Tim Minchin interview

Time Out meets madcap comedian Tim Minchin as he talks about ‘Matilda the Musical’

Tim Minchin can’t read music and only got Grade Two piano, but his stage version of ‘Matilda’ is set to save the West End musical. Time Out's Theatre editor Caroline McGinn asks: what’s the score?

Watch a preview of a song by Tim Minchin from 'Matilda the Musical'.

Tim Minchin doesn’t really look like Tim Minchin. He and his Puckish, piano-playing on-stage persona share the same pretty face. But that irresistibly wicked inner child, with his rude rhymes, mad-genius hair and cartoon eyeliner that runs from diva to panda, is slicked back and scrubbed off today – revealing the smart, focused grown-up who invented him. ‘The hair and make-up is a removable mask,’ explains Minchin, ‘I can catch the bus, and sometimes it’s got my face on the side but mostly people don’t recognise me.’ The real Minchin – or the one who’s sitting backstage at the Cambridge Theatre, still polite and fresh after a day of promoting his new West End musical – is booted, waistcoated and even slightly butch. A rationalist with a New Romantic wardrobe; a singing metrosexual who made the macho world of stand-up clap to a different beat; a down-to-earth, atheist Aussie with slightly scary fans who think he performs barefoot because he is their own personal Jesus – the contradictions are an essential part of the fun; the carefully orchestrated build-up to the punchline.

So how did this 36 year old – who was, as he recalls wryly, ‘still playing in pub covers bands six years ago’, turn his one-man band into a one-man brand? ‘What I’ve created comedically owes a lot to my ignorance of comedy and love of making theatre stuff,’ he claims, self-deprecatingly. He broke through in 2005, winning Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe with his flamboyantly textured piano act: ‘I didn’t know you were meant to do a five-minute set, or a 15-minute set and then play the clubs,’ he explains. ‘My first foray into comedy was two acts long and had 50 lighting cues.’

© Jay Brooks

Minchin spent his twenties in pro-am and co-op stage companies in Australia. He even played Hamlet at one point. But he was essentially, he says, a ‘musical theatre bitch’ – a fact that he proves beyond any doubt by waxing lyrical about Andrew Lloyd Webber: the early years (‘The passion of the Christ from Judas’s point of view in a rock opera: Jesus! Amazing!’). Years as a jobbing muso helped him hone the virtuoso noodling skills and the ear for pastiche that give his solo act such extravagant flair. It also made him an inspired choice to write a new Roald Dahl-based musical for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Dahl and Minchin are a great fit. With Minchin’s spiky style, his talent for invention and his knack for making his genuinely original ideas popular, he’s the Willy Wonka of comedy. As a lyricist, he shares Dahl’s flair for caricature and gloriously gory flights of fancy: they’ve both been rude in rhyme about the parents of fat kids; and although Dahl, as far as I know, never dedicated a song to a journalist who gave him a bad review in which he promised to ‘make your children watch you eat your own facemeat’, I’m sure he would have relished it. Before the RSC came knocking in 2008, Minchin had already tried to make a musical version of ‘Matilda’. ‘It was in 2000, when I was working for a kids’ theatre company in Perth,’ he recalls. ‘I even got off my ass and wrote to the Dahls. And they wrote back, to my surprise, because you never think those sort of people are actually accessible. They said, “Send us a score and we’ll consider it.” And I went, “Um, I can’t write music and I don’t know what a score is. I wanted to get the rights to stick a version on at the local hall: I wasn’t going to write the version.’

A decade later, Minchin has done just that. Thumbs have been pricking about ‘Matilda the Musical’ since the RSC announced its creative dream team: Minchin on songs, audacious playwright Dennis Kelly on script and West End/Broadway transfer king Matthew Warchus in the director’s chair. Critics salivated over its short Stratford-upon-Avon run last Christmas, and hopes are high. The West End hasn’t had a big musical hit since ‘Billy Elliot’ in 2005, and the RSC hasn’t had one since ‘Les Mis’ in 1985, which kept it in doublets and hose for the rest of the ’80s. Could Kelly and Minchin be the new Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber? Minchin grins. ‘I don’t think Dennis is going to drop his grittier trajectory for this,’ he says. ‘I’m more likely. I want to write musicals for my whole life. I always did. I thought comedy was a fork in the road, but it’s just been a way back.’ Would he really retire from comedy, after the stratospheric success of his stadium gigs? There’s no doubt that he can fill a stadium. And he’s only just released a DVD of his recent Royal Albert Hall gig: ‘Tim Minchin and the Heritage Orchestra’. ‘If you look at the past five years, it’s pretty much all been silly songs about cheese and inflatable dolls plus uncritical thinking,’ he says. ‘Eventually that will become tiresome. So I would like to be long gone before they get sick of me.’

I doubt he’ll give up the day job just yet. But the omens are good if he does. Musically, ‘Matilda’ is some of the strongest songwork Minchin has ever done: Dahl’s characters leap to life in every melodic quirk and revolting rhyme. There’s a rapper’s feeling for rhythm and lyricism – and a theatre bitch’s love of show tunes – that recalls Jay-Z mashed-up with ‘Annie’ in ‘Hard Knock Life’. And it’s even more impressive when you hear that he quit piano lessons after Grade Two and struggles to read the ‘dots’ on a score. ‘I’m great at reading chords very quickly but the rhythmic notations underneath cause me a lot of grief’, he explains. ‘And I can’t really play even a simple melody line. Most of us contemporary musicians work with a bit of A4 paper. You just scribble chords vaguely lined up. You know where they’re going to and you can hear where they’re going to change.’ So how did he handle the orchestration? ‘Nothing to do with me: it’s all done by a brilliant guy called Chris Nightingale.’ Minchin sent demo tapes to Nightingale, who faithfully scored and enlarged his themes. Like many autodidacts, he reckons the lack of formal training can free you up. ‘I’m a bit anti-establishment,’ he says, mildly. ‘I’m not a total chump. I write stuff that’s reasonably musically complex. But I don’t need to think: Oh what would so-and-so have done? I just sit down with Dahl’s story and go: it should feel like this.’

The cast of Matilda the Musical The cast of Matilda the Musical

Minchin’s four-year-old daughter Violet – a chip off the old Dawkins-loving block – evidently helped Minchin connect with Dahl’s child-genius heroine. In fact, she helped him get the gig: director Matthew Warchus knew he had to find someone who could make people cry as well as laugh. It was Minchin’s tear-jerking ballad about Christmas with his daughter, ‘White Wine in the Sun’, that clinched it. ‘One of Matilda’s songs is built on a lullaby I used to sing my daughter, so that felt special to me,’ he says. If ‘Matilda’ is to have legs, it will have to speak to kids and to the kind of adults who rocked up to see Minchin at the O2 and this year’s comedy prom. Cheekily, Minchin’s score subverts the traditional showstopper, with a big song called ‘Quiet’, a thrilling, chromatic build up of questions, ‘all the philosophy and science shit’ that Minchin puts into his own act. ‘I loved giving her “Quiet”’, he says. ‘She asks all these Cartesian questions about other minds, which she can articulate because she’s a fucking genius. But it’s something we all thought of as kids – this question of other minds, of whether the red that you see is the same as a the red that I see.’ Parenthood helps you re-enter that world. ‘Violet has my wiring and my dad’s wiring because she keeps wanting to know what’s real. It’s a bit of a “My Child’s a Miracle” story. But I overheard her talking to her friend who said, “When you die you go somewhere lovely.” And Violet said, “You wouldn’t have eyes or ears, so how would you know?”’

Compromising with a writer and director was tough, but it took Minchin’s music to another level. ‘At the end of 2009, Matthew and Dennis decided they needed to cut a character, which came with the loss of my two favourite songs in the show,’ he recalls. ‘I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, I actually got hysterical with grief. I kept on ringing Matthew and saying, “I don’t know if you’re right. I don’t think you can do that. It took three months of not being able to write anything before I realised how incredibly right he was. And then I wrote probably the two strongest songs in the show, which defined Matilda.’ Unlike comedy, great musicals are produced by great committees. ‘I actually feel quite strongly that comedy should be a narcissistic outpouring,’ says Minchin. ‘Its whole point is that there’s nothing between the thoughts of this megalomaniacal freak on stage and his or her target audience. But it does make you more megalomaniacal, and paranoid. In the past few years I’ve had no directors. I’ve stopped asking for criticism even from friends, because I don’t think anyone knows my little world of mega-thorough critical thinking/musical comic rambling better than I do.’ It’s a point of view he defends, but he was increasingly aware of the need to break out of his benign case of dictator complex. ‘I did start to worry that I’d lost the ability to work with other people. Since I stopped working with my brother, I’ve never really found anyone to replace him with as someone I could write songs with. I was starting to think: Maybe I’m just an asshole.’

That’s not a widely corroborated view. When I asked around the industry about Minchin, the word that came back most often was ‘lovely’. Does anyone have a bad word to say about him? ‘If you look at my last orchestra tour you’ll find a couple of producers who think I’m an asshole,’ he confesses, ‘but I promise you won’t find a crew member or player or sound guy who does.’ So what keeps him from turning into one? ‘I have a wife,’ he says, ‘who I’ve been with for 20 years. Who says what I’m thinking. Like when the RSC rang me up to do a musical, she asked, “Why don’t they get someone proper?” Which is true and what I think too. We just don’t get it. And we just don’t get it together.’

© Jay Brooks

Minchin is one of four children and remains close to his unpretentious and supportive family, another reason why he remains essentially nice and sane: a sweet-natured Bowie to Russell Brand’s scornful Jagger in the spoof rock-God comedy arena. ‘My parents gave me unconditional support and love but never mollycoddling. I hope to give my kids the gift of not thinking they’re special. But they were more modest than me. I just bought a second-hand Audi. Dad had an Audi too, but not until he was 40.’ For someone who has disseminated himself so naturally and fruitfully across YouTube and Twitter, he is surprisingly ambivalent about fame – though says he’s wary of ‘sounding like a fuckhead’ and doesn’t pretend there are no advantages. When I call him a celebrity, he actually flinches. ‘I’m not a celebrity, am I? I’ve got fans but they’re fans of my work. You could describe me in many ways, but celebrity… what the fuck? I don’t go to parties, you don’t see me on red carpets, I’m not really in magazines. I don’t even do TV.’ I know what he means, but if you follow him on Twitter, you see someone supremely well adapted to social media. It’s a sphere where niceness and openness shade into business strategy. Minchin also has a great knack for neologisms (‘fanspanking’ and ‘discocunted’ are my personal favourites). And he takes things personally.

‘I’m obsessed with people liking me,’ he says, ‘Which is why I’m in this job and why I am who I am. I really want everyone to like me. Which is why I can’t handle criticism at all.’ It’s not just journalists. Recently, Minchin came thundering from the Olympian heights of having more than 200,000 Twitter followers to slap down a guy who made a rude comment about his voice. ‘It was simple bullying,’ he says. ‘But of course, coming from someone with 200,000 followers, I started to feel like a bully very quickly. Twitter is the only thing I read, unfortunately. I like reading my news feed. I follow Ben Goldacre and all these nerds. But right next to it is the mentions button. And someone mentions me once every half hour on a quiet day and on a busy day, once every minute. And it’s always there. And it’s a bit bad for your mental health. So to go back to your question about staying normal: a big part of that is to pretend what’s going on isn’t going on. You have to stop listening to people talking about you. You have to get your head around this great idea: that people’s opinions of you are none of your business.’

If ‘Matilda’ is as successful as everyone hopes, Minchin will have plenty opportunities to swap the limelight for the engine room, if he really wants to. He won’t be drawn on his exact plans. But he has just come back from America. ‘They were like, “We want you to write a sitcom” and I just said, “I don’t want any meetings except with Broadway producers, film companies who make animated musicals, and to do with live shows.’ Alan Menken would be a hard act to follow at Disney. But DreamWorks needs to find its own Menken if it’s going to translate the spirit of movies like ‘Shrek’ into stage musicals. And Minchin’s progressive, irreverent wit would fit. It’s pure speculation. But it will be one of life’s more enjoyable ironies if an Aussie rock ’n’ roll nerd who quit piano lessons at Grade Two does, in fact, save the West End. And I for one look forward to seeing him try.

Matilda the Musical is at the Cambridge Theatre until Feb 21 2012 and Tim Minchin's DVD 'Tim Minchin and The Heritage Orchestra' is out on November 14.