Updated: May 13, 2022
Elissa Blake, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 July, 2015
Tim Minchin doesn't believe in fate or that magic happens, he says. "But I still find great value in patterns." Right now, he's pondering a circle that has taken something like 11 years to complete.
Matilda the Musical is preparing to open in Sydney, but Minchin is half a world away in Los Angeles, working on coming projects and "trying not to sound like a smug f--ker".
"Sometimes I feel like I have literally just gone and ticked off not just all the things I ever wanted to do, but a whole bunch of other things I never even f--king dreamt of," Minchin says. "But there's something special about the coming home-ness with Matilda in Sydney. I know that sounds a bit heavy-handed, but I really feel it."
If you'd told the composer 11 years ago that he would have a multi-award-winning musical playing simultaneously on London's West End, on Broadway and in Sydney, he would probably have laughed in your face. Back then, he was an aspiring actor and comic playing piano in the cellar theatre of a pub in Woolloomooloo for a madcap satire on the Great Australian Musical called This Blasted Earth!
"I remember thinking that if I was really, really lucky I might be able to work for the Sydney Theatre Company some day," Minchin says. "But I probably wouldn't because I don't have any musical training and I can't even read the dots on the score. I just wanted to have a theatre career so I wouldn't be playing in cover bands until two in the morning, and now I'm making a movie and I'm in the middle of writing another one. It's not like I've invented the freaking hybrid car or solved a war but in my little theatre-makey, story-telling world, it's just gone so far beyond what I dreamed it could."
Minchin, who turns 40 this year, is speaking from Los Angeles, home for now while he works on movie projects and his next stage musical, an adaptation of the movie Groundhog Day. He is softly-spoken on the phone and relentlessly self-deprecating. He wonders if Matilda is a success simply because he "wasn't shit" and "other people were amazing".
He is the first to admit the success of Matilda has completely changed his life. In the past 12 months, he has moved his family from London to Los Angeles – where Matilda recently had a short season and Minchin appeared on the Conan O'Brien Show – and he has maintained a high public profile in Australia, thanks to sellout concerts on the steps of the Sydney Opera House this year and his against-type portrayal of the villainous Smasher Sullivan in the ABC TV drama The Secret River.
Doors are now opening for him in America but he remains cautious. "I've come to LA to direct an animated family Australia rock'n'roll road movie rather than go on tour and get pissed and cheat on my wife and all that shit that you can see in the future," he says. "You look down the path and think 'oh, I can see what happens there'. But there is also an ugly monster in me that wants to get as rich and famous as I can. I think that's human nature. I don't think I'm a terrible person. But that's not what I'm doing at all.
"This kind of success is all as fun and empowering and exciting as you imagine it would be when you are a young person trying to get on the ladder," Minchin says. "But you've got to f--king make good decisions or you turn into an ass."
Arriving at this point in his career relatively late was a good thing, Minchin says. "A lot of people who get fame and success young forget to put the brakes on. They think someone else will do it for them. In America, as soon as you are on the telly, people start treating you like a child. Can I get you your lunch? Can I book you a car? You become de-skilled in the everyday stuff. That's when you can come a cropper."
Minchin will be back in Sydney for the opening of Matilda the Musical at the Lyric Theatre in August. "I'm not really involved in it now, I'm more of a mascot," he says. But even six years after it opened in London and having seen it many, many times, Minchin still gets a charge from seeing the show.
"It's such an amazing story and there are so many fun things in it that it was never a concern that kids would like it. But every single moment in the whole piece works for adults too," he says. "The action of the story rumbles along but you can point to any moment and think what is that saying about the world, what's that saying about us, what's that saying about freedom and love. It's all in there."
His favourite moment in the show is a ballad, Quiet. "What is so gorgeous about the show is you're watching a story about a miraculous kid but the other layer is you're actually watching a kid on stage being miraculous. To have a nine-year-girl playing a six-year-old girl standing in front of 2000 people singing the word 'quiet', and there is something like six bars of virtual silence, is astonishing. I'm so proud of that choice," he says. "It comes at the point in a musical when you're supposed to have a big knock-it-out-of-the-park mega-ballad like I Dreamed a Dream [from Les Miserables], but we have an anti-ballad.
"The show has become associated with my name, but every time I see MatildaI'm blown away by everyone else's work – like in that moment when the swings come out over the audience. You'd have to be pretty cynical and broken to not get a bit of a buzz out of that."
Once Matilda has opened, Minchin will jet straight back to LA, though the medium-term plan is to move his family back to Sydney. He has two children, Violet, 8, and Caspar, 6, with his wife, Sarah.
"We have our kids on waiting lists for Sydney schools so we plan to be there by Christmas 2017," he says. "But there's a helluva lot going on for me in LA in the meantime. I certainly don't feel like I need to cram more stuff in. The touring version of Matilda just opened here and I hope to do some more acting and a comedy tour."
Minchin is also – inevitably – thinking about more musical projects. "Writing musicals is hard but it's something I really want to do," he says. "I've seen that Matilda has made a genuine impact on the world of musical theatre. I can see how it has affected the writing of people who came after it, which to me is quite an incredible thing."
Matilda, Minchin says, put the lyricist back into the driver's seat after a long period in which the melody writer was king. "Andrew Lloyd Webber is an incredible composer, he was a great melodist and he changed musical theatre. In a way, I'm changing it back. I can't help but think it's something I should keep doing. To me, it's good honest work – unlike comedy, which is so narcissistic – and I'm really intrigued by the process. I want to prove to myself that Matildawasn't a fluke."
Matilda the Musical begins previews on July 28 at the Sydney Lyric theatre, Pyrmont; from $65, ticketmaster.com.au.