Books, Feminism, and TYA: An Ode to Matilda the Musical

We write this blog about feminism in YA and kids books because we are avid lovers of both of things. But in our real lives, both Brianna and I have degrees in theatre for youth, and work in the field of TYA (theatre for young audiences).

Matilda Poster

So imagine how excited we have been about the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, which opened in London in 2012 and on Broadway this past spring. This is a feminist TYA play, in which the young heroine relies on books as a means of saving herself. It’s basically everything we’ve ever wanted in an experience. Brianna introduced me to the music last year, and ever since I’ve been fantasizing about seeing the production. And last weekend, I got to go and see it in New York, with my sister!


So even though Matilda was robbed of the best musical Tony award last night* I wanted to take a moment to celebrate this incredibly Slatebreaking piece of art, with some of the things I loved best about the show.

Matilda Set with Swings

  1. It’s just an incredibly well done adaptation that captures what I loved about the book.

Take a look at that set. It’s stunning isn’t it? Made out of scrabble tiles, and letters, the set is built around letters. Because, as Matilda explains later, letters become words and words become sentences, and sentences become stories. And stories can change lives. Matilda is a brilliant child, of course, but it is books that give her the means to change that story. I love that the whole set reflects that letters are the core of what gives this character her strength and the ability to save herself.

Roald Dahl’s book has been one of my favorites since I was in elementary school. And Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics and Dennis Kelly’s book bring it to life in a way that perfectly captures the spirit of the story. Everything you want to still be there is there (Amanda Thripp being thrown by her pigtails, Matilda’s revenge on her parents, the horror of the Chokey) and everything that is added to the story to make it more theatrical feels as though it could have been written by Dahl. The way Miss Honey’s tragic history is woven into the play, for example, works beautifully. Mrs. Wormwood as a ballroom dancer is hilarious (and lends itself to a terrific dance number). It all comes together seamlessly in a way that is laugh-out-loud funny and cry-in-public heartbreaking.

matilda with library books

2. Matilda is one of the most Slatebreaking characters of all time.

As a character, Matilda is outstanding. She is smart – of course – but she is also thoughtful, ingenious and compassionate. But she never stops being a kid – a brilliant kid, an extraordinary kid – but she never comes off as a precocious tiny adult. She might be smarter than her parents, but she still wants them to love and take care of her. She is a richly complicated and amazingly strong character, and she is a five year old girl.

In the play, Matilda is played in rotation by four young actresses (in the production all the kindergarteners are played by 10-12 year olds, and the older kids are played by young adult actors, which works terrifically well from a staging point of view). We saw Oona Lawrence, who was incredible, but I hear that all four are fantastic. It was very cool to see a young actress take on this role with such confidence and skill.This production celebrates young people as smart, capable humans, who can take charge of their own destiny.

Four Matildas

3. Kids are agents of their own experience in this play.

It starts right away with Matilda, singing the theme of the show, singing

“Even if you’re little you can do a lot, you
Mustn’t let a little thing like ‘little’ stop you.
If you sit around and let them get on top, you
Might as well be saying you think that it’s OK,
And that’s not right.

And if it’s not right

You have to put it right
But nobody else is gonna put it right for me.
Nobody but me is gonna change my story.
Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty”

How can you not love that? What a powerful idea – that kids have the power to change their own stories. And later, when under Matilda’s leadership, the kids fight back against evil headmistress Ms. Trunchbull, every kid in the play takes charge of his or her own experiences. Being a kid, the play suggests, you might be less powerful, but you can still fight back.

This clip is from the cast’s appearance on the View – it shows both Matilda singing “Naughty” and the cast of the show singing the final, triumphant, “Revolting Children.”

And here they are performing at the Tony Awards last night

4. Miss Honey grows into a Slatebreaker over the course of the play

Miss Honey is a wonderful character, both in the book and in the play, where she is perfectly captured by Lauren Ward. At the start of the play she is compassionate, kind and clearly a good teacher, but she is quiet and meek, and afraid to stand up for herself. We see her grow angry with herself, throughout the play, for being “pathetic” and afraid of confrontation. But she recognizes what is so special in Matilda, and Matilda finds a kindred spirit in Miss Honey. Through Matilda’s strength, she is able to save Miss Honey. And by the end of the play, Miss Honey is able to find her own strength, and ultimately save Matilda. She becomes a Slatebreaker in her own right, and her journey is a really powerful one.

Matilda Miss Honey

5. The people who created this play love books and respect kids. It’s obvious.

From the beautiful library set to the reverence with which Matilda talks about books, it’s obvious that this is a play for book lovers. And it was great. There were a ton of kids in the audience with us at the performance we saw, and I love the idea of kids seeing this story come to life, identifying with these powerful characters and believing in their own ability to change their destinies for the better. I hope it has a long run and a tremendously successful life in the theatrical canon.

Matilda Cast

* although even though I was disappointed, Kinky Boots looks awesome. And I love Cyndi Lauper. And I love that last night’s awards ceremony was filled with wins by women and people of color. Two women won the best director awards, which has NEVER happened in the same year! So despite the lack of Matilda wins, it was a super-Slatebreaking Tony Awards.

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