TOP OF THE CLASS
Matilda the Musical takes Singapore audiences back to school
By Jedd Jong
A precocious young hero who starts a revolution against the cruel principal of her prison-like school: it’s a story that ignites something in every child. Matilda began life as a novel by celebrated children’s author Roald Dahl, first published in 1988. It was adapted into a radio play, a 1996 film directed by Danny Devito, and a blockbuster 2010 musical.
Matilda the Musical is one of the most-acclaimed stage productions in recent memory, winning seven Olivier awards in 2012 – the most ever won for a single production at the time. The show also won five Tony Awards, including best book.
Featuring a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, Matilda is a show that has captured the imagination of theatregoers and made many misty-eyed. The musical was originally directed by Matthew Warchus, developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and first staged at the RSC’s home, the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The show then moved to the Cambridge Theatre on the West End where it is still playing. A Broadway production ran from 2013 to 2017.
In addition to Roald Dahl’s enduring characters and Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics, audiences can also look forward to acrobatics, set pieces including a signature moment involving swings, and mystifying illusions designed by Paul Kieve.
The titular character is a five-year-old with a penchant for reading, a curiosity about the world and a mysterious, possibly supernatural power. Matilda is neglected by her shallow parents the Wormwoods, who dismiss her because she’s a girl. She finds solace in the library, enchanting the librarian Mrs Phelps with her talent for storytelling.
Matilda is enrolled in Crunchem Hall Primary School, where she impresses the kind teacher Miss Honey. However, Matilda earns the ire of the cruel headteacher Miss Trunchbull. Though she is small in stature, Matilda finds a power within her, galvanising the school in an uprising against the treacherous Trunchbull.
At the press call, the numbers “Naughty”, “When I Grow Up” and “Revolting Children” were performed for the media.
“This is exactly how I would expect the Royal Shakespeare Company to create a musical,” resident director Natalie Gilhome said. It’s her job to ensure the production stays true to the vision of original director Warchus. “It’s so intelligent, it’s so multi-layered so that adults get as much out of it as children get,” Gilhome enthused. “It’s so beautifully crafted as a piece that I think that’s a lot to do with the history of the RSC and the creatives that put it together.”
This production, presented by BASE Entertainment and Lunchbox Theatrical, is the International Tour which was first staged in South Africa in October 2018. The title role is shared by four girls: Singaporean Sofia Poston and South Africans Lilla Fleischmann, Morgan Santo, and Kitty Harris, who are nine, 14, 11 and 10-years-old respectively.
Ryan de Villiers stars opposite the girls playing Matilda as Trunchbull, who lives to torment children and who focuses her resentment on the new star pupil. The role is typically played in drag, with taller, physically-imposing actors cast to emphasise the David-and-Goliath dynamic between Matilda and Trunchbull.
“I think it’s so much fun to play the bad guy,” de Villiers said. “I don’t think I’m the bad guy in real life, so getting to play someone who’s so opposite to who I am is so much fun.”
The character’s costume, which also includes a hunchback prosthetic, helps de Villiers get into Trunchbull’s headspace and plays up the character’s severity. “Everything is quite restrictive, not so that I can’t sing or speak, but it definitely helps with the physicality,” de Villiers explained.
Part of Trunchbull’s back-story is that she was an Olympic-level hammer thrower. She exhibits sheer physical strength, coupled with an unyielding demeanour. “Her uprightness and rigidity are very important to the character,” de Villiers said. “Posture-wise, she has really, really good posture, something I don’t always have. The way she walks is very calculated as well – everything about her is very calculated, until of course she loses it, then things go a little bit haywire,” de Villiers added with a smile.
Thankfully, de Villiers does not agree with his character’s disciplinary methods. De Villiers stated that teachers should never resort to physical violence when dealing with their charges, adding “Even berating a child or speaking down at a child, it’s not good for their self-confidence and how they might end up in the future. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to find nice ways to deal with children.”
Trunchbull hates Matilda, but de Villiers has nothing admiration for his young co-stars. “They are all so professional, so wonderful, so talented, so it’s really inspiring to watch them onstage,” he enthused. De Villiers admitted that he does enjoying playing the ridiculous cruelty that Trunchbull enacts towards Matilda and the other students, saying “It really is a lot of fun on stage shouting at them and seeing their reactions.”
Musical director Louis Zurnamer was last in Singapore with the touring production of Evita. Describing the music of Matilda, Zurnamer said that unlike the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Minchin’s compositions are “almost deliciously devoid of very long lyrical melodic lines.” Zurnamer described the incidental music by orchestrator Chris Nightingale as “something like Amélie, like French film music.”
Zurnamer leads the eight-piece band which plays live in the orchestra pit during every performance. “We have a cello and a bass clarinet, instruments that bring a very specific colour to the show as well,” Zurnamer revealed, describing that colour as a darkness and maturity to the story, told from a child’s perspective. Speaking about how the music of Matilda stands out in the landscape of classic and contemporary musicals, Zurnamer said “It doesn’t sound like Jason Robert Brown or Stephen Schwartz, it’s a new language and it’s so divine. My toes curl with delight every time I hear it, it’s so lovely.”
If there’s one physical part of the set that gets a lot of attention, it’s the swings suspended from the ceiling. One of the major challenges in developing a touring version of Matilda was in engineering swings that would work the way the swings in the West End production do, but which can also easily be installed and removed in theatres.
The swings feature in the wistful number “When I Grow Up”. “It’s the one number where you get to see this beautiful fantasy,” Gilholme said, adding that “there’s a purity that sometimes we lose when we grow up, so it’s so nice to see that childlike perception of what life is as adults.”
“The swings are probably one of the most impressive parts of the show, and something that we take very seriously as we have kids on them and cast members flying out over the audience,” stage manager Peter Barnett said during our backstage tour. “We double-check and triple-check these and run them every single day,” he said, adding that there are hidden safety measures in the swing seats.
Audiences can enter the foreboding gates of Crunchem Hall and witness Matilda’s rousing struggle for justice when they watch Matilda the Musical, which runs from 21 February to 17 March at the Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands. Tickets start from $68 (excluding $4 booking fee). Please visit https://www.marinabaysands.com/entertainment/shows/matilda-the-musical.html for more information and to purchase tickets.
Photos by Jedd Jong