cover story

His life has been as full of drama, com­edy and low notes as the mu­si­cal theatre he writes. Britt Mann talks to Tim Minchin about so­cial com­men­tary, crush­ing dis­ap­point­ment and his hit show head­ing our way, Matilda The Mu­si­cal.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - NEWS -

Are­viewer once wrote that Tim Minchin was to mu­si­cal com­edy what Dar­win was to evo­lu­tion, and Ein­stein was to physics. And mous­taches. Grow­ing up in Perth, Minchin had never shown par­tic­u­lar prow­ess at ei­ther mu­sic or com­edy. The sec­ond of four mu­si­cally minded kids, he was known to spend hours tin­kling away at the fam­ily pi­ano, but he couldn’t read or write mu­sic – “real dots on the stripy things”.

He com­posed his first mu­si­cal when he was 18, a Pied Piper fig­ure to the young cast at Perth’s Youth Theatre Com­pany. The project was a defin­ing mo­ment for Minchin, a red-haired, al­lergy-rid­dled rogue with round blue eyes and a res­o­nant voice, who stud­ied English, theatre and mu­sic at univer­sity.

But the path to a ca­reer in mu­si­cal theatre wasn’t clear. Minchin, 41, would spend the next decade work­ing out how to pack­age him­self and his tal­ents for pub­lic con­sump­tion.

He was al­most 30 by the time he hit upon a win­ning com­bi­na­tion at the 2005 Mel­bourne In­ter­na­tional Com­edy Fes­ti­val: teased hair, tuxedo shirt and enough eye­shadow to make a show­girl giddy. Sit­ting at pi­ano, bare feet on the ped­als, Minchin sung ten­derly about a blow-up sex doll.

Your prob­lems are sim­ple, I don’t need my Masters in Psych To know if you get down I just perk you right up With a cou­ple of squirts from the pump off my bike. Minchin and his wife Sarah, a so­cial worker, had moved to Mel­bourne in pur­suit of cre­ative op­por­tu­ni­ties for Minchin. Af­ter more than a decade of not so much try­ing to make it big, as make ends meet, Minchin says his break­out act was some­thing of a busi­ness card.

“Com­edy was re­ally about go­ing ‘What hap­pens if I just do ev­ery­thing I can do, just stick it in a show?’” Minchin says in a doc­u­men­tary re­leased this year.

“I like be­ing good at things and I just wanted to show I could do them all. And when I did it, peo­ple just laughed.”

Minchin made his de­but at the Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­val Fringe later that year, walk­ing on stage to the sound of rock gui­tars and neon lights, be­fore un­leash­ing on the keys of a white grand pi­ano. His trade­mark themes of politics, re­li­gion, phi­los­o­phy and ra­tio­nal­ism were ev­i­dent even then. In Peace An­them For Pales­tine, he won­dered aloud whether there wasn’t some com­mon ground in the Holy Land (“If you don’t eat pigs/ And we don’t eat pigs/ Why not, not eat pigs to­gether?”)

For the au­di­ence, Minchin’s swash­buck­ling mu­si­cal mash-up of sex, death and God was a rev­e­la­tion. For his wife, who Minchin had met as a 17-year-old univer­sity stu­dent, his act was old hat.

“He likes im­press­ing peo­ple and be­ing clever,” Sarah says in the film, which was made by Minchin’s youngest sis­ter, Nel. “Every­one else thought he was dif­fer­ent but it was re­ally just his trousers got tighter, and his hair got straighter.” Af­ter Ed­in­burgh, the Minchins moved to Lon­don. Tim went on to tour three fur­ther shows, ap­pear in films and TV se­ries (no­tably 10 episodes of Cal­i­for­ni­ca­tion), and play Ju­das Is­car­iot in Je­sus Christ Su­per­star, among other feats.

He also com­posed the mu­sic and lyrics for the most awarded mu­si­cal in Aus­tralian his­tory.

Matilda The Mu­si­cal was adapted from Roald Dahl’s beloved novel by play­wright Den­nis Kelly and di­rec­tor Matthew Warchus. Warchus had scoped out Minchin two years ear­lier, at his show at the Blooms­bury Theatre in Lon­don. A high­light was Minchin’s song Prej­u­dice, which ex­plores the dis­crim­i­na­tion faced by the global gin­ger-haired com­mu­nity.

Kelly and Warchus knew Minchin had the head for their project, but weren’t sure he had the heart. Could a man who once penned a song called Fat Chil­dren – “Stop feed­ing your boy KFC / He looks like a clean­shaven Pavarotti” – write Matilda’s more sen­si­tive dit­ties?

Minchin’s en­core at the Blooms­bury Theatre, a mod­ern-day Christ­mas carol which paid homage to his fam­ily in Aus­tralia, brought the au­di­ence, in­clud­ing Warchus, to tears. Minchin was the right man for the job, af­ter all.

It helped that he was a fan of Dahl from way back. Minchin, who was born in Eng­land to Bri­tish par­ents, re­calls main­tain­ing a Dahl-ian aes­thetic grow­ing up – “very dim... very fat”, clad in “short shorts, long socks and a blazer from the age of 7”. One Christ­mas, the Minchin kids re­ceived some of Dahl’s best-loved works. Tim got The BFG, his brother Dan got Danny, the Cham­pion of the World, and his sis­ter Katie got Matilda.

To­day, his sib­lings de­bate whether their brother was in­flu­enced by Dahl’s en­dear­ingly twisted world view, or whether the au­thor of­fered an out­let for Tim’s own. Ei­ther way, Minchin was cap­ti­vated by what he dubs Dahl’s “glo­ri­ous, mar­vel­lous cel­e­bra­tion of the grot­ti­ness and the an­gles and ink­i­ness of child­hood”.

Dahl’s widow, Felic­ity, had been un­aware of Minchin’s affin­ity for her late hus­band’s works.

“As I got to know Tim, I re­alised this was made in heaven,” she later said.

Speak­ing by phone from New York, Minchin re­calls Matilda’s pre­miere in late 2010.

“I re­mem­ber watch­ing it and the lights com­ing up at the end and all the re­view­ers sort of jump­ing out of their seats and run­ning out,” he says. “I thought, ‘Mmm. They look pretty happy.’” In Minchin’s words, Matilda is a story about a lit­tle girl with ne­glect­ful par­ents who ends up learn­ing how to do magic, and saves her teacher Miss Honey from a cruel aunt who hap­pens to be the school head­mistress.

“In the end, Miss Honey saves Matilda from despotic par­ents and they lived hap­pily ever af­ter. As far as we know.”

The pro­duc­tion is cur­rently tour­ing Aus­tralia and will hit Auck­land in Au­gust. Af­ter that, Minchin says, it’ll “sort of go in a box some­where”.

Minchin cred­its his years as a strug­gling artist in the Lucky Coun­try as be­ing a train­ing ground for the skills and know-how nec­es­sary to make Matilda a

He was cap­ti­vated by Dahl’s ‘glo­ri­ous, mar­vel­lous, cel­e­bra­tion of the grot­ti­ness, and the an­gles and ink­i­ness of child­hood’.

suc­cess. It went on to have sell-out sea­sons on the West End and Broad­way.

He has at­tended al­most ev­ery open­ing night of the show (he missed the one in his home town, Perth, last month).

He’s not sure if he’ll make open­ing night in Auck­land, where he has fond me­mories of tour­ing in the past, but he hopes to make it for the fi­nale. In pre­vi­ous sea­sons, he’s been known to take the stage for a bow.

That the show’s fi­nal run is on his home turf, where Dahl’s work sells best out­side the UK, of­fers a pleas­ing cir­cu­lar­ity for Minchin, who, more than six years af­ter Matilda’s de­but, speaks with great af­fec­tion about the project that pro­pelled him back into the theatre world (the word “lovely” comes up a lot).

On one level, Matilda of­fers mes­sages of courage, revo­lu­tion and choos­ing one’s own des­tiny de­liv­ered by a “f…ing proper world-class” cast, Minchin says.

On an­other, Matilda’s less savoury char­ac­ters – the self-ab­sorbed, dimwit­ted mother, Mrs Worm­wood, and the mon­strous head­mistress, Miss Trunch­bull – are pre­scient sym­bols of a post-truth world. Worm­wood, Minchin says, rep­re­sents what he sees as the great­est prob­lem of the mod­ern era: that what you know mat­ters less than the vol­ume in which you ex­press it. Trunch­bull, he says, is a fas­cist. Com­edy has al­ways been a plat­form for so­cial com­men­tary, but satire set to song is the pre­serve of a tal­ented few.

The in­ter­net has given every­one a voice, Minchin says, and with it, the per­cep­tion that all voices have equal value.

It’s some­thing that deeply con­cerns him. “The democrati­sa­tion of in­for­ma­tion sounded like a good idea and I think it’s kind of a f…ing dis­as­ter,” he says. The thing I do now with so­cial me­dia is think, ‘Do I have some­thing to say that no one else has said yet?’ Or at least, ‘Have I got a way to say it that no one else has ex­pe­ri­enced yet?’”

Cer­tainly, Minchin’s voice has been able to cut through the ca­coph­ony. Last year, he re­leased what he de­scribes as his “most pro­duc­tive piece of satire” yet: a dis­con­cert­ingly catchy tune con­cern­ing Aus­tralia’s most se­nior Catholic, ac­cused of his­toric sex crimes against boys in his care.

The song Come Home (Car­di­nal Pell) urges Pell to re­turn to Aus­tralia to give evidence at the Royal Com­mis­sion into In­sti­tu­tional Re­sponses to Child Sex­ual Abuse.

Pro­ceeds from the sin­gle’s sales helped fund a trip to Rome for sur­vivors to hear Pell give evidence. It was nom­i­nated for the 2017 APRA Song of the Year.

The re­sponse to the song, which had been viewed al­most two mil­lion times on Minchin’s YouTube chan­nel, gives him hope that “good ac­tivism” is still pos­si­ble. “You just have to some­how stand out”.

In Septem­ber, the Minchins will re­turn from the US to Aus­tralia, where they’ll be based in Syd­ney for the first time. It’s not in Minchin’s na­ture to chill out, per se, but he does hope the move will al­low for more time with his kids, Vi­o­let and Cas­par, and his wife.

Since Matilda, he has gone on to write an­other award-win­ning mu­si­cal, Ground­hog Day, which will be staged on Broad­way this month. And he has been cast as an un­ex­pect­edly ripped Friar Tuck in Joby Harold‘s re­make of Robin Hood.

But the past four years have been largely spent on a pas­sion project, an an­i­mated mu­si­cal star­ring the voices of Hugh Jack­man, Mar­got Rob­bie, Naomi Watts and Rose Byrne. Lar­rikins, which tells the story of an up­tight bilby on an ad­ven­ture in the Aus­tralian Out­back, was slated for re­lease in Fe­bru­ary next year.

Minchin up­rooted his fam­ily from Lon­don to move

Matilda’s less savoury char­ac­ters, Mrs Worm­wood and Miss Trunch­bull are pre­scient sym­bols of a post­truth world.

to Los An­ge­les, es­chew­ing fur­ther fame, money and op­por­tu­ni­ties for the project’s 8am-6pm of­fice gig, where he pored over the tex­ture of a feather, pon­dered how a frog might be­have.

Last month, in a state­ment drenched in dis­ap­point­ment, Minchin an­nounced the US$100 mil­lion film had been canned.

Af­ter 12 years of ex­po­nen­tial suc­cess in which he’s earned an honorary doc­tor­ate and en­raged up­per ech­e­lons of the Vat­i­can, the un­cer­e­mo­ni­ous kai­bosh­ing of Lar­rikins is a rare blip in Minchin’s me­te­oric rise. At the time of writ­ing, Minchin says Universal Stu­dio ex­ec­u­tives have never of­fered an ex­pla­na­tion for the decision that left adults in tears. “It was like some­one had died.” Minchin’s con­cerned he may be per­ceived as a whin­ing vic­tim of his own priv­i­lege.

That doesn’t change the fact he’s so an­gry he can’t sleep. For a guy who “just wants to make sh..”, the loss of four years’ work is im­pos­si­ble to com­pre­hend.

Three days af­ter the an­nounce­ment, Minchin staged a gig at Fe­in­stein’s/54 Be­low in New York, where he’s record­ing the Ground­hog Day Broad­way al­bum.

“I sus­pect I won’t be very funny, I won’t be do­ing any stand-up and I might act a bit bit­ter and spoilt,” he warned would-be at­ten­dees.

“On the up­side, the tick­ets are as cheap as I could make them, and I might be tempted to buy a round.”

Tick­ets sold out shortly af­ter go­ing on sale. Half the Ground­hog Day cast were among the 160-mem­ber au­di­ence. They sung har­monies from their seats.

The gig was an ex­er­cise in get­ting back on a horse, Minchin says, adding: “It didn’t re­ally mat­ter what the horse was.”

Af­ter more than 20 years, the stage is not only a plat­form, but an an­chor.

“Ev­ery­thing I’ve ever done has been borne of the fact that I’m able to sit at a pi­ano and talk and play, and peo­ple watch.” Matilda The Mu­si­cal is on in Auck­land from Au­gust 18. Tick­ets on sale now at tick­et­mas­ter.co.nz or tel 0800 111 999.

“Last month, in a state­ment drenched in dis­ap­point­ment, Minchin an­nounced the US$100 mil­lion film Lar­rikins had been canned.”

When those be­hind Matilda saw Minchin’s show, they knew they had the right man for the song-writ­ing job.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.