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Howard Sherman: Is Matilda closing in the US because America didn’t get it?

A scene from Matilda the Musical on Broadway. Photo: Joan Marcus

The announcement last week that the Broadway production of the musical Matilda will be closing at the end of this year caught a lot of people by surprise. I admit to being among them. It’s true that if one closely follows the weekly reports of box office grosses, Matilda hasn’t been in the $1 million club much lately, as it was pretty solidly for the first year of its run. It’s also important to recalibrate grosses for the ever higher potential of Broadway shows, where we now see some productions breaking $2 million weekly.

The fact that Matilda has given nine months’ notice is somewhat unusual; most shows don’t post their closing date with such generous lead time. That said, with an end date in sight, Matilda is sending a message to laggards that they’d better get moving if they want to see the show at all. A study of the show’s sales also reveals that they do very well in the summer months, when there are kids available every day to help fill the Shubert Theatre, and not just on holidays, when Matilda has also remained strong.

Writing for Deadline, Jeremy Gerard noted that Matilda, while having recouped its capitalisation, hasn’t returned a great deal of profit for its investors (Gerard reports 5%). But shows don’t close because they’re not earning enough profit, they close because they’re barely breaking even, or worse. So presumably the numbers have been crunched and Matilda’s time was determined to be up come the dawn of 2017.

Is it possible that Matilda was too British (or Australian, giving due respect to Tim Minchin) for the audiences of Broadway? That certainly hasn’t gotten in the way of other musicals, notably Kinky Boots, which beat out Matilda for the best musical Tony in 2013 (although Kinky Boots is an American-written musical set in England and based on a British film). Is there only room for one family-friendly musical on Broadway at a time? Doubtful, with the current The Lion King, Aladdin, Wicked and even Finding Neverland disproving that.

Another London hit that seemed to run shorter than anticipated in New York also featured young protagonists, although slightly older than Matilda’s maggots. I’m referring to Billy Elliot, which ran slightly shorter than Matilda will. But in that case, the producers acknowledged that they’d set too high a bar for themselves, with running costs that simply weren’t sustainable despite the perception of the show being a strong hit.

I’d cautiously suggest that Matilda fell into a category that hasn’t been a strong one for a number of shows in the past 15 to 20 years. Instead of being seen as a true family show, which played to all ages regardless of whether adults had children in tow or not, I wonder whether Matilda came to be seen as a children’s show, one to which people only went in order to entertain the young ones.

The thought would no doubt horrify Roald Dahl, but I can’t help but think that Matilda inadvertently aligned with the past two revivals of Annie and the 1999 Broadway run of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, to give two examples. Unlike the original productions of those shows, which were long-running breakout hits (Charlie Brown playing Off-Broadway), those revivals never got the momentum to sustain them because they were perceived as just for kids, despite ample adult wit. Their school night audiences were probably more than a little sparse.

Disney has been brilliant at avoiding having the children-only label applied to its most successful shows, and has carefully managed pricing to keep houses full during what might otherwise be slower periods. It’s ironic, but the preternaturally talented parade of children who have peopled Matilda these past few years may well have been sending the message that it’s a show primarily for children, and the ad image of a triumphant tween girl may have reinforced that impression.

To be clear: when it closes, Matilda will have run for 37 previews and 1,555 regular performances, an enviable achievement by any standard, and perhaps when everything is tallied up, that 5% profit may become a good bit larger. But maybe there was something not just for performers, but for producers as well, in the old vaudeville caution about kids or animals, whether they’re Sandy, Snoopy, Annie or Matilda. You need to be very clear that you’ve got something for the grown-ups too.

This week in US Theatre

The end of the Broadway season, Tony Award qualifying cut-off week is here again. While it’s not been quite as chockablock with openings this month as in some past years, these final days will keep the critics hopping.

Everything kicked off on April 21 with the opening of Rupert Goold’s transfer of the musical American Psycho, with an all-American cast led by Benjamin Walker playing out Bret Easton Ellis’s vision of yuppie madness, as interpreted by Roberto Aguirre Sacasa and Duncan Sheik.

April 24 brings Waitress, an adaptation of a charming indie film of the same name, with Tony-winner Jessie Mueller in the central role of a gifted pie maker who sees an chance for true love outside her troubled marriage. Diane Paulus directs the show, which has a book by Jessie Nelson and a score by Sara Bareilles. Sadly, the film’s writer-director Adrienne Shelly didn’t live to see this transformation; she was murdered in 2006, before the film opened.

April 25 marks the Broadway debut of Becky Mode’s one-actor restaurant-set comedy Fully Committed, which ran for 720 performances Off-Broadway between 1999 and 2001. Jesse Tyler Ferguson of TV’s Modern Family plays some 40 roles under Jason Moore’s direction.

April 26 brings the fantasy book Tuck Everlasting to Broadway as a musical, with a book by Tim Federle and Claudia Shear, music by Chris Miller, and lyrics by Nathan Tysen. Book of Mormon’s Casey Nicholaw directs and choreographs.

The Roundabout and director Jonathan Kent have assembled an impressive cast – Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher Jr – to play Eugene O’Neill’s troubled Tyrone family in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, opening on April 27. It’s the sixth Broadway production for the play, last seen in 2003 with Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Dennehy.

The 2015/16 season concludes with Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, using a classic score by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle and a new book and direction by George C Wolfe. Since the title doubles as a synopsis of the historically based, backstage and onstage musical, I’ll simply add that the cast features Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter and the incomparable Audra McDonald.

The Tony nominations will be announced on May 3.