Matilda The Musical has released a Broadway cast album. After a smattering of rave reviews it is no surprise that the producers, headlined by the Royal Shakespeare Company, would elect to commemorate the American incarnation of the British sensation.
When the show opened this past spring it was like the world stopped to nod its head toward the musical with notices like “The makers of “Matilda” have done the impossible—triumphantly.” (The Wall Street Journal) and “The best musical since the Lion King!” (Time). Ben Brantley, the notoriously harsh critic from The New York Times pronounced Matilda as “…the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain.” Since opening night the box office has soared and every bourgeois housewife in the tri-state area has scrambled her way into Shubert Alley hoping to pick up tickets for the kiddies.
My experience with Matilda has been filled with jilting and jolting, especially now having listened to the new recording. I first encountered the show as a cast album from London about a year and a half ago. No presumptions on the title, I had never heard of the composer, Tim Minchin, and didn’t have a point of a view on the material – I was looking forward to hearing a new show for the first time. Call me a show queen, if you please. My first listen had my ears and heart curious, enjoying the spastic and catchy clips of melody intertwined with British zingers. The tunes sounded different and the score ascertained a frenzied style that gave life to the content and storybook characters created by the literary genius, Roald Dahl. It felt like a fun show with heart and energy and I couldn’t wait to see the show on Broadway! At last something that felt unique with a sound and personality all its own.
Seeing the Broadway incarnation of Matilda twice this past theater season, I left the show both times with a headache and found myself scratching my head thinking, “What’s the big deal about this musical?” The staging combined with the jerky and loud score felt ultra aggressive. Somehow the parts did not add up. The show shouted and screamed but never made a point to make me listen. Matilda competes with itself in every aspect: the staging is robotic and sharp—absent of nuance or individuality—while the score is often too fast and over orchestrated to hear the lyrics. Here is an example of quantity over quality.
The new cast album, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and book by Dennis Kelly, captures the show with extended songs not on the London album—the opening song, “Miracle,” now has three parts with individual tracks. The majority of the score is a plunky repetition of vamps that circle songs like sharks in the Bermuda Triangle. The kids have been directed to screech and scratch through every syllable of the lyrics, which are often times clever but too busy to understand what they mean or hear them through the background noise. During the mother’s song, “Loud,” it sounds like the music director abducted the Tin Man on his way to the find Oz and heaved him into the orchestra pit.
Two songs emerge from the clutter with some grace. The “want” song Matilda sings at the beginning of the show, “Naughty” (performed by the sweet-voiced Sophia Gennusa) is delightful and sets a tone for the character but sadly doesn’t make a reprise soon enough. “When I Grow Up” (performed by Lauren Ward and Bailey Ryon) gets Act Two off to a good start after the annoying “Telly” song that brings the audience back to their seats in a Lets-Make-A-Deal / Borsch Belt approach. “When I Grow Up” is welcomed because it has a tuneful melody that sounds like something kids would actually say and think about: “And when I grow up, I will eat sweets every day on the way to work and I will go to bed late every night!”
Matilda personifies the power and danger of how hype can affect a Broadway show. The new recording catapults itself to the front of the class, but its once gentle and delicate voice has been overshadowed with the mechanisms of an overproduced musical.