The afternoon after viewing Fun Home, I caught Matilda, at the time happily ignorant of Roald Dahl's children's classic. Two years ago around the same time, the musical—songs by Tim Minchin, book by Dennis Kelly—was in contention for a boatload of Tonys and took home its share, though it lost out to A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder for the big prize.
Well into a third season, Matilda skips along con brio, in vaudevillian caprichos that might have sprung to life from the inkwell of an Al Hirschfeld or Ronald Searle. Upholding tradition, the knaves and fools hog the footlights: the twitchy, sadistic headmistress and track champion Miss Trunchbull, reliving the glory when she threw the hammer for her country; the rumba-crazed Mrs. Wormwood, coaching a mousy schoolteacher on how to be LOUD! Happily, our pint-size heroine is no angel, either. Hardened reader of grown-up books, lightning calculator of big numbers in her head, occasional mover of physical objects by sheer mental power, Matilda rights her world's injustices one act of insubordination at a time. "Sometimes,"she sings, you have to be a little bit naughty."
The way it looks to me now that I have gone back to the source, Dahl's intellectual-property claims here are surprisingly shaky. A little bit naughty? Whereas the all-singing, all-dancing Matilda takes action against the sadistic and the merely clueless in self-defense, Dahl's little domestic terrorist delights in preemptive sneak attacks that overleap, by a country mile, the bounds of spite and malice.
Grant that Dahl has pinned new names and the odd plume of individuality on a cast of stock figures, affording them a new lease on life. Grant further that in Matilda's untutored intellect, he has invented an attribute as distinctive as Cyrano's nose (or Pinocchio's). But his narrative meanders, his characters plod in place, and his language sentence for sentence lacks what Verdi famously termed parola scenic: the kind of buzzword or catchphrase around which a memorable personality, episode, or song might crystalize.
No thanks to Dahl, the musical Matilda has them in spades, as song titles like "Miracle," "Pathetic," "My House," and "The Smell of Rebellion" attest—and this in tandem with surefire storytelling and characters as emblematic as Snoopy, the Little Prince, or the Knave of Hearts. Matthew Warchus, that Merlin among directors, will have had much to do with the metamorphosis, along with the knockout choreographer Peter Darling, as well as Dennis Kelly, mentioned above. But the soul of the soul of the show is in the rasp and anarchy of Minchin's songs. To have extracted such snap, crackle, and pop from pages so weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable—it beggars belief.
In the crucial matter of tone, the opening paragraphs of the opening chapter capture all too pungently the affectations Dahl visits on his target audience of children.
"It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.
"Some parents go further. They become so blinded by adoration they manage to convince themselves their child has qualities of genius.
"Well, there is nothing very wrong with all this. It's the way of the world. It is only when the parents begin telling us about the brilliance of their own revolting offspring, that we start shouting, 'Bring us a basin! We're going to be sick!'"
Bring on that basin. Dahl's prose for adults sounds nothing like this. You've heard of the omniscient narrator? Here, in subtle contradistinction, we meet the know-it-all narrator. You've heard of the royal we? Dahl's "we" leapfrogs straight to the imperial.
The quoted passage appears, be it noted, under the chapter heading "The Reader of Books." You'll hear no objection from me to Dahl's pro-Gutenberg, anti-TV sentiments, but his PSA's do go rather over the top. It's all very well that Matilda's heroics at the local library begin at Great Expectations, with further Dickens following. But what are we to make of a reading list that expands to Hardy's grim Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Faulkner's impenetrable The Sound and the Fury, J. B. Priestley's picaresque The Good Companions (all 666 pages of it), and one Mary Webb's theosophical Gone to Earth? Don't make me laugh, as I might say if I were laughing. While her classmates are still struggling with Dick and Jane?
As Dahl tells the story, our bookworm's superpowers dissipate once she has won her decisive victory—and in a coda of surprising grace, she finds a new home with a teacher who loves her. As Prospero, whose spirit may be hovering here, says at a similar juncture, the rarer action lies in virtue than in vengeance—virtue in the present instance residing in the opportunity to be an ordinary little girl.
Would the co-creators of Matilda, the musical, endorse any part of this critique? I think not. By all accounts, Minchin adores the source material, and fantasized about adapting it for years before opportunity knocked at last. But history is full of masterpieces that supersede whatever inspired them. There was a Hamlet before Shakespeare's, a Tosca before Puccini's, a Godfather before Francis Ford Coppola's. Who bothers with them now? It's in the musical that Matilda comes into her own.