Matilda: The Musical

Original Cast Recording

Matilda, the big London hit that has become a big Broadway hit, arrived on these shores with an original cast album already on the market. The Royal Shakespeare Company, which produced the show, issued its original cast recording in 2011 based on the pre-London run in Stratford. Then this year it released it again with the Broadway artwork on the cover. I don’t think we’ll see an original Broadway cast recording.

Listening to this recording, and then listening to the show in the Shubert Theatre in New York, it doesn’t appear that too much was changed. The producers of the recording did a good job of capturing the in-theater sound.

This is a kid-heavy score in the sense that much of it is sung by children playing school kids. After all, the title character is supposed to be about five years old when much of the action takes place. In all, ten of the twenty named characters in the story are children.

Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics have a semi-nursery rhyme feel in a jazzy, up-tempo way much of the time. But rather than simply present a 32-bar AABA song, many of the numbers are multi-point scenes. The smashing number that opens the show, “Miracle,” first offers a children’s round built on children reporting that “My mommy says I’m a miracle” but that is soon replaced by a doctor singing the praises of newborns as miracles. This is followed by the rejection of the baby Matilda by her parents finally leading to her lamenting “My mommy says I’m a lousy little worm,” ironically in the same chipper way.

Each of Minchin’s songs has a clear point of view and serves a very real purpose in the telling of the story. Often it is a point that is made clear with a single line such as “if its not right, you have to put it right” or “No one’s gonna listen if you don’t shout.”

Not all of Minchin’s numbers are bright, cheerful ditties. He gets touchingly emotional in his “This Little Girl” number for Matilda’s soft-hearted teacher, Miss Honey, and affectingly delicate in Matilda’s own number “Quiet.” This last number, by the way, features a stirling orchestration by Tony Award nominee Chris Nightingale that gives us the cacophony that precedes the quiet.

It isn’t much of a disadvantage that this recording doesn’t provide the voice of any of the four young girls who play the title character on Broadway. After all, you don’t know which one your going to get when you arrive at the Shubert Theater. There were three who alternated in Stratford: eleven year olds Adrianna Bertola and Kerry Ingram and ten year old Josie Griffiths. A different group opened in London (and received a joint Olivier Award as Best Actress in a Musical): Cleo Demetriou, Kerry Ingram, Sophia Kiely and Eleanor Worthington Cox.

On Broadway the role falls to nine year old Sophia Gennusa and only slightly older Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon (who played the part the night I attended) and Milly Shapiro. They have been selected for a joint “Tony Honor” rather than being allowed to compete for the Best Lead Actress in a Musical award. I suppose completists would want one album of each of these, but few theater music fans would spring for eleven different cast recordings.

One significant disadvantage of not getting an original Broadway cast recording of the score is that we don’t get to hear the marvelous performance of Gabriel Ebert who is eminently worthy of the Tony Award nomination he earned as Matilda’s father, the cluelessly classless used car dealer who panics when informed that his newborn child doesn’t have a “thingy” because it is a girl. Missing his performance isn’t as much of a problem as it might otherwise be, however. Even if we had Mr. Ebert on the recording, the audio-only recording wouldn’t reveal one aspect of his performance that is such a standout feature: his ability to use body language to underline and emphasize lines of dialog or lyrics.

As funny as Ebert is in the first act of the show, it is his second act opener that really sticks with you. The song “Telley” precedes the entr’acte as he addresses the audience directly to offer an antidote to the show’s blatant support for books and reading: television – which he extolls for its “Endless content, endless channels / Endless chat on endless panels. / All you need to fill your muffin / Without having to think or nothin’.”)

The nurturing teacher who champions Matilda’s cause as a gifted child is Lauren Ward who is finally getting a Tony Award nomination after superb performances as Martha Jefferson in the 1997 revival of 1776 and Young Sally in the short-lived revival of Follies at the Belasco in 2001. She is on this recording.

The performance that gets the most attention in New York right now is captured on the album. That would be Bertie Carvel, nominated for the Tony just as he was for the Olivier in London (where, by the way, he won the award.) His no-holds-barred, over-the-top turn as “Miss Trunchbull,” the evil headmistress who swings little girls around by the ponytail like a hammer toss in the Olympics, and whose idea of paradise is “a world with no children,” is a classic of its kind. Personally, I find this style off-putting, so I have some overlooking to do to fully enjoy the piece. But that’s just me.

If your taste runs to such performances, where the technique of the actor is on display with such obviousness that both the character and the performer are in your consciousness at each moment, this is one to treasure. This is especially true when he/she is letting loose not just in song, such as in his/her big act two number “The Smell of Rebellion,” but in the three minute spoken tirade captured as something of a hidden track at the end of the final track of the recording.

We can lament the lack of an original Broadway cast recording all we want to, but it won’t do any good. Instead, give thanks that we got such a high quality recording of the original Stratford cast.

Matilda: The Musical
Original Cast Recording
Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin
Running time 67 minutes over 17 tracks
RSC Records
ASIN: B009M17U24
Purchase from Amazon $13.24
Download from iTunes $9.99

May 21, 2013