'Matilda,' a Brit-hit, comes to Broadway

The four actresses who share the title role The four actresses who share the title role in "Matilda The Musical," from left, Bailey Ryon, Milly Shapiro, Sophia Gennusa, and Oona Laurence on stage at the Shubert Theatre in Manhattan. Photo Credit: AP

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Meet Matilda -- and Matilda -- and Matilda -- and Matilda.

The beloved heroine of Roald Dahl's popular 1988 children's book makes her Broadway debut-debut-debut-debut along with four local girls starring in the new "Matilda: The Musical," a Royal Shakespeare Company production that earned a record seven Olivier Awards in London last year and opens at the Shubert Theatre Thursday.

Forget the movie. The 1996 Danny DeVito comedy (starring Mara Wilson as Matilda) fiddled with the plot. The musical stays true to Dahl, whose Matilda Wormwood (played by Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro) is a brainy, lonely bookworm saddled with conniving parents and a monstrous school headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (played with gusto by British actor Bertie Carvel). Only her devoted teacher Miss Honey (Lauren Ward) seems to understand Matilda. But Honey's got troubles of her own.

Like "Annie," this vehicle (with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, book by Dennis Kelly) is designed to appeal to both kids and adults. What's notable is that the cast of kids handles a large portion of the singing, dancing and storytelling.

The musical originally was to be performed by adults. The idea of using a child as Matilda, then more kids as classmates, came later. "The children have inherited material written for adults, which is unusual," says Tony Award-winning director Matthew Warchus.

"Children are remarkable in their absorption," adds choreographer Peter Darling. "They can learn extraordinary amounts."

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Dahl, no doubt, would agree.

 

The man behind Matilda

His name was as curious as his books: Roald Dahl. That's pronounced ROO-arl, if you're Norwegian (like his parents), or ROW-uld if you were born and raised in Great Britain, as Dahl was after his parents moved to Wales.

Dahl wrote adult books and screenplays, but became renowned for his delightfully devious children's tales like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "James and the Giant Peach." (The outspoken, sometimes controversial author died in 1990 at age 74.)

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"He knew how to shock... how to scare... how to keep his readers on the edge of their seats," notes Donald Sturrock in "Storyteller," his 2010 Dahl biography. "His books are a kind of imaginative survival manual for children."

And his characters, no matter how outlandish, seem eerily grounded in reality.

Take Trunchbull. In his memoir, "Boy" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Dahl describes with relish a dorm supervisor at his first boarding school known only as... The Matron.

"The Matron was a large, fair-haired woman with a bosom ruled with a rod of steel," Dahl recalled. "She could move along that corridor like lightning, and when you least expected it, her head and her bosom would come popping through the dormitory doorway. 'Who threw that sponge?' the dreaded voice would call out. 'It was you, Perkins, was it not?... I know perfectly well it was you! Now... go downstairs and report to the Headmaster this instant!' "

Dahl, his pal Perkins and their schoolmates were terrified. But Matilda, facing a similar foe, strikes back.

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"The children avenge the evil adults," says Darling. "I think that's why it appeals to children. They take over."

 

From West End to Broadway

Darling doesn't have kids, he says, speaking by phone from London. He bursts out laughing. "I've got enough kids around 24/7."

The choreographer won a Tony for "Billy Elliot," and is now rehearsing "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," a musical opening in London later this spring (music and lyrics by "Hairspray"/"Smash" vets Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman).

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"Matilda's" dancing is jaunty, athletic, inspired by kids' natural movement. (As prep work, Darling spent a week watching kids in a classroom in Wales.)

"Children can move quicker than adults," says Darling. "Because of their height, they can dart. But they're not lyrical."

Unlike "Billy Elliot's" boys, trained in ballet, most children haven't learned the motor control necessary for fluid moves.

Ultimately, Darling hopes to teach the kids at least one thing. Dancing? It's fun. "But it's hard work."

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Aware of such pressures, Warchus protects his Matildas and other young castmates from the lures of show business. Four girls play Matilda to allow each more time for rest -- and schoolwork (each performs twice a week and is on standby twice a week). They don't sign autographs at the stage door (which, he says, is "intoxicating" and makes it hard to return to real life after leaving the show).

They may treat the kids like adults -- but "not like stars," he says.

As for Dahl, "He spoke with one voice to both adults and children -- to the burgeoning, wannabe adult in a child, and the leftover child in an adult," says Warchus.

It was an unusual gift.

As Dahl himself observed in notes for a lecture in 1990, "When I write a book which vilifies parents or teachers, e.g., 'Matilda,' children absolutely love it... This is because the children shout, 'Hooray, here at last is a grown-up who understands what it is like to be one of us.'"

 

Meet Matilda -- all four of her

Who do we think we are? Miss Trunchbull? The four Matildas kindly answered a few questions.

WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE FOOD?

Milly Shapiro, 10, of New York City: Sushi

Sophia Gennusa, 9, Westchester: Pizza

Bailey Ryon, 10, Pennsylvania: French fries or any potato

Oona Laurence, 10, New York City: Ravioli

WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE BOOK?

Milly: "Alice in Wonderland"

Sophia: "Matilda"

Bailey: "Charlotte's Web"

Oona: "Matilda," "The Hunger Games," "The Two Princesses of Bamarre"

WHO'S YOUR FAVORITE SINGER OR MUSIC GROUP?

Milly: Barbra Streisand

Sophia: Whitney Houston

Bailey: Queen

Oona: ABBA and Electric Light Orchestra

WHAT'S THE FIRST BROADWAY MUSICAL YOU EVER SAW?

Milly: "Cats" (on tour)

Sophia: "The Little Mermaid"

Bailey: "Wonderland"

Oona: "The Addams Family"

WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE WHEN YOU GROW UP (BESIDES AN ACTRESS)?

Milly: An environmental lawyer, fashion designer... or both

Sophia: A master of archery

Bailey: Zookeeper

Oona: Veterinarian

WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE ROLE YOU'VE PLAYED?

Milly: Matilda!

Sophia: Matilda!

Bailey: Matilda!

Oona: Matilda!

WHAT'S THE ONE THING YOU LIKE BEST ABOUT MATILDA?

Milly: "She's brave and strong and she does what's right."

Sophia: "She stays strong, brave and tough. She doesn't show a lot of emotion, but she feels everything."

Bailey: "She uses her mind to change the world."

Oona: "I love that she's brave and will one day control her life. And I like that she loves to read and can outsmart her cruel parents. She thinks that 'Even if you're little, you can do a lot,' and that's amazing for a 5-year-old to do and think."

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