Matilda: Capturing the imagination of children and the wallets of adults alike

Very good news emanating from our cousins across the pond, as Matilda opens to rave reviews from pretty much every critic on Broadway. Whilst it doesn’t make the show any less brilliant if it fails to convert to our American Matilda friends, a Broadway smash is still seen as the gold standard for any musical – and there are many West End hits that failed to become the next ‘Phantom’ (over £5.5 billion sales worldwide and counting).

As the Guardian points out, there is money to be made in this market – the RSC anticipating £11 million advance by the end of the first day. £2.5 million was made in previews alone. It recouped its £7 million costs in London in ten weeks and plays at 98% capacity ever  since its October 2011 opening. However without the Broadway gold star then it makes the global tour of ‘Les Mis’ that much more likely, it means opening up to tours of Australia and Asia, across Europe and indeed anywhere else where it could be marketed.

There may be some in the art world that still sneers at playing to the gallery, at the rather déclassé notion of thinking about returns on investment, but this ignores the 15% real terms cut to the RSC’s Arts Council funding. It ignores just how much productions like Les Mis and Warhouse lined the coffers of publically subsidised theatre companies in the times of plenty so that now, when times are difficult and will continue to be so for some time, we see the National managing to erect a completely new temporary space in ‘The Shed’ rather than cutting costs and going dark whilst the Cottesloe is renovated. It allows the RSC’s annual tour to Newcastle to be reinstated.

In the week of Thatcher’s death it seems appropriate that the biggest product in British Theatre is a musical subsidised by the public sector. It was entirely in keeping with her vision that success in theatre equated directly to success at the box office, and to this Matilda appears to of hit the brief. However could Matilda have been made purely with private investment; could the private sector have brought the true subversive nature of Dahl to the stage? Could they have taken the risk on such a child-centric production? Would they have wanted to spend money on a production that decries the traditional family, that cocks a sneer at perceived lower-brow passions and that hires a lyricist as dynamically witty as Tim Minchin?

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