Theater
3:59 pm
Thu April 25, 2013

On Broadway, One Runt To Rule Them All

Originally published on Thu April 25, 2013 7:16 pm

Broadway's newest family-friendly musical, Matilda, based on the Roald Dahl novel about a precocious child who proves smarter than all the adults in her life, opened earlier this month to some of the best reviews of the year.

While it's a brand-new show, seeing it jogged my memory — jogged it all the way back to my very first commentary for All Things Considered exactly 29 years ago.

It was April 25, 1984, and the fact that a revival of Oliver! had just begun previews on Broadway gave me an excuse to share one of my pet theories with the world: that the musical Annie is actually Oliver! in drag.

Think about it. Both shows feature lovable middle-class orphans surrounded by scruffier, lower-class orphans. Both groups of kids have an adult caretaker (Fagin in Oliver's case, Miss Hannigan in Annie's) who's really a nemesis. And both title characters have unrelated adults around — Nancy for Oliver, Daddy Warbucks for Annie — who actually do want to protect them.

Then there are the remarkably similar sentiments, expressed, of course, in song. As I put it in that first commentary:

"Back in 1960, Oliver was looking for his parents and asked the musical question, 'Where Is Love?' And more than a decade later, Annie was pondering the same questions when she sang 'Maybe (far away and maybe real nearby).' "

And the parallels go on, song after song, the two shows mirroring each other as they follow a kind of kiddie-show playbook: Child escapes from oppressive environment, has adventures in, let's say, Oz, and ultimately finds stability and happiness."

In Oliver's case, Oz was gritty, grimy London; in Annie's, it was New York during the Depression. But the story's basically the same, except for a gender-switch for all the main characters. Put Oliver and Fagin in dresses and Nancy in pants, and except for the accents they might as well be Annie, Miss Hannigan and Daddy Warbucks.

So now, along comes Matilda — another lovable but neglected tyke who can belt to the rafters. Like her predecessors, she's surrounded by slightly less adorable kids, and has both a nemesis (school headmistress Miss Trunchbull) and a would-be protector (teacher Miss Honey) — so I'm expecting more from that same Oliver/Annie kid-show playbook, especially when I hear that the evil headmistress is being played by a male actor. If Annie is Oliver! in drag, then Matilda is Annie and Oliver! with real drag — right?

But there are some significant differences. Oliver and Annie are orphans, plagued by the absence of parents; Matilda has parents, but they're awful. And that marks an alteration in the kid-show playbook since the days when Matilda's predecessors held sway.

It's reasonable, of course, that the template would undergo some changes, because while the musicals followed each other to the stage pretty quickly, their source material spans a century and a half — from the Victorian novel Oliver Twist through the Depression-era comic strip Little Orphan Annie, to the Reagan-era novel Matilda.

Each of those works, let's note, is the product of its author's own time, and of that time's view of children. Oliver Twist was a helpless orphan because Dickens wrote the book as an expose about how children were mistreated during the Industrial Revolution — forced into child labor, recruited by criminal gangs. Oliver is just luckier than most as he gets buffeted by social forces.

By the 1920s, Annie could be more proactive. She'd been brought up to respect her elders, but she'd also figured out how to talk them into doing what she wanted — even FDR, who declares a New Deal for Christmas. Yes, Annie still has to recruit adults, but she's no more helpless than the pre-World War II kids who read about her exploits in the comics, and who'd go on to be known as the Greatest Generation.

Which brings us to Matilda, the child of self-absorbed baby boomers, who's learned that she needs adults not at all. Like Harry Potter, or like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, she's a model for the kids in the audience who've been taught to think green, have a social conscience and make things better. She ends up dispatching the headmistress, punishing her parents for bad behavior, even protecting her supposed protector.

She is, in short, today's child triumphant — empowered, with full agency and a very sure sense of self. Can't wait to see how her kids turn out.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Broadway has a new family-friendly musical. "Matilda" opened earlier this month. While it is a brand new show, it jogged critic Bob Mondello's memory all the way back to his very first commentary for this program, 29 years ago today. It was about two other family-friendly musicals. And Bob says he can't help seeing "Matilda" through them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BOB MONDELLO: April 25, 1984, a revival of "Oliver!" is in previews on Broadway, and that gives me an excuse to share one of my pet theories with the world, that the musical "Annie" is actually "Oliver!" in drag.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: Think about it. Both shows feature lovable middle-class orphans surrounded by scruffier, lower-class orphans. Both groups of kids have an adult caretaker, a Fagin or a Miss Hannigan, who is really a nemesis. Both title characters have unrelated adults around who want to protect them. And then there are the remarkably similar sentiments expressed in song. Here's how I put it in my first NPR commentary.

And the songs, back in 1960, Oliver was looking for his parents and asked the musical question...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE IS LOVE?")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (as Oliver) (Singing) Where is love?

MONDELLO: And more than a decade later, Annie was pondering the same question.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAYBE FAR AWAY")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (as Annie) (Singing) Maybe far away or maybe real nearby...

MONDELLO: And as I noted back then, it goes on, song after song, the two shows mirroring each other as they follow a kind of kiddy-show playbook. Child escapes from oppressive environment, has adventures in, let's say, Oz, and ultimately finds stability and happiness. In Oliver's case, Oz was gritty, grimy London; in Annie's, it was New York during the Depression. But the story is basically the same, except for a gender-switch for all the main characters.

Put Oliver and Fagin in dresses and except for the accents...

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "ANNIE")

MONDELLO: ...they might as well be Annie and Miss Hannigan.

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "ANNIE")

MONDELLO: So now, along comes Matilda, another lovable tyke who can belt to the rafters.

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "MATILDA")

MONDELLO: And like her predecessors, she's surrounded by slightly less adorable kids, has a school headmistress who is a nemesis and a teacher who wants to protect her. So I'm expecting more from that same "Oliver/Annie" kid-show playbook, especially when I hear that the evil headmistress is being played by a male actor.

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "MATILDA")

MONDELLO: If "Annie" is "Oliver!" in drag, then "Matilda" is "Annie" and "Oliver!" with real drag, right? But there are some significant differences. Oliver and Annie are orphans plagued by the absence of parents; Matilda has parents, they're just awful.

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "MATILDA")

MONDELLO: And that marks a change in the kid-show playbook since "Matilda's" predecessors held sway. Understandable, of course, because while the musicals followed each other pretty quickly, their source material spans a century and a half, from the Victorian novel "Oliver Twist" through the Depression-era comic strip "Little Orphan Annie," to the Reagan-era novel "Matilda."

Each of those, let's note, is the product of its author's own time, and of that time's view of children. "Oliver Twist" was a helpless orphan because Dickens wrote the book as an expose about how children were mistreated during the Industrial Revolution, forced into child labor, recruited by criminal gangs.

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "OLIVER!")

MONDELLO: Oliver is just luckier than most as he gets buffeted by social forces. By the 1920s, Annie could be more proactive. She'd been brought up to respect her elders, but had also figured out how to talk them into doing what she wanted, even FDR, who declares a New Deal for Christmas.

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "ANNIE")

MONDELLO: Annie still has to recruit adults, but she's no more helpless than the pre-World War II greatest generation kids who read about her exploits in the comics. Matilda, who is the child of self-absorbed baby boomers, has learned that she needs adults not at all. Like Harry Potter, or Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games," she's a model for the kids in the audience who've been taught to think green, have a social conscience and make things better.

(SOUNDBITE FROM BROADWAY SHOW "MATILDA")

MONDELLO: Matilda dispatches the headmistress, punishes her parents for bad behavior, and even ends up protecting her supposed protector. She is today's child triumphant, empowered with full agency and a very sure sense of self. Can't wait to see how her kids turn out. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.