Apr 16, 2013

Dahl's House

A human moment at last (photo by Joan Marcus)
It’s hard to wear a smile and a sneer at the same time, but Matilda the Musical sure does try. This new British import is both day-glo bright and unsettingly spidery, as if Terry Gilliam had designed a Disneyland ride. Sounds like fun, no? I had some. Though I did eventually relax into it and enjoy its considerable craftiness and undeniable spirit, it took me about an act and a half, at which point the show goes full-bore Gothic and the story takes some divertingly illogical turns. More importantly, it took me getting over trying too hard to parse how—as the critics have helpfully instructed us—Matilda is somehow subversive, revolutionary, empowering, genre-busting, etc.

On the sneering side of the ledger, Matilda feels for all the world like it’s satirizing something. But what? The brash opening depicts a gaggle of parents spoiling their bratty children, but these are pointedly the opposite of the family dynamic we’ll spend most of the show with: between the idealized, long-suffering genius Matilda and her selfish and tasteless parents, who are inexplicably horrified by her bookishness and independence. The clownish exaggeration of these parents’ attitudes is a cue, or I thought it was, that something else is going on; might these two broadly drawn caricatures of cartoon idiots be meant to personify the dumbed-down mass culture that makes brainiacs and dreamers like Matilda feel increasingly like freaks, outcasts? It’s a link I had to struggle to see, just as I later wondered if the concern of Matilda’s milquetoast schoolteacher, Miss Honey, for her precocious young charge was meant to suggest the recognizable heartbreak of an outsider watching helplessly as a promising child is stifled by an impoverished or dysfunctional home life. Again, this seemed like a stretch.

But if I felt I was working too hard to read these levels
—something I started to do early on, since I wasn’t feeling anything, either amusement or empathy, for most of the first act and some of the secondI gave up, and finally gave in, in the face of Miss Trunchbull, the mincing, abusive Gestapo headmistress of Matilda’s school. In Bertie Carvel’s definitive performancepart Lithgow-in-drag, part Frau Blucher, all deviled hamthis top-heavy hunchback is a sui generis bogeywoman, and when she’s onstage, she feels like the reason the show exists. And Carvel’s resplendent, unhinged camp was finally my cue, and my permission, to stop taking any of this seriously; his Trunchbull is a self-contained, self-referential comic confection, not a sendup of any recognizable human being or class. And this gave the game away; while Carvel helps make Matilda digestible as an entertainment, he also lets us know that this is all no more nourishing, or long-lasting, than candy (and not the magical Wonka kind).

There are other reasons to find the second act more inviting than the first. While it rationalizes Trunchbull into a fantastical story-within-a-story intuited by Matilda, and uses some genuinely pleasing stagecraft to do so, the show also eases up on its relentless hard sell for a few beatific moments in which the children onstage behave like actual human children: the catchy run-on song “When I Grow Up” and Matilda’s lovely reverie about “Quiet.”

That last is also one of the few in which Matilda, at least as played by the impressive but impassive Milly Shapiro (three other young actresses alternate in the role), seems recognizably human. Other critics seem to disagree, but at the risk of sounding like Thaddeus Bristol, I found Shapiro oddly distancing and disconnected, a self-possessed little musical-theater robot with a strong voice and a disarming stare, which is never more affecting than when she’s looking out searchingly into the spotlight and holding still for her next vocal cue. But I should probably blame the conception of the role more than the performer; this Matilda is a plaster saint, persecuted and all-knowing and ever in the right, even when she’s concocting funny pranks on her mean dad or throwing a mild tantrum about Trunchbull’s depradations.

Perhaps Dahl conceived her as a sort of avenging angel—I haven’t read the book (though perhaps I will; my 3-year-old has just enjoyed a chapter-a-night read-through of
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). If so, chalk that up as another reason I didn’t quite cotton to Matilda the Musical; there’s a certain smugness in its vision of innocent youth and genius besieged on all sides by uncomprehending parents and teachers, John Hughes multiplied by Roger Waters. This may get Dahl’s general sympathies right, it seems to me, but ignores his gimlet eye for children’s nastiness, too (again, this is based on my reading of other Dahl works, not Matilda).

The smugness goes straight to the heart of show’s self-regard:
This isn’t your average treacly children’s entertainment, it all but bleats at us. When, near the end, a kindly librarian tells us, “Not all stories have happy endings,” the creators are saying, “See, we’re not feeding you pabulum; this is the real deal.”

And then Matilda and Miss Honey walk blissfully into the sunset. Bullshit.

Update: The excellent discussion this post inspired on Facebook (here) is reprinted below...

Raven Snook Awesome post. I too have mixed feeling about Matilda but was won over by the end. I am a sentimental fool though and always have been and I agree, for all its subversiveness and darkness what got me in the end was the good old fashioned emotion of the second act, the villain getting her comeuppance, and the kids wistfully singing about a childhood I increasingly miss as I get older.

Raven Snook I should add that I was surprised by how much my seven-year-old loved it, but she did.

Rob Weinert-Kendt Well, as a kid's show, it's pretty special. But it was hyped as so much more.

Raven Snook I agree it's not your typical Broadway family fare, but I do think the New Vic has brought in a few shows that, while not quite as spectacular in terms of set and such, are also dark and complicated for kids' shows, like the environmental Hansel & Gretel a few years back. All their dark shows come from England though. What is in their water?

Jason Zinoman Great piece, Rob. I guess i don't see the musical as so dark. I actually would have liked it more if it was more gleefully amoral and straightforward about its own smugness. In other words, it doesn't pander to kids, but it doesn't challenge them either. It's a book and a show celebrating the smart kid surrounded by cretins. Thankfully, it doesn't turn Matilda into cookie cutter lovable, but it also don't show how precocious smart bookish kids can also be pretty know-it-all annoying, not to mention downright cold. I mean, Matilda enjoys taking revenge against her dad. She enjoys it in the book. I don't see that joy in the musical. And she shakes her dad's hand at the end when he leaves. Say what you want about that, but it's cold. I kind of think the show would be more interesting if it celebrated her while also slightly mocking them. Might also just be a question of performance. I wanted the show to have a little more Shockheaded Peter. The reason I love Roald Dahl is he treats kids like adults. Not sure this show does. Tho I agree the villainess was amazing. Give him a Tony pronto.

Rob Weinert-Kendt We are total New Vic groupies

Raven Snook It will be interesting to see two men in drag duke it out for the Tony for best actor... although I wonder if Bertie will be up for supporting while Billy [Porter, from Kinky Boots] will be up for lead. And yes, I am openly a New Vic groupie. I am honestly shocked families spend $100+ per ticket for Broadway shows when the top ticket price at the New Vic is $38.

Jason Zinoman Hell, the spacious waiting room where your kid can color half an hour before the show should make the New Vic shows more expensive than Broadway.

Jason Zinoman Seems like while Raven liked Matilda a little more than Rob and me, we all liked it less than the rest of the critics who gushed. I wonder if the fact we all have kids has something to do with that.

Raven Snook I think most of the gushing has to do with the fact that it's different, for Broadway anyway. And that the kids aren't cookie cutter cute. And that it seems to have more on its mind. And that the first half of the season was brutal.

Julie Haverkate Nice piece, though naturally I disagree Though I agree that it's not innovative in any sense, I have little problem with its alternating tones (I quite liked its sporadicalness in sentimentality/satire). But the fact that you didn't grow up with the book (shall I age myself and tell you I was 7 when it was published?) says something. I haven't read any of Dahl's books since I was young, but I have a strong recollection of them; he is one of the few authors (and I read a shit ton) that made a large impression on me. This show brought it all back, vividly. I don't think it's near perfect, but it was so, so delightful to be back in that world, and to come at it this time from my adult perspective. Ignore the hype and enjoy the ride, I say. Raven: I imagine Bertie will be up for supporting, so both men should garner a Tony, which delights me.

David Cote As a critic who gushed (but would never call Matilda "revolutionary"), I can appreciate Rob's Monday-morning quarterbacking, but as usual I think he's straw-manning a bit. Matilda is a deliberate mix of fairy-tale and satire, it's trying to avoid being a treacly kids' show, but also have plenty of wonder and innocence, and I think it mostly succeeds. It's got levels, which is nice for a show primarily aimed at families. It's broadly (coarsely, if you want) anti-authoritarian and that means that there's not a single decent (living) parent in it. All the adult authority figures, except for the doctor in the beginning and Miss Honey are wretched hypocrites and sadistic creeps. It's a musical about being a gifted kid facing the prospect of growing up into an awful adult. If the musical were only sweet or only sour—as Rob wants?—it would get boring pretty damn fast.
Susan Jonas I love the book. I give it to all my friends 's kids. It is extremely subversive and Dahlesque dark. Sorry if the adaptation loses that.

Rob Weinert-Kendt Good points, all. What I was wrestling with in my post was my experience of not enjoying the show very much, and as with my dissent on the Baker/Gold Vanya, I searched my own expectations and tried to name and explain my lack of enjoyment, and maybe in the process I've overstepped. It's genuinely odd to try to persuade each other why we should or shouldn't have liked something we couldn't help liking or not liking viscerally, but then, if we didn't have that impulse, none of us would be critics, right?

Jason Zinoman I am pretty much on the same page with Rob on this show, though I suspect he has a stronger critique rooted in the construction of the show. But the most interesting issue is one Cote brings up in this sentence: "It's a musical about being a gifted kid facing the prospect of growing up into an awful adult." I think that's right and perceptive. Or is should say: That's what the musical wants to be: Matilda is growing up into an awful adult. Of course the adults are awful. Adults are always awful in kid's stories. What makes Dahl different is his lack of sentiment about kids. As someone reading the book right now, although not done yet, I think the show gets weak in the knees portraying this. To some extent, I understand: Making a non-lovable tyke is hard for a musical, as it is for Hollywood. There aren't many Welcome to the Dollhouses. And building an entire musical around an impassive, smugly smart little girl may be doomed, emotionally. But I don't believe that. The theme the book hits hard and the musical just taps on is revenge. Matilda takes revenge in the book over and over again with pranks against her parents. Pranks mean something shitty to Dahl. See The Twits (which also uses glue as a weapon). Anyways, since she's smarter than them, she succeeds. If she was an adults, we'd all agree she's a horrible, nasty prick. Their sins are calling her stupid (the worst thing in the world to a 10 year old smart kid) and not caring about books and favoring her brother -- bad stuff, but hardly capital offenses. I think the musical starts slow and picks up steam in the second act and the reason is that it doesn't show us the joy of revenge. Nothing is more quintessentially Dahl than delighting in violence and cruelty. One message of his books I get is that he cares more about childhood pleasure and joy than any morality. And sometimes, pleasure comes from doing naughty things. That is a message that resonates with kids. And I bet would resonate with Broadway audiences. But that little girl's face has no joy in it. I realize that it's a choice, and it's a bold one in a way, since it's such the opposite of mugging, ingratiating kid. But I think the show would better serve the material and the audience if they made another choice. She can be smart and adult without coming off like a robot -- or even worse, an adult's idea of a smart kid.
David Cote Good points, but I would say that Matilda is not on her way to growing up into a bad person. And as a kid, she may be impassive but I wouldn't call her smug. She's a prodigy in a world that doesn't respect intellectual gifts. Except for Miss Honey. Is it a grotesquely exaggerated world rendered crass & cartoonish in both book and musical for effect? Absolutely. I don't think anyone is going to Dahl for realism. I read the book too and it takes some interesting turns in the last third, where Matilda's telekinetic powers push the plot along and defeat the villain, but where she actually takes a backseat to Miss Honey's story and sheer plot mechanics. In fact, while Matilda is the hero of the story, she's also a bit of a cipher, an observer and catalyst. Less so in the book. But the deal with the devil that the creators of the musical made is having kids play kids. It's both impressive and fundamentally limiting. If you'd had a convincingly petite, young-looking 18- or 20-year-old play Matilda, you'd have gotten a lot more nuanced acting and we'd get to know this little girl more. Instead, Matilda is more of a device and plot-delivery system than a fully realized person on stage. And having 4 actresses playing her only emphasizes her cipher-ness. None of this prevented me from enjoying the show's visual and musical treats. Maybe some of the kid-trying-not-to-be-cute-and-seeming-blank caused you Jason and Rob, to project a little on her. Lastly, it's not really about revenge, it's about being small and standing up for yourself. Or maybe: not winning small battles like glueing your horrid dad's hat to his head but defeating a horrible criminal like Trunchbull.
Jason Zinoman Think this is smart and a good discussion. And I plead guilty of projection. And you're completely right: It's a very cartoonish world, which makes it more interesting to me too. And i also think it should change the way we read the story. So when we learn from the get-go that she's a 4-year-old reading Dickens, we know this is not a realistic story about a prodigy. It's a fantasy. And it's a manipulative one, in the best sense of the term. So the reason I think it's about revenge -- and I think there is a huge amount of room for disagreement here -- is how the stakes are set up at the start. So many kids stories imagine a world where the kid battles unimaginable powers. It's a very popular tactic because it's how kids (and adults) often feel. But this book is different. From the start, we see Matilda able to defeat everyone. She has the unimaginable power (it's Honey's role to notice this). It's her family who are victims as much as she is. But they are far less able to control their world, although her dad tries through conning people. I guess here is where I may read a bit into the book because of my interepetation of Dahl. In a battle between a lying con man who tricks people to buy cars (her dad) and a kid who righteously calls him out while also announcing that she's qualified to "punish" him, I don't think Dahl clearly favors one over the other. And while he conceded to some conventions too, what he cared about was not moral lessons or underdogs triumphing. Sometimes they did, but that's not what animated his stories. At least for me. So again I may be projecting what I love about his stories. But I am also struggling with why this musical didn't speak to me in the way his books do.
David Cote I think you lay out the tale's internal contradictions (or is that complexity?) beautifully. And I just have time to note this: In the original MS draft of Matilda that Dahl sent to his publisher, the title girl was a nasty little trouble-maker who used her telekinetic powers to fix horse races and who came to a tragic ending. His publisher was appalled. He rewrote the story. I think I've got that right.
Jason Zinoman Fascinating. Also goes to show that obsessing over what Dahl did may be misplaced. Book was collaborative, just like the musical. Think your point about age of actor is also real interesting. There's a lot to like and chew on. People should see it. I may go again.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Here's a big caveat: I think my wife would have liked the show more than I did, and had I gone with her rather than my fellow skeptic, Mr. Zinoman, I may have felt and thought differently about the show, more than I care to admit. (Or if I'd taken my son, who I actually think could handle it, but not sure I'd want him to.) And because I had such a different experience from most of humanity, I may even try to see it again myself, either to see if I can enjoy it more or to figure out more reasons why it rubbed me the wrong way.
Jason Zinoman Christ, look at that man backtrack! If I took my kid and she liked it, I would have disliked the show more, because my kid has fucking horrible taste in shows. Trust me. Because I love her, I won't shame her on Facebook by listing the awful productions she described as "Great!" And she couldn't sit through Van Hove. What a philistine.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Hey, I'll say it out loud: Oliver liked that claptrap "Cinderella." He couldn't tell me a thing about it afterward but when it was over, he jumped up and screamed, "More show!" I can't wait for Penny to be old enough to pull off a Zinoman-style postshow throwdown.


Linda said...

Great post, Rob. I haven't seen the show on Broadway yet, but I did see it in London last year, and I also found myself mostly unmoved. What did you think of Billy Elliot? It's hard not to compare the two, and I was much more moved by it and thought it was overall a more adult musical. I know most people don't agree, but I found Matilda pandering in some places like the Telly song (is that still in it?).

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Glad to hear I'm not a lonesome voice in the wilderness (I know there are few others out there). I had some issues with BILLY ELLIOT (I never said I was easy to please!), but by and large, yes, I was much more stirred by that show. And yes, that substance-less "Telly" song is still in, and Gabe Ebert kills it, but what's the point? Reminded me of those similarly pointless skiffle songs in ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS, but I don't want to start another fight about that show.

Shoshana said...

Very late to this party as I just saw the show and just finished reading this post and all the comments. I want to add that the Telly Song was my favorite part (mostly because Gabriel Ebert kills it, as you say) but also because after that scene and the one that followed in which the girl talked to the audience, I was so delighted by the more presentational style that I wanted the entire show to be rewritten like that. I don't know if that would actually work, but the departure of form was so welcome that I thought maybe there was something there. In any case, aside from the swings (maybe) it was the only moment in the show that I experienced pure joy.

Victoria said...

This is cool!