Sara Krulwich / The New York Times
"Matilda" isn't just one of the most anticipated shows of the Broadway season. This new musical is the theater's latest shot at the dream of a global blockbuster, a rare glory that producers and audiences crave to offset all the duds that cross the stage each year.
A story about a spunky British schoolgirl outwitting cruelty, "Matilda" has arrived with the sort of acclaim, awards and ticket sales for its London production that indicate real potential to become a moneymaker in New York. Such success can confer the "Broadway hit" label, which is crucial for starting productions in Asia, South America and across the United States and Europe - the tours where real fortunes are made. The dream is "The Phantom of the Opera," which has grossed $5.6 billion worldwide since 1986.
No one can say whether "Matilda," after opening on April 11, will become the next blockbuster, or the latest London hit that fell short of expectations on Broadway - joining musicals like "Billy Elliot," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," and "Blood Brothers."
The answer hinges on whether the sensibility and sophistication of "Matilda" will translate to American audiences - specifically the families and tourists who are the backbone of the billion-dollar Broadway industry.
Based on the 1988 children's novel by Roald Dahl, "Matilda" has the darkness and mordant tone of Dahl's best-known novels, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "James and the Giant Peach," as the title character - a 5-year-old genius - faces off against parents who loath her, a barbaric headmistress and a classroom of "revolting children."
While many kids love nasty villains, Dahl portrays them in the extreme in "Matilda," and the musical has subplots, dialogue and lyrics that are denser and more nuanced than most tales of good vs. evil.
"We knew that if you took a Disney musical sensibility to 'Matilda,' everyone who loves Roald Dahl - not to mention the Dahl estate - would have gotten pretty grumpy pretty quickly," said the musical's composer, Tim Minchin, the Australian comic and singer whose songs for the show include "Naughty," "The Smell of Rebellion" and "When I Grow Up."
Still, the creators of "Matilda" considered softening parts of the script or dropping the British accents for the Broadway version. They put aside the notion of major changes once they "realized that we'd go mad with second-guessing," said Matthew Warchus, the director.
"The challenge with 'Matilda' was trying to guess the boundaries of a conventional musical and an unconventional musical," he continued. "We knew if we drove down the middle of the road, we'd betray Roald Dahl's entire style and philosophy."
Mr. Warchus and the "Matilda" producers opted for a Plan B in hopes of a long run on Broadway: Limit the musical's weekly running costs as much as possible. In doing so they are hoping to avoid the surprising fate of another British musical with many children in the cast, "Billy Elliot."
That show opened on Broadway in November 2008 to smashing reviews, won 10 Tony Awards and recouped its $18 million investment, yet it closed in January 2012, sooner than most theater executives expected. While ticket sales had softened, they were still good. But the weekly running costs were so high, because of the large cast and the frequent dance rehearsals, that the producers moved on before putting their Broadway profits at risk.
To minimize costs for "Matilda" Mr. Warchus told his designers to add nothing for Broadway; usually British shows become more lavish when they transfer to New York. And he decided to have fewer rotating ensembles of child performers than either the London version of "Matilda" or the Broadway production of "Billy Elliot." ("Matilda" does have four girls rotating in the title role, similar to the multiple Billys in "Billy Elliot.") By relying instead on actors' rotating in multiple roles Mr. Warchus did not need to hire as many children, who can inflate budgets because of special needs like tutoring.
The weekly operating costs for "Matilda" are believed to be about $600,000, while the "Billy Elliot" costs were closer to $800,000.
Mounting the London production of "Matilda" cost 2.5 million pounds, about $3.8 million, compared to the Broadway capitalization of $16 million.
While Mr. Warchus wants a big success, of course, he doesn't want "Matilda" to be hurt if it doesn't live up to the buzz right away.
"The show's ethos is about humility, modesty, and I think of it as this little story with a quiet message - not a show that bills itself as a big Broadway blockbuster," he said. "Most people have good intentions in talking up 'Matilda,' but it's jarring."
The New York Times