(Tom Lamont’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/29; Photo: Photograph: David Vintiner/The Guardian.)
He’s the anarchic comedian behind the musicals Matilda and Groundhog Day. He talks about dashed Hollywood hopes, the dangers of modernising Roald Dahl and feeling out of step with his progressive fanbase
The Australian composer and entertainer Tim Minchin sits outside a rehearsal room in London. It is a pleasant day in April. Tooled up on tea and creative adrenaline, talking quickly and well, the 47-year-old is comparing the experience of working on two big stage musicals. In 2010, there was Matilda, the planet-devouring omni-smash, which flourished in the West End, on Broadway and on family car journeys, transforming Minchin from an anarchic musical comedian who could fill a good-sized room at the Edinburgh festival into a feted and wealthy man. “I mean, Matilda, fuck,” is all the loquacious Minchin can say about that show’s successes for now. More interesting to him, because more troubled, was the follow-up, Groundhog Day, a 2016 musical adapted from the popular 90s movie of the same name.
“When you make something so detailed, over so many thousands of hours, something you think is broadly appealing, about how we’re to be as people – and it doesn’t fly? That’s incredibly painful,” Minchin says.
Dressed today in muted colours, his famous untidy reddish hair tied back under a baseball cap, he lists the little catastrophes that hobbled Groundhog Day seven years ago: investors pulling out; the choreographer falling ill; a feeling of being rushed to New York after a strong London opening, before the show was quite ready. Groundhog Day closed on Broadway in autumn 2017, after 200-odd performances, and has more or less sat in a drawer since. “It’s not a meritocracy,” Minchin shrugs. “Mamma Mia’s one of the highest-selling musicals ever … Broadway is not a measure of what is good, or not to me. If you want to go there to make your moolah, then you can’t be surprised if you have a rough ride.”
Fittingly, given that Groundhog Day is a story about do-overs, Minchin and his collaborators will try to revive their beleaguered musical at the Old Vic in London next month. He is confident things will work out better this time. From inside the rehearsal room, loud enough to boom through a soundproofed door, the new cast of Groundhog Day burst into song. They’re being taught the musical’s opening number.
“Tomorrow / There will be sun!” goes the line they’re belting out. Minchin tilts his head. Something is bugging him and when I ask what, he notes that the actors are singing “too-morrow” instead of “ta-morrow”. Minchin lives in Sydney with his wife and two children. He has flown to London for a fortnight of rehearsals, specifically to pepper the Groundhog Day cast with pedantic corrections. “It has to be ‘ta-morrow’. Who ever says ‘too-morrow’?”
London, 2016. Photograph: Manuel Harlan
It is not unusual for artists to contain a combustible blend of high confidence and low self-esteem. In this, Minchin conforms to type: belief by the bucket-load and plenty of doubt. But he was trained on the British comedy circuit. After years in that cauldron, most of what he utters is buried under layers of protective irony. There are micro shifts of tone, eye-widenings, manic grins, flirty pouts, all meant to signal his constantly modulating levels of seriousness. Minchin is aware that some of what he says in interviews comes over badly, his humour sometimes flattened without the accompanying performance.
He gives an example. “I could lean forward to you and say: ‘The trouble with you, Tom, is that you’re clearly a cunt’ … And you would hear from the juxtaposition of content and intent that I actually like you.” Now write the C-word down. Now put the C-word in a quote in a newspaper. Suddenly it reads differently. “That’s the problem with the internet right now,” Minchin says, bringing up a subject – what he sees as the shallowness and untruthfulness of progressive politics – that he’ll return to later. “Everybody clashes up against each other online, pretending irony doesn’t exist. It drives me nuts.”
A luckless Groundhog Day publicist emailed Minchin on the morning of our interview, listing what he wasn’t supposed to talk about. Minchin did not take well to that. Just as with the notes he was handed, the previous weekend, when he was invited to go on stage at the Royal Albert Hall and present an Olivier award, Minchin tends to ignore instructions on principle. “Many, many people have put a huge amount of money and time into Groundhog Day. They are invested in making sure I toe the line. But this is my job. Talking about what matters to me is literally my job, whether through art or by the words that come out of my own mouth.”
Good to hear, because I want to ask Minchin about something sticky. His musical of Matilda is still running in London after more than 4,000 performances. It was recently made into a movie starring Emma Thompson. Minchin has a long-standing, lucrative relationship with Roald Dahl’s estate, which, latterly, has meant a relationship with Netflix, which bought the rights to Dahl’s work in 2021. That Netflix deal roughly coincided with a move by the children’s publisher Puffin to make textual alterations to new editions of Dahl’s books. Certain words (outmoded, unfashionable, offensive, harmless: it depended on your point of view) were edited out.
In the revised Matilda, for instance, Dahl’s rather abrupt use of “female” as a noun was replaced with “woman”. A couple of plot points were tweaked, apparently to align the books more snugly with the 2010 musical and the 2022 movie. After an investigation by the Telegraph, and much public protest, Puffin has decided that two versions of Dahl’s books will have to be published, one altered, one not. What are Minchin’s thoughts on this?
“I decided not to wade in,” he says. His diplomacy is so uncharacteristic I simply wait it out.
“I think I’m not sure,” he says. “And I’m very happy sitting in that space.”
“It seems there’s an incredible slippery slope problem with editing texts. I mean, my initial reaction, when I heard about it? ‘Now we’ll have to get all the rapes out of all the history books. Then the world will be a better place.’”
“It’s not actually about morality. It’s about keeping the property, owned by the Dahls and Netflix, contemporary … It’s an interesting part of modern progressivism, that a huge amount of change is happening because corporations have identified where their bottom-line is best served.