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 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?
In 2011 British theatre produced two stunning musicals – London Road and Matilda. It is the misfortune of London Road to have been released in the same year as Matilda, as it lived in its shadow and never received the acclaim it quite deserved. However, as I said at the time, to see a musical based on verbatim reportage of people living on the same street as Richard Wright, the Ipswich Serial Killer, would be revived during the middle of the summer and sell-out the Olivier, was in itself a strange sight.
Matilda was always going to be the commercial hit – however it was less anticipated that it would also sway the critics – and together with London Road, the musicals demonstrate the true value of public subsidy. The ability to create the space for innovation, experimentation and daring to create critical and commercial success. If public funding should lead to public value then what better use can it have then to lift the souls of a weary population, if only for an hour or two.
Civilian Theatre takes on Matilda
Across the pond reviews:
New York Times ‘…is the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain’
Washington Post ‘…by some large and tickling measure the most splendiferous new musical of the year.’
Wall Street Journal ‘…a thrilling blast of nasty fun’
Chicago Tribune ‘…far and away the best new musical of the Broadway season, indeed one of the best family-oriented shows of any season, and a work of musical theater that feels like a grand cultural experience in the tradition of the Royal Shakespeare Company
And a sneak peek: