Many applauded the song, which raised $250,000 to send victims of childhood abuse to Rome to watch Cardinal George Pell give evidence to the Royal Commission. But others (a few shock jocks among them) saw Minchin’s attack on Pell (“I think you’re scum, And I reckon you should come / Home, Cardinal Pell”) as a disrespectful witch-hunt.
In Melbourne last week for the opening of Matilda, Minchin told Daily Review he wrote the song in response to messages he had received over the years from Ballarat abuse survivors thanking him for his 2010 “Pope Song”.
“The Pope Song” is a much cleverer song than the Pell song, but it’s exactly the same issue. Is it as equally immoral to enable child rape as it is to rape a child?’’ Minchin asks.
“It’s about empathy,” he says of his motivations for “Come Home (Cardinal Pell)”.
That ability to use music and lyrics to communicate complex and even dark feelings is something Minchin has honed since graduating from the Western Australian Academy of the Performing Arts in his home town of Perth in 2001.
Although he says he spent years as a “failed’’ rock star, comedian and “theatre guy” before he found recognition at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2005 with his show Darkside, he has developed his talent for clashing art forms and ideas into something that is as entertaining as it can be unsettling.
“My comedy just developed. When I look back, it’s all marked by a joy in treating people who think they should have authority – by virtue of their position or wealth – and trying to bring them down a few pegs.’’
It seems obvious now that he should have been asked by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2009 to write the music and lyrics for a musical version of Roald Dahl’s classic 1988 book Matilda. It’s about a girl who has read all the books in her house before the age of five – despite the best efforts of her parents and one fearsome headmistress to keep her scared and ordinary. She then discovers another gift to punish all those that deserve their comeuppance.
Dahl was a realist when it came to depicting the joys, mischievousness (and terrors) of childhood; much of the humour in his books, especially Matilda, comes from his depiction of parents, teachers and authority figures that children must survive and outsmart.
Minchin grew up reading Dahl’s books and he suspects that might be the reason for his urge to challenge authority figures.
His own upbringing was very happy and he says his he, his two siblings and parents were all “very straight”. He feared strict teachers at school – particularly the appropriately named Mrs Mortlock and another teacher whose woollen skirts and plaid shirts found their way into his Matilda. But his most feared character as a child was Jesus.
“I remember when I was 10 watching an episode of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. There was footage of a building burning down and the voiceover said: ‘The couple think this shape inside is Jesus’.
“No one said to me, ‘that is all bullshit’, so for two years after that I slept with the light on because I thought Jesus would appear.”
That memory has found its way into a lyric in his new stage musical adaptation of the film Groundhog Day, due to open in London later this year.
“And you slept with the light on ’til you were 12 because you thought Jesus was going to appear in the dark and get angry with you for not helping your mum,” he sings.
The comedy is inevitably darker in Minchin’s version of a man destined to live the same day over and over.
“The challenge of putting the music into a repeated day is a challenge. It feels to me like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead [Tom Stoppard’s play, which he appeared in with Sydney Theatre Company in 2013].
“A person is trapped in something they don’t understand. In the second act, when he tries to kill himself over and over, he sings a song ‘Never Give Up Hope’. It should make you cry more than the film, but equally laugh as much as the film.’’
The crack creative team behind Groundhog Day also worked together on Matilda – director Matthew Warchus, writer Dennis Kelly (who adapted the book), set designer Rob Howell, musical director Chris Nightingale and choreographer Peter Darling.
“Writing a musical is f***ing hard,’’ says Minchin, who’d written 10 stage musicals by the time the RSC offered him Matilda.
“I was aware this was mine to f***-up,’’ he says of the opportunity, though he famously didn’t.
The multi-Tony and Olivier-award-winning show is playing on Broadway and the West End, is on tour in the US and has just moved from Sydney to Melbourne’s Princess Theatre. Later this year it will move to Brisbane and then Perth in early 2017.
Matilda has played to rave reviews everywhere – when it transferred from London to Broadway, the New York Times declared it was “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain”.
The show’s success is due in no small part to its joyous ability to tell a story that appeals to both adults and children, but not in that slightly condescending way some Disney-style family productions do.
Matilda has a stunning act-two opening number, “When I Grow Up”, which Daily Review’s Ben Neutze said: “simultaneously speaks to adults and children in different ways. It’s joyous, cheeky and playful, but has a bittersweet resonance for many adults”.
While the kids in the audience wonder at the over-sized playground swings, upon which the cast fly out above the heads of the front rows, it’s not uncommon at any performance to hear the grown-ups in the audience choking back tears. The choreography, by Peter Darling, who won a Tony Award for his work on Billy Elliot, is raw, forceful and often spectacular.
“Sometimes you see a musical and the visuals hits you, the music hits you and the story hits you, but they don’t feel of one piece,” Minchin says. “But through a stroke of luck or the skill of everyone involved, it doesn’t feel like that in Matilda.”
Minchin is struck by the talent of the Australian cast, which he says is “f***ing incredible”.
Leading the cast as Miss Trunchbull is James Millar, who, like Minchin is a WAAPA graduate, and an experienced performer and musical theatre writer. Millar won a Sydney Theatre Award for his pitch-perfect portrayal of the terrifying headmistress, as did Elise McCann as the sugary-sweet Miss Honey.
“They just get that British/Dahlian relationship between the dark and the light. They get how a character can be big, but not fake; they’re real.”
Minchin is now living in Los Angeles with his wife and two children while he works on the DreamWorks animated movie Larrikins, which he wrote and will direct. After he introduces Americans to Aussie animals they’ve never heard of (it’s set in the Australian outback), he plans to settle in Sydney in 2018.
He has already spoken to the Sydney Theatre Company’s new artistic director, Jonathan Church, about creating a new musical with the Matilda creative team for the company.
“I’ve got about 10 ideas for a musical,” he says, not giving anything away.
“I don’t want to be disconnected from the culture here; I want to be part of it.”
This article was first published on The Daily Review.
Matilda the Musical is currently playing at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre, before moving to Brisbane and Perth. There is no scheduled Adelaide season for the show as this stage.
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