Matthew Warchus talks 'Ghost' and 'Matilda'

press 2011
Posted: Mon Jul 4 2011

What do a quirky RSC musical and a West End move re-tread of Ghost have in common? Director Matthew Warcus.

Matthew Warchus doesn't do things by halves. At the Tony Awards two years ago, the Yorkshire-raised son of a vicar beat off exceptionally strong competition from, well, himself, to take the best director gong for 'The God of Carnage'. (His other London-to-Broadway transfer, 'The Norman Conquests', took best revival.)

Having been nominated for two Tonys at once, it shouldn't be so surprising that Warchus is currently directing two of London's likely contenders for best new musical in next year's Olivier Awards. What is surprising is that 'Matilda' and 'Ghost' represent polar opposites in the theatre world.

'Matilda' is a quirky public-sector British effort from the Royal Shakespeare Company, aimed at discerning families and making the RSC's fortune à la the National's 'War Horse'; 'Ghost' is a commercial stage version of the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore weepie, overtly marketed to hen parties.

'A lot of people think “Ghost” sounds like a bad idea,' reflects Warchus, who was himself 'pretty scornful' of the idea when first approached. But then he met Bruce Joel Rubin, the Oscar-winning screenplay writer of 'Ghost' who's also penned the stage show, and his doubts began to evaporate.

Backstage at the Piccadilly Theatre, where the musical is bedding in, he seems calm and confident. 'My problem with it was that it seemed a slightly cheesy, exploitative notion. But when I looked at the film again I realised it's a great story that has a lot of the things that I've always been drawn to - it's turbulent, explosive, painful, absurd and elevated.'

Warchus's high-tech 2007 musical adaptation of 'The Lord of the Rings', which closed early at Drury Lane after haemorrhaging approximately £12 million, had just those epic elements. It was a rare occasion on which the Warchus touch - populism plus genuine artistic rigour - failed to work its magic.

It didn't damage his career: he's in demand and turns down many more offers than he accepts - he recently said no to running a building (he'd rather move back to the USA and teach drama) and making a stage musical of 'Rocky'. And he still carves out the independent space he needs. 'There's a bit of friction sometimes with producers, because they have their own list of what they want to get done,' he says. 'The best work comes not from committees but from personal vision. Rightly or wrongly, it's coherent.'

For 'Matilda' and 'Ghost', Warchus has brought in pretty much the same team that he had for 'LOTR', including Paul Kieve, the only official magician to work on the 'Harry Potter' movies. The two shows are, he says, 'different enough for us not to go crazy. “Matilda” is anarchic, playful, naughty, not too shiny. Over here it's smoke, mirrors, tears and power ballads.'

He waxes lyrical about the technological wizardry on 'Ghost': 'I love the illusion of theatre. We've delivered some moments that you'd think you'd never be able to do on stage.' As with 'LOTR', it's 'the idea of turning mathematics into emotion' that appeals. He loves creating emotional pyrotechnics, as in explosive small-cast drama 'The God of Carnage'. But, he admits, 'I get equally excited by great performers and by a new Vari-Lite that's just come on the market.'

It seems that Warchus has an enviable degree of creative control over his projects in the subsidised or commercial sector. It was his offbeat but inspired choice to bring in Tim Minchin to write the music for 'Matilda'. Warchus expected him to be reluctant - but it transpired that 15 years ago, Minchin had tried to get the rights to do a musical of 'Matilda' in Australia: 'He said, “What do I have to do to persuade you to let me do it?”'

With Sam Mendes now developing a 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' musical with Warner Bros, it seems that Dahl is having his day on stage. 'It's hard to keep hold of Dahl's unconventionality and anarchy without losing the audience or coming up with a solution that would have Dahl turning in his grave,' says Warchus. 'When you're trying to do something quirky and not bland it's harder to hit the bull's-eye.'

One of the most gratifying things about working on 'Matilda' is 'being temporarily your children's hero.' Warchus and his wife, Lauren Ward, who stars in 'Matilda', moved their three kids to the UK for it.

'They've seen “Matilda” three times and know all the songs,' says Warchus. 'Ghost', though, is less family-friendly. 'My elder son unfortunately knows some of the dialogue. The other day over breakfast he said, “I'm gonna kill you goddammit, sonofabitch.” He's five years old, so that wasn't great.'

The huge success of the Harry Potter brand, which derives its eccentric sense of fun and danger from Dahl, has shown what a broad audience British fantasy can have. 'Probably someone will have a go at Harry Potter on stage,' says Warchus.

After trying to cram 'LOTR's 'overwhelmingly big' timescale into three hours, he's not so keen. Though he has his eyes on a stage version of 'ET', a potential plan that's not quite on the table yet. 'You dread someone waddling round in a rubber suit but you aspire to something like the horses in “War Horse”.'

Another project with mass appeal and high artistic ambitions: does he always aspire to hit two bull's-eyes at once? 'It's not,' says Warchus, 'conscious. But, when I was growing up in Yorkshire my treat to myself was going to see “Evita” in Manchester. I gravitated to Spielberg and Andrew Lloyd Webber long before I'd heard of Brecht. So it's a reasonably fair reflection of who I am.'