as Matilda singing "Quiet". Photo: James Morgan

Bella Thomas as Matilda singing “Quiet”. Photo: James Morgan

But all the children are great, as are the adult cast. James Millar is sensational as the dreaded Miss Trunchbull, deploying an alarming bosom and killer comic timing to perfection. He marries an almost psychopathic stillness with sudden, throwaway jauntiness in a way that is both hilarious and frightening.

Elisa McCann is radiant as Matilda’s kind, put-upon teacher Miss Honey, Daniel Frederiksen and Marika Aubrey are very funny as Matilda’s appalling parents and Cle Morgan exudes oodles of exuberant warmth as the librarian Mrs Phelps.

Appealing to both adults and children, Matilda is a gem of a show with a wonderful heart and message about standing up to bullies and fighting for what is right. It’s also a love letter to joy of words. Pure magic.

Matilda The Musical is now playing at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 23

Tim Minchin: Part II

Tim Minchin. Photot: Kevin Patrick Robbins

Tim Minchin. Photot: Kevin Patrick Robbins

When Tim Minchin played to adoring, sell-out crowds on the steps of the Sydney Opera House Forecourt in February, he included a song called Seeing You, from Groundhog Day, the new musical he is currently working on.

He has also performed the song at London’s Hyde Park and various other gigs. As a first-taste introduction to Groundhog Day, the gentle, lilting, country ballad is excitingly promising.

“It’s a bit weird because it’s the final song in the whole musical so it doesn’t really give you the tone of what’s gone on before,” says Minchin.

Groundhog Day follows in the wake of the phenomenal success of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda the Musical for which Minchin wrote music and lyrics.

It’s based on the brilliant 1993 film: a comedy classic scripted by Danny Rubin and starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Rubin himself is writing the book, Minchin is writing music and lyrics, and Matthew Warchus, who helmed Matilda, is directing.

The show will premiere at London’s Old Vic next year as part of Warchus’s inaugural season as artistic director, prior to a Broadway opening in 2017.

Writing on his blog, when news of the project leaked last year, Minchin described the plot in his inimitable way: “For the handful of you who’ve never seen the film (philistines!), Groundhog Day is about a cantankerous weatherman who is sent to a small town to do a weather report, and gets stuck in a time loop, living the same day over and over again until – eventually – he figures out how to be less of a miserable, egotistical git. It’s about selflessness and acceptance and love and time and life and death and all that good stuff.”

Minchin says that their stage adaptation will be “instantly recognisable and utterly different”.

“The narrative is very similar but tonally it’s completely different. You can’t make the character of Phil like Bill Murray – by which I mean the Bill Murray-ness of that character would not allow him to sing. It can’t be Bill Murray. It has to be a slightly more standard Scroogian character,” he says.

“And also you can’t write a piece of theatre – or I don’t want to in 2015 – with a woman as passive as Andie MacDowell. You take the opportunity to write a stronger woman whose influence is more profound and who has her own sense of humour. Andie was very charming in that movie but we need to know more about her.

“In musicals – just like in Matilda – you want to know more. You can’t maintain a distance in a musical and that’s why you have to consider very seriously which texts you do. Is going into their head – which is what a musical does because they sing their feelings – is going into their head going to help us?

“And if you are going into their head, how do you make sure the character doesn’t become mawkish and over demonstrative? That’s the problem with Matilda and Miss Honey (in Matilda). Miss Honey isn’t a demonstrative person so how do you get her to sing? That’s why I made her sing about her house, which is her singing about herself by not singing about herself. Those sorts of solutions are what musical theatre writers have always done but Groundhog Day is a particular challenge like that because you’ve got to keep it funny and witty and dry.”

In the story, the same scenes keep playing out, with the weatherman Phil gradually responding differently each time he relives a moment. Asked whether the music will repeat with gradual transformations, Minchin says not.

“Music reflects your protagonist’s state of mind. You could take the same music and put different angles on it but I realised early on that it’s not the songs repeating – because songs repeating is not unconventional. It’s dialogue and action repeating which is where the magic is in theatre. You have a complex series of events that are exactly the same. That’s like a magic trick; that’s awesome.”

Minchin says the songs will have a more poppy feel than Matilda. “It’s less Dahly. There are songs you could play on the radio. Anyway, it’s such an exciting challenge. I just hope we don’t fuck it up.”

Tim Minchin. Photo: supplied

Tim Minchin. Photo: supplied

Minchin is currently alternating between writing the songs for Groundhog Day and the songs for Larrikins, an animated DreamWorks movie scheduled for release in 2018, which he is also directing.

Set in the Australian outback, Larrikins centres on an anxious little bilby called Perry and a kangaroo called Red.

“The kangaroo is hard-edged and unemotional, thinks everything is a bit of a joke, hates authority and all that good Aussie stuff – though it’s very important to me that the movie moves us beyond that,” says Minchin.

“Perry is an OCD, hyper-controlling, very fearful, very kind little dude compulsively stacking berries all the time. They go on this massive road journey together and Perry has to learn to be brave and Red has to learn to be more caring. It all sounds quite twee but it’s actually very funny. There are lots of laughs in it. The term Larrikin is used, but its definition is actually only obliquely discussed. We never clearly define it, that’s part of the charm of the word – it’s kind of ambiguous.”

“It’s an Australian story and I’m writing very much as an Australian writing about Australia,” adds Minchin.

As you’d expect, he will be making some political points along the way. There’s a song called Proper Aussie, for example. “It’s sung by Howard the crocodile, who is a bureaucratic bully in charge of a bit of river that our heroes have to cross. He sees his job as preventing ‘non-native species’ from spreading. It’s quite fun because we get to talk about fauna issues as well as xenophobia,” says Minchin.

On top of all his composing, Minchin has managed to find time to take to the stage himself in recent years. In 2012/13 he turned in a sensational performance as Judas in an arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which toured around the UK and Australia.

In 2013, he also co-starred with long-time mate Toby Schmitz in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for Sydney Theatre Company. On screen, he has just been seen as the odious Smasher Sullivan in the ABC’s acclaimed mini-series The Secret River, based on Kate Grenville’s novel about the early days of Australian colonisation.

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

He’s keen to do some more acting. However, he’s unlikely to have time for much theatre in the immediate future, given the demands of Groundhog Day and Larrikins.

“I want to act more but I think it’s more likely to be a few eps on a TV series or a cameo role in a film,” he says. “I’m interested in film and TV now. It’s all weird and a slightly sitty-around industry but it’s great to be a part of something, to do these little scenes and then see it all put together.”

Then there are his solo shows. He had 10,000 people across two nights eating out of the palm of his hand when he performed at the Sydney Opera House in February but, again, it’s a challenge to find the time.

“I think I can do it all,” he says. “I just need to manage my time and not lose my mojo. Comedy is a game of fearlessness and you’ve got to do it lots to stay fearless. I kind of had a wobble last year when I first went back after two years of not doing a solo show. I found it hard. I’d forgotten that you can’t just wander up. You’ve got to get your chops back up. It’s not something that comes with no work, the fast lyrics and all that stuff. But it’s worked out all right.”

Minchin, his wife Sarah and their two young children Violet and Caspar now live in Los Angeles after a decade in London, where his fame had reached the point that he was recognised pretty much wherever he went.

“LA was a lot about the film (Larrikins) and a lot about knowing that I had to leave London one day because it was just getting harder and harder. And also about coming home (to Australia) eventually. So LA is meant to be a stepping stone,” he says.

It was while he was living in Coogee during the STC season of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he decided he wanted his kids to grow up in Australia.

“The Larrikins thing was initially a songwriting gig then they said, ‘would you like to direct it?’ So I said to Sarah, ‘maybe this is our window out.’ It was awful leaving London. It was really, really hard, for Sarah particularly, but LA is kind of fun. We’ve met some really great people. You can drive around in your car. It’s a bit more like living in Perth. (Our house) is not a big place but it’s got a comparatively big garden with a pool and our kids haven’t been sick since moving there.

“People in America don’t really know me apart from Californication (the US TV series in which he played a coked-up rock star) though I was stoked that Spielberg and those people know exactly who I am. That’s their job to know who everyone is, and I am directing a movie for Jeffrey Katzenberg.

“So I’ve been shocked to realise it’s a perfect balance. I don’t get recognised in the street but the people who matter are keeping an eye on me. I sit in my room all day with a piano and when the kids come home I’m there. That’s why we moved to LA. And we can go to the shops and no one cares.”

Tim Minchin: Part 1

In a wide-ranging interview with Tim Minchin, he discusses the ins-and-outs of writing Matilda, Groundhog Day, Larrkins, acting and his move to LA: so much that I’m breaking it into two parts.

The second part, coming soon, will focus on Groundhog Day, Larrikins and his move to Los Angeles. In this first part, he talks about his encounter with a (fictional) little girl called Matilda.

Tim Minchin is honoured with a plaque in Sydney's Theatre Walk. Photo: Brett Hemmings

Tim Minchin is honoured with a plaque in Sydney’s Theatre Walk. Photo: Brett Hemmings

When the Royal Shakespeare Company was looking for someone to write the songs for their musical of Matilda, director Matthew Warchus went to see one of Tim Minchin’s solo shows in London.

As Minchin tells it, by the show’s end Warchus had decided that he wasn’t right for the job. Then as an encore, Minchin sang White Wine in the Sun, his beautiful, heartfelt song to his baby daughter Violet about Christmas, family and love, and Warchus changed his mind.

“He was thinking, ‘no’ and then he went, ‘oh, there’s another dimension’. I’m so glad. Can you imagine? It’s made such a profound impact on my life, this musical, and my whole career,” says Minchin.

Based on Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book, Matilda the Musical has proved a phenomenal success. It won a record seven Olivier Awards in London and four Tony Awards on Broadway, where the New York Times described it as “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain.”

The Australian production begins previewing in Sydney on July 28. Minchin, who grew up in Perth, will be at the official opening on August 20 and says it feels “genuinely special” to be bringing the show home to Australia.

The feeling is reciprocated. Matilda is probably the most hotly anticipated musical of the year in Sydney where the love affair with Minchin continues to grow. Tickets were snapped up in next to no time when he played two sold-out shows on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in February. He held the ecstatic audience in the palm of his hand, with more than a few tears during White Wine in the Sun. His own mascara seemed to run a bit too.

And when he came to Sydney last October for the launch of Matilda, Destination NSW took the opportunity to honour the self-proclaimed “rock ‘n’ roll nerd” with a plaque in Sydney’s Theatre Walk at Walsh Bay, joining the likes of Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Jacki Weaver and John Bell.

Minchin was a star before Matilda. A comedy songwriter with trademark ratty hair, kohl-rimmed eyes and bare feet, his genius for combining pithy, witty, pointed lyrics with catchy tunes had already won him such a cult following that he could fill arenas for his solo shows and front symphony orchestras in concert halls.

But Matilda has made him a superstar, in demand around the world. He is now writing songs for a musical based on the 1993 film Groundhog Day, also directed by Warchus, which will premiere at London’s Old Vic next year prior to a Broadway opening in 2017.

He is also the songwriter and director for an animated DreamWorks movie called Larrikins, set in Australia, scheduled for release in 2018. There’s a film of Matilda the Musical in the pipeline too.

“Without Matilda, I could have gone more down the path that people who get known for comedy go on but this has taken me back to what I was doing as a kid. I wrote loads of music for the theatre in my late teens and early 20s,” says Minchin.

“Then I started getting a couple of roles in plays and I moved to Melbourne and then I got frustrated because no one would take any notice of me and so I started doing comedy. But even at the beginning of my comedy career I was writing musical scores.”

In 2004, he wrote the songs for This Blasted Earth, a Christmas musical written with Travis Cotton and Toby Schmitz, which played at Sydney’s 40-seat pub theatre at the Old Fitzroy in Woolloomooloo. In 2005, he and Kate Mulvany wrote Somewhere, a musical about Penrith for the opening of the Q Theatre. That same year, he won the Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“It does strike me as really amazing that (working on Matilda is so similar to) what I was doing 10 years ago,” he says munching on jelly snakes to keep himself awake as he battles raging jetlag.

“I listen back to those songs I wrote for the Old Fitz show and the songs from Somewhere and there are definitely songs in the Penrith musical that are as good as anything in Matilda. There was no change in tools; there was just a change in status, in who was asking me to write for them.”

Funnily enough, in a now famous anecdote, while he was writing music for theatre shows in Perth, Minchin – who is mad Dahl fan from way back – enquired about getting the stage rights for a musical of Matilda. When Dahl’s estate asked for a sample of his score, he panicked and dropped the idea.

“It’s a great story. It doesn’t sound very believable but it’s true,” he says.

Matilda tells the tale of a smart, book-loving little girl who uses intelligence, imagination, courage and magic to defy her mean parents and vicious, tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull.

As Minchin puts it: “The show’s about a tiny person starting a revolution to overthrow the oppressors.”

The UK company in the RSC production of Matilda the Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The UK company in the RSC production of Matilda the Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Minchin’s songs are absolutely brilliant: funny, bolshie, poignant and refreshingly different to so many of the pop scores of contemporary musical theatre. In retrospect, it’s hard to think of anyone else more suited to the task. His intelligence, irreverence, wit and heart seem such a perfect match for Dahl.

Matilda feels a particular way. It doesn’t just feel like me, it feels like me interpreting Dahl,” he says. “There’s an angularity to the opening and this semi-tonal thing going on. The dominant movement through the whole thing is a semi-tonal shift with all these crunchy harmonics. In musical theatre, it’s usually big shifts and fourths, not semi-tones. But I do think Matilda has an aesthetic that seems to work.”

You might think the first thing Minchin would have done after being commissioned by the RSC was to pick up Dahl’s novel again, but no. Instead, he looked to the show’s book by writer Dennis Kelly.

“I never went back and re-read the book because I decided Dennis’s adaptation was my source text,” says Minchin. “I didn’t re-read all my Dahl. I just had an utterly convinced sense that I knew what Dahl-ness was and I knew his themes. Obviously there’s that cheeky little tip-of-the hat to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes: ‘We are revolting children, Living in revolting times, We sing revolting songs, Using revolting rhymes…’ (Hooley-dooley, Tim Minchin is singing for me). I was taking from all Dahl’s work without even knowing I was doing it really.”

When Minchin came on board, Kelly had already been working on Matilda for a year.

“He had a script adaptation and he said, ‘I’ve (marked) some places where I think there might be songs, I’ve even written a few lyrics,’” recalls Minchin. “And I said, ‘you can’t give me any lyrics or song titles. I just want “song here, question mark” and we’ll discuss what you think they might be about, because you might have a great idea but how will I know if I have a better one if that gets in my head?’

“So he gave me a script with no songs and Matthew (Warchus) and me and Chris Nightingale, the orchestrator, who was in from the very beginning, and Dennis just talked and talked and talked. Your most pretentious, in-depth tutorial in an English Literature of a university got nowhere near the level of textural analysis that we were doing!

“I went away and broke it down and put songs in different colours representing different styles, so if it was a chorus number it was this colour and if it was a solo number it was another colour and all that sort of thing, which kind of mapped it. I didn’t start writing songs until we had a really strong map.”

Hard though it is to believe now, Minchin reveals that at one point they considered making Matilda a non-singing character.

“Early on, Matilda had no songs. I couldn’t work out how to make her sing, weirdly, because she’s so quiet. Then I wrote Quiet,” he says.

“That’s not quite true. She had a song in the second act where Quiet is now, which is just as she is about to do magic for the first time. It had this big rumbling build-up to ‘Magical! but we all went, ‘that’s not right’ so when we did the first workshop we just discarded it. She had no songs at that point and we were considering the possibility that she might not have songs; that the world revolves around her and she is a still force.

“There was another character called Hortensia who had two big songs, Revolting Children and another called Now That She’s Gone when Trunchbull leaves. It’s a really funny song but it didn’t belong in the musical and nor did Hortensia so she got dissolved and we gave her spirit to Matilda so she can sing, ‘sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty’ – the language of rebellion.”

One of the most well-known and popular songs in the show is the sweet When I Grow Up. The idea behind it came from one of Minchin’s own childhood memories.

“I remember promising myself I would never open the farm gate. We used to spend a lot of time when I was growing up on my grandfather’s farm and you would always climb over the gate or flip over the gate. I’d watch the oldies fiddle with the (padlock) and I would go: ‘I hope I never have to walk through gates. Gates are to be hurdled,’” he says.

“That idea of looking at things as a child and promising yourself that as an adult you’ll do all the things you think are awesome as a child (is the idea behind the song). It’s somehow sad because you are so wrong. Or maybe you were right. That’s the point. Dahl would say that we forget that kids have the wisdom. We’re sad as adults because we don’t climb trees and eat sweets and wake up with the sun. That’s where all the melancholy comes from in that.

“As you can tell when I talk about these things, I tend to go, ‘oh, here’s an idea and if I do that….’ That’s how I find my way into things. There’s a lot of emotion to be got out of thinking your way into it. But I think having young kids really allowed that.”

Asked if he does still leap the gate, he grimaces a bit. “No. I’m a bit sore these days. But when I run I have a compulsion to jump up on picnic tables. I’m like an old shitty Parkour runner.”

When I Grow Up is the first non-narrative song Minchin wrote for the show. “It’s a reflective piece, although in the musical Miss Honey sings the last verse about being brave enough to fight the creatures, which gives you a hint of what’s to come,” he says.

When I Grow Up always sat outside the piece and one of the ways it doesn’t now is because I took the whole thing and wrote a new tune over the chord structure and that’s Naughty. It’s basically the same song. Naughty and When I Grow Up are almost identical harmonically and that’s why they go from one to the other in the mash-up (at the end).”

Thinking back on the robust working relationship between him and Kelly, as Matilda gradually took shape, Minchin laughs with genuine pleasure.

“He’d never written a musical before. We tugged and pulled and pushed for the whole writing period. We didn’t know each other very well early on and Matthew would sit there quietly letting us fight it out. Then he’d say one sentence and we’d go, ‘right’. He’s such a genius and so quiet. But we’d all make each other laugh all the time.

“Dennis Kelly is now one of my favourite humans on the planet,” adds Minchin. “We’re from very different backgrounds and we approach art in a different way. I don’t know but perhaps if you write something like this and it goes so well, you are bonded by a very positive experience. As the time went on, I just fell in love with him. He’s such a brilliant guy.”

Matilda plays at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre from July 28. Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 795 267

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 28