I'm am now in the closing weekend of playing Harry Wormwood in Contra Costa Musical Theatre's production of "Roald Dahl's MATILDA - The Musical". This has been an incredible journey, not only to play such an incredible role with amazing artists but also to immerse myself in the work of one of my creative idols, Tim Minchin.
I've been obsessed with the Australian musician/actor/satirist/pianist for many years now. And my love for "Matilda - The Musical" can be traced to Minchin's work. As a child of the 90's I was exposed to Roald Dahl's novel and the 1996 film, but it wasn't until I heard Minchin's name attached to the original RSC production in 2010 that I found myself lost again in the relevance of the fictional 5-year-old's story of strength and courage in the face of bullish adversity.
I knew that Minchin's blend of wit and heart would be the correct and appropriate voice the bring Dahl's classic (sometimes nasty) world onto the musical stage. But how?
Full disclosure: This post may get a little gushy. Minchin can do no wrong in my book. I have yet to find an artistic choice that I've disagreed with. However, his opinions and choice of language in expressing those opinions can be polarizing, or even offensive to some. But I'd like to highlight 3 song's that I feel summarize some of his strengths as a musician, an artist, and as a musical voice that is needed in the future of contemporary musical storytelling.
1. F Sharp
When introducing people to Minchin's work I will often start here. It is short, clever, and doesn't venture into much territory that might offend, except to those who fear discordant melodies. It also taps into one of the recurring themes of all his live shows, i.e. the subversion of an audiences perception of virtuosity.
In many of Minchin's live shows, his chosen stage persona (that of a shoeless, glam-rock, nerd) is often at odds with the poetry and intelligence of lyrics, as well as the expert piano playing (oft. accompanied by a full orchestra), which is further at odds with the chosen topics of his tomes (ranging from philosophy, cheese, politics, and Blow-up Dolls). This constant playing with an audiences preconceived notions is double-edged, as tool used for "surprise" and instilling "comfort".
"Surprise" is an essential tool of comedians and storytellers. In "F Sharp" He uses his experience and skill to establish the circumstances of the world he lives in, that of an experienced and opinionated musician and vocalist. The conflict and comedy arises in the ego of his persona subverting our expectations choosing his own comfort over those who are listening and willfully singing melody that is dissonant. Awfully, hilariously, dissonant.
But why highlight this song in his catalogue? Because, by "singing in F Sharp" he is, in effect, saying to the audience
"I know the rules. I'm an expert at the rules. I choose the break those rules."
The audience then has to decide either to take offense to the arrogance of "the character" or to be reassured by the skills of the "performing artist". Knowing that Minchin is adept at music theory lets us know that any bold choices he makes with time, key, or style are not mistakes but rather conscious choices to craft his music to a greater effect for us, his audience.
I have used this song for auditions hoping to instill in the auditors the same comfort in my own use of my instrument and sense of humor. The effects may have been effective on a subconscious level, if at all. But I was auditioning for "Matilda". And I booked it. So, who knows.
Equivalent in Matilda
The skills on display in "F Sharp" are all over Minchin's musical work, as well. In the opening number of Matilda, "Miracle", the song begins with a dark moody atmospheric orchestral swell, followed by a few bars of music being played on instruments you could find in a Pre-K classroom. The pitches and rhythm are not pleasant to be heard. This shift if jarring, funny, and completely intentional. This moment has the same effect as "F Sharp" letting the audience know that the storytellers are fully aware of the rules but they will be bending and contorting your expectations for the rest of the evening, enjoy it, relax, you are in good hands.
Pointing out Minchin's subversion of expectation is nothing special. It is a device used by almost all writers and comedians. But "the way that he subverts" is worth noting. Minchin had been working for years playing with the perception of "virtuoso" as a main staple of his stage persona. It could be argued that he may not have garnered the reputation he has, without the adopting of such a specific way of presenting oneself to the audience. Subversion is all over Matilda (not just the opening number) and has appeared in Minchin's other works (The same gag of intentionally singing off-key can be found in Minchin's adaptation of "Groundhog Day"), and I'm sure we will find it in future works as well.
2. Cont (strong language)
My wife and I have had the privilege of seeing one of Tim's live shows. It's was an incredible experience. A man and his Piano, telling stories, and speaking very frankly about the things he is passionate about. And with with that passion comes free, honest, expression. It should be noted that Minchin's songs are often over 5 minutes and frequently contain strong language, which is refreshing in its familiarity. Many of his songs resemble an impassioned rant coming from a good friend, rather than a "cabaret song”. “Cont” is just such a song.
The lyrics are dripping in irony. The things he is saying in "Cont" are absurdly inflammatory. He doesn't even seem to believe the horrible things he is saying. Again we see him playing with the audiences expectations, using the language of hate and bigotry. As the audience we are entertained by the persona of someone who "hates people who hate”. He forces us to pay attention, and then we are rewarded by listening to the song again and hearing the completed version of the lyrics. Comedy has lowered our guard and a message was snuck in.
Annoyance is Universal
By listening a second time we then find a deeper meaning of both the original lyrics as well as Minchin's personal feelings to prejudice.
The second half of the song (with the completed lyrics) is an exploration of the universal things that annoy us all; big (sexism, environmental issues, bigotry) and small (traffic, loud talkers, and not being able to use VISA). It is a refreshing thought that what was perceived as a negative in the first hearing of the song is flipped to a footnote, even a positive. We are a diverse people, and that diversity is beautiful. But we are deeply connected by our shared humanity.
“I think it's great if you are Gay, Muslim, or Italian just don't be an a-hole about it."
Equivalent in Matilda
Perhaps the closest song to "Cont" in Matilda is "The School Song". The two songs tackle very different subjects, but have nearly identical creative structures. As Matilda goes to her first day of school with her young classmates, we hear the upperclass “Big Kid" ensemble sing about the woes of elementary school...
So you think you're able
To survive this mess by being
A Prince or a Princess
You will soon see
There's no escaping tragedy
One of the first-year student mentions a desire to learn the alphabet. We then are treated to a repeat of the first few verses with the added knowledge that the entire english alphabet (A to Zed) are phonetically hidden in the lyrics we have just heard.
So you think you're A-ble
To survive this mess by B-ing
A Prince or a Princess
You will soon C
There's no escaping trage-D
This is indicative of much of Minchin's writing. So much planning and thought is put into each and every syllable that we are rewarded by repeat listenings. This is one of the tricky things with "Matilda - The Musical". Minchin’s lyrics are almost too dense and layered to receive the full effect in a single 2 and a half hour viewing. It is an abundance of lyrical riches. And like “Cont”, the intentional misspellings in “Revolting Children”, the schoolyard rhyme schemes in “Bruce”, and the existential musings in “Quiet” are well worth a second listening, or third, or quintillionth!
3. White Wine in the Sun
With the strong language, witty patter, and (for some) filthy content, Minchin’s ability to write sentiment often gets overlooked. But it is one of his essential ways of reaching our hearts and making us think. Much like in “Cont” Minchin takes the messy complicated world and faces it head-on with kindness and optimism in “White Wine in the Sun”.
Christmas is a holiday loaded with religious and cultural appropriation wrapped up in a bow made of shiny consumerism . Many take it at face value and just sing the songs, spend the money and drink the eggnog. In “White Wine” we address many of these issues but also take a good hard look at the world and circumstances that surround those issues. He weighs the pros and cons, and finds that in a busy world (where families can find themselves spread to various corners of the world) the heart and spirit of Christmastime can trump any complications and bring a feeling of warmth and safety (a commodity sorely missed in this big scary world) to all of us. Minchin celebrates Christmas, warts and all, acknowledging the controversial aspects but not erasing them.
“We get only one life in this imperfect world. take it as it is and make the best of it.”
This is my favorite Christmas Song. It makes me cry at its beauty and humanity.
Minchin will often save this song for the end of his live shows. It is soft and tender and, hopefully, sends its listener home with a positive way of viewing the world, and helps us appreciate our own life a little more.
Equivalent in Matilda
The song “When I Grow Up” is the emblematic song of the whole show. It begins the Second Act, and was one of the first songs Minchin delivered to the RSC when he was hired. It shows us how the students at Matilda’s school view their future. Their perception is optimistic, naive, and beautiful.
“When I grow up,
I will be strong enough
to Carry all the heavy things you have to haul around with you when you’re a grown-up
And when I grow up,
I will be brave enough
To fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed each night to
Be a grown up”
It’s a wonderful moment, but it doesn’t do much to forward the plot of Matilda’s story. Seriously. Not, at all. So why has this song endured?
There are many ways to choose to tell a story. And lately I have been more and more a fan of Minchin’s chosen approach in “When I Grow Up” and “White Wine”. By taking a step back from the main trajectory of the evening (“satire” in live shows, and “the plot” in Matilda) and instead focusing on a slice of life it allows the audience to soak in the perspective of someone else and contextualize what we’ve seen before and will see in the future.In “When I Grow Up” the hopes and dream of the children are contrasted directly with the struggles of Miss Honey, the student’s teacher, who (as an adult) is still longing to someday be able to “fight the creatures” that frighten her. Her insecurities become ours.
Minchin understands that a story is about more than one person. It has to be, because an audience is made up of countless people with countless ways of viewing the world. By giving time to a secondary perspective we are better able to frame the primary plot because we are able to understand the world it exists in. Minchin used this device to great effect in “Groundhog Day”, in the Act 2 opener “Playing Nancy”.
In “White Wine”, we may not agree with Minchin’s politics, but we should be able to see how precious a small moment with family can make all the difference. This sweet song can contextualize his entire catalogue of songs, especially if you found his thoughts and opinions controversial in the first place. All anger and frustration that he had previously expressed is coming from a normal man who longs to be back home with his family. It’s not hateful, it's loving.
“Mean is not Evil"
By now you may wonder how, or more importantly "why", a 29 year old musical theatre dork would write over two thousand words on 3 songs by a musical satirist. At the time I am writing this I am about to close my personal chapter of playing Harry Wormwood for CCMT. Harry Wormwood was a gift of a role: broad and complex. A role I feel I’ve been training to for a long time. I owe so much gratitude to the cast, crew, design team. But the most thanks needs to go to Jennifer Perry for seeing, trusting, and pushing me in this role.
But I am also about to start a new wonderful chapter. My wife is expecting a baby boy, I’m going to be a father. This wonderful, terrifying, miracle that is going to enter the world in a few months. And I find I am surrounded by musical "comfort food". I have been turning to the work of Tim Minchin for years. His work has entertained, delighted, and guided me through many things. But the past few months playing Harry Wormwood feels like kismet. I found out I had been cast in the show right before I found out I was going to be a father. Amanda (my wife) were able to share some special baby moments (announcement, and gender reveal) with our company. And I got to live in the world of Minchin’s music for months. It has been a gift.
So how could I have written over two thousand words on three songs by Tim Minchin? It was pretty easy. I look up to him, and his work. I long to be around his words and music. I am grateful.
See you next time