Tim Minchin: ‘I’m not steeped in musical theatre – but that’s just what I bring to it’
Tim Minchin is more than a little anxious. His latest stage musical Groundhog Day is about to open at the Old Vic when we meet, and he admits: “I’m getting nervous – after all these years of work, sometime in the next 10 days the judgement will come down, and if we don’t get a good handful of four and five-star reviews, the whole future becomes wobbly. It’s such a weird thing to have your work in the hands of an arbitrary group of intelligent and well-learned journalists,” he says with just a hint of well-placed irony.
But he is also refreshingly pragmatic and honest. “If you make a good show, you tend to get good reviews. I don’t believe it is as arbitrary as some people tend to think, which artists do to protect themselves against bad reviews. Generally there’s a correlation between good work and good reviews. In the very odd, very rare case that they say it’s terrible but actually you’re a genius who is ahead of your time, you are going to just have to suffer.”
He may be future-proofing himself against every possibility, but today he will admit that at least he’s made a show he’s proud of himself. “I really like Groundhog Day – I’m not sleeping and I’m very jet-lagged, I’ve been around the world since two and a half weeks ago. But I keep trying to remind myself I like Groundhog Day – I think I would like to see it. One of the measures for an egoist, or at least an ambitious person, like me, is that if I saw this and someone else had written it, would I be jealous of it? And if I came and watched this, I’d think, ‘Fuck, I wish I had been involved in this.’”
Like many of a younger generation of musical makers I’ve lately spoken to, he cites Hamilton as one of those kind of shows.
“Hamilton is pretty devastating. It’s fucking brilliant. But Groundhog Day has been healing for me in terms of Hamilton making me go ‘ugggh’; but Groundhog Day is such a weird, complex love letter to the form, and I realise you don’t have to be Lin-Manuel [Miranda, composer, lyricist and original star of Hamilton] to make something beautiful.”
But Minchin does share certain things in common with Miranda. Both of them are performers as well as writers, and both love musicals and have been ready to push them in new directions and embrace new musical forms.
Hamilton uses the musical language of rap and hip hop, and, says Minchin: “Musical theatre has been waiting for someone who is a genuine hip-hop artist and also a lover of musical theatre – not someone who crunches the two, but genuinely has both in him. Hip hop has been the answer to recitative for years, and I was originally thinking of writing Groundhog Day as beat poetry, which is my white man version of hip hop and a form I’ve written in a lot, but there was no way I was going to try to do that now.”
Minchin may not have written Hamilton, but he has written Matilda, which is a smash hit in its own right. Matilda premiered at Stratford-upon-Avon during Christmas 2010 under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company, before transferring to the West End (where it is still running), Broadway (where it will close on January 1, 2017, after a run just shy of four years) and it has recently opened in Australia. He says of the latter: “It’s so good there and I’m so proud of it. The whole experience of opening in Sydney has been pure joy – my sister made a documentary about it going to Australia, and Louise Withers, our producer down there, is amazing. When you have a producer who is as gentle and caring as the RSC was and she is, you realise that there are other ways to the dog-eat-dogs of this industry.”
Q&A: Tim MInchin
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? You’ll be all right.
Who or what is your biggest influence? Probably the Beatles, or Jesus Christ Superstar, or TS Eliot – all those things that you obsess over in your late teens. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was a huge influence on what I love about theatre, and then I got to do it. That’s been my career – ticking off unticked boxes. I also did Jesus Christ Superstar. I hear the one in London now is incredible.
What is your best advice for auditions? You probably can’t win or lose the role based on how good you are on the day – it’s not as fine a thing as you think. You’ll either be in the realm or not, so don’t freak out. Just do your work – and be off book.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? I’m adamantly anti. I’ve very consciously stripped all of them away for my solo shows. You’ve got to teach yourself you can do your job no matter what happens. If you think your socks are what make you good, and you don’t have your socks, you’re fucked.
He rises to the theme of constructive approach to the difficult, fraught task of developing and producing new musicals, when we talk about how the RSC nurtured the show. It is the RSC that put him together with Matilda’s book writer Dennis Kelly, but they otherwise let them get on with it: “We were guided and supported by producers who gave us concise notes, but were egoless enough to say it wasn’t about them – they just needed the show to be good, and the more they left us alone, the better it got.”
By comparison, the commercial development model often comes with lots of competing opinions being brought into the mix, especially of the money men (and women) who think that owning a share in the grounds gives them the right to say how the house should be built on it.
“The development process is best when it comes through the Public Theater in New York or the RSC, and now at the Old Vic we’ve been able to mimic that.”
The show’s director Matthew Warchus is, he says, very much in charge. “ ‘Don’t bring me all your notes and your second wife’s son’s notes’, he says. But now that we’re hopefully going to Broadway, I’m sure we’ll have producers giving us notes. I predict today that one in every three reviews will make a comment about the first 30 minutes being confusing. But no one will understand what it takes to set this thing up. To narrativise those three days [when TV weatherman Phil Connors finds himself stuck in a black hole of waking up repeatedly to exactly the same day] is an almost impossible task.”
Even the great Stephen Sondheim was defeated. “Sondheim referred to it as a challenge he didn’t know how to solve. In the early 2000s he’d been asked what he thought about the habit that was forming of adapting films for the stage, and he said it was all bullshit and the only one he’d think of doing was Groundhog Day. He and Danny Rubin [who co-authored the original screenplay with director Harold Ramis from Rubin’s story idea] met and had a look at it. I spoke to Sondheim and he was deliberately oblique about why they didn’t pursue it, but I think he likes to work with his own team and Danny was adamant that he was going to write it.”
It must be intimidating to follow where Sondheim has trod. “But then it’s intimidating, too, to follow in Harold Ramis and Bill Murray’s footsteps. But that’s the movie, and it’s nothing to do with me. You have to believe when you’re little stupid me that I can bring something different. I think balancing levity and heart is probably the thing I can do a bit – so far.”
He has left it to Warchus as director (and a creative team that has been reassembled from Matilda, including designer Rob Howell, choreographer Peter Darling and illusion master Paul Kieve) to provide the rest. “Matthew has really studied the film very closely to see how it managed to have its cake and eat it – to be a romcom and yet be full of existential philosophy.”
Minchin says of the entire team effort: “They know how to make theatre. Paul’s work is beautiful – the puppetry and the mechanisms behind what is going on onstage is so much fun and totally supports the show. It’s what I really loved about Matilda – you write a song and all these brilliant artists feed in – there’s Hugh Vanstone’s lighting and Paul’s magic and Matthew’s vision – and you go, ‘Holy shit, that’s a hell of a setpiece.’ When I watch it now, I get a great kick out of looking at their work. There’s a great handing over that happens when you work with people this good. When I listen to Chris Nightingale’s arrangements, I’m filled with awe – he’s a genius, and these amazing players are playing my stupid music.”
The composer is full of generosity about the creative process: “They work so hard. It’s very stressful. It’s not coal-mining, but it’s full-on. There’s a lot of money involved and a lot of people have a lot of risk.”
Both Matilda and Groundhog Day share in their DNA a plot that has despair but, ultimately, one that is redeemed by hope. There’s even a number about suicide in Groundhog Day.
“The idea of singing a song about not giving up the hope that you’ll successfully kill yourself is a nice ironic thing, and it sits on a comic line,” he says. “I can wax boringly about the role of comedy in mitigating pain. For so many comedians, comedy comes out of personal despair. I’m not a very despairing person myself, but I do fear despair and the death of loved ones. And I’ve had dear, dear friends kill themselves. I guess the suicide song could be disturbing for some people in the audience. But there’s a much bigger discussion about how in this era where everyone’s voices are raised by social media, and everyone who is hurt by someone or something can tell you about it, it is having a cooling effect on the things we are allowed to say. That’s good, because I believe in political correctness and listening to the voices of the terminally insulted. But on the other hand, you can’t not laugh at death or the things that you fear, in the fear that someone in the audience will have had that experience and be upset by it.”
Besides, Groundhog Day is ultimately a healing show about the redemptive power of love. “Groundhog Day makes people feel. And there are numbers where I can’t not smile. I want to challenge audiences, but not to have them walk out feeling that they’ve mostly been challenged. I want them to walk out feeling that they’ve mostly been stimulated, although why not make people laugh and cry if you can. Maybe one day I’ll write a musical that’s really dark and bleak.”
Tim Minchin’s top tips for an aspiring composer/lyricist
• Care for your lyrics – that’s all I care about.
• Don’t worry about what anyone else is writing.
• Don’t condescend to your audience. Don’t think they’re dumb – even if they are, you’re not serving them by going down to them.
As a stage comic and singer-songwriter, he is known for his dark vision and eccentric-looking physical presence, with his unruly mop of ginger hair and heavy eye make-up. But that’s just a stage persona he’s created; offstage he is warm and delightful, if sometimes acerbic about studio executives and producers who don’t ‘get’ the process. Talking about a project he’s not connected to, he dubs it “producer-driven art”. He adds: “It’s no good for anyone. People will make big strong decisions thinking they’re being strong, but not knowing how to make the art. If you ask producers in LA, they’d say I’m stubborn and don’t listen to anyone, but I’m very bad at listening to studio executives because I don’t believe they’ve ever made anything. I’m not stubborn – I just need to be surrounded by people I respect.”
He’s spent a lot of time in LA lately, as he’s been in the development hell of a new animated film called Larrikins that he’s co-directing for Dreamworks. “But the studio has been sold so now there are new executives in charge with new opinions, and so I’m under a huge amount of stress,” he says.
How far down the line are they? “The film is divided into 33 sequences, and we’ve got whole sequences in completed animation. But others are still in storyboard, or are being re-storyboarded now.” It’s a complicated, painstaking process: “It goes script, script, script, script, storyboard, storyboard, storyboard, storyboard, rough layout, rough layout, edit, edit, then animation, animation. It’ll take four years if it goes to completion.”
Working on it is a bit like an office job for him: “I drive around the park near where I live, and work from 8am in my office. I don’t get caught up in the bullshit, I don’t take meetings, I just go to work.”
His wife Sarah and two kids, aged 10 and seven, are with him, but he’s contemplating a return to Australia. “We’ve just bought a house to move into next Christmas – it was always the plan when Violet turns 11 to get back there.”
Working on the film has had a major impact on his schedule, and he talks of the ‘opportunity cost’ and sacrifices he’s had to make. “I’m meant to be a performer – and I’m anxious about the years slipping by. I was worried that after you’re 40 people don’t want to see you as much, but that’s bullshit.”
He’s also keen to count his blessings. He is proud of the diversity of his career and the fact that he’s written two musicals (so far). “The lovely thing for me is that I’m not a student of the form at all, I can’t read or write music and I’ve never studied Rodgers and Hammerstein. I love being involved in it, but I’m free of the sense that I’m part of something. Of course I am, and I’m absolutely blessed, if that’s the word, that whatever happens and if these are the only two musicals I ever write, which they won’t be, I will be part of musical theatre history in my own small way. I didn’t grow up thinking one day I’ll write my Guys and Dolls – I don’t even know it. I know that’s a travesty, but I’ve been doing other things. And that’s what I have to bring to it – the fact that I’m more of a book reader than a musical theatregoer, and more of a lyricist than a composer.”
And right now, he’s bracing himself again for how Groundhog Day will be received. “I’m reconciled to the fact that Matilda is a lightning-in-a-bottle thing and we may never have a hit like it again. But I just want people to get what we’re giving, take the offer and not to block it.”
Minchin has a lot to offer. And, as the show itself does, he ends on a hopeful note: “The amazing thing about Groundhog Day is that, whatever happens, Matthew and Danny and I and the whole team have managed, despite all the pressures we’re under, to make it absolutely with our hearts. There’s no cynicism to it. I really do think that the way to make art is to make it for the art; and if you’re one of the lucky people who find it intercepts with an audience, that’s great. But if it doesn’t, at least you made it from your heart.”
CV: Tim Minchin
Born: 1975, Northampton, England, but raised in Perth, Australia
Training: University of Western Australia; Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts
Landmark productions: As composer: Matilda (2010, Stratford-upon-Avon then West End, Broadway, Australia), Groundhog Day (2016, London)
As an actor: Amadeus (title role, Perth Theatre Company, 2006), Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar (2012 arena tour), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Sydney Theatre Company, 2013). As a comedian: Melbourne International Comedy Festival (2005), Edinburgh Fringe (2005), So Live (Sydney Opera House, 2007), Tim Minchin and the Heritage Orchestra (Royal Albert Hall, 2011), BBC’s first Comedy Proms (2011)
Awards: Perrier Comedy Award for best newcomer at Edinburgh Fringe (2005), Directors’ Award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (2005), Olivier for best musical for Matilda (2012), Helpmann Award for best original score for Matilda (2016), Honorary degrees of Doctor of Letters from UWA (2013) and Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts (2015)
Agents: Caroline Chignell at PBJ Management in the UK/Michael Lynch at Smartartists Management in Australia/Max Burgos at APA in the US/John Buzzetti at WME for Broadway
Groundhog Day is at the Old Vic, London, until September 17