09 March 2020

Matilda's profound, lingering magic

Dahl, Roald. Matilda. Puffin books, 2004.

She couldn't possibly keep a gigantic secret like that bottled up inside her. What she needed was just one person, one wise and sympathetic grown-up, who could help her to understand the meaning of this extraordinary happening.
. . .
Matilda decided that the one person she would like to confide in was Miss Honey. (p 164)

What has so far been a light, fun read turns into poignant literature after that passage. Like Matilda, I, too, have secrets I can't keep bottled up inside me. And though I need only one person to confide in, finding them is hard.

Maybe it's my age, but I reckon that Roald Dahl's Matilda is the story of Miss Honey. Granted, the two ladies fulfill each other's hunger for family; yet Miss Honey undergoes the bigger changes: first in her attitude (from docile to emboldened), then her lot (from poor to rich), all thanks to Matilda, who's pretty much a superhero, not once showing any signs of vulnerability.

The friendship between Miss Honey and Matilda — signifying equality between children and adults, the value of thoughtful listening, and the humility to seek and accept help — makes the book special to me.

In the Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly musical adaptation, this friendship is almost a given; and the focus shifts to putting things right, more specifically, rewriting your pre-existing narrative.

Despite the profusion of books ontsage (Matilda uses a stack of it as her constant chair), the musical isn't making an argument for reading. Rather, it reminds us that books are more than just treasured possessions of socially inept losers. Bookworms are neither goody-goodies nor pushovers.

Take the case of Matilda. She personifies a revolting spirit from the get-go, in her opening solo, Naughty, where she also displays her critical thinking skills by reviewing the stories she's read:

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water, so they say,
Their subsequent fall was inevitable.
They never stood a chance; they were written that way.
Innocent victims of their story.

Like Romeo and Juliet.
T'was written in the stars before they even met.
That love and fate, and a touch of stupidity
Would rob them of their hope of living happily.
The endings are often a little bit gory.
I wonder why they didn't just change their story?

Her age and height notwithstanding, Matilda stands up to adult bullies fixed in their unfair ways. What's great is that she doesn't come off as an annoying woke police (as even she endorses a bit of mischief).

For all its sleight of hand, drawing out myriad emotions from its audience must be the most clever trick the musical has pulled off. Matilda is written with youthful idealism tempered by a knowingness earned by those who have had a taste of life's bitter pill.

The show is able to duplicate the lightness and poignancy of the novel, and gets infinitely better in the second act. Here, children sing of things they'll do when they grow up, which they equate to being invincible. If you're an adult, the whole number becomes a mirror where your younger self looks back at you (different from nostalgia, a mere sentimentality). Watching kids ride a swing and fly paper airplanes has never been so heart-shattering.

Another noteworthy number is Quiet (a personal favorite), where a feeling we may associate with anger, confusion, or displacement is articulated using every possible theatrical tool — music, lyrics, choreography, lights. The result is a clear and resonant expression of an ineffable childhood experience.

This is a musical that refuses to coast on charm. Words are demanded to be heard. Structurally, I admire the decision to have Matilda tell Miss Honey's backstory in installments, as it reinforces the joys of storytelling, as well as the titular character's powerful imagination, while making us pay close attention.

When I replay it in my head, Matilda the Musical proceeds with a feel-good simplicity, though it's far from feel-good and simple. Its cries of courage ring with meaning because of a pointed awareness of reality. Happy ending aside, we all are Miss Honey still singing When I grow up…, still unsure of how to write our story.

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