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How seeing Matilda from the front row made it even more magical
My 12-year-old daughter is one of the biggest Matilda The Musical fans on the planet. She has memorized the entire score -- not just Matilda's songs, but every single lyric (go ahead and ask, she'll sing it all for you). She has dressed as Matilda for Halloween. She scoured the internet until she found a Matilda-themed cover for her iPhone. And she talked me into doing something I have never done in 40 years of theatregoing: I paid to see the same production three times. (I realize there are superfans who see beloved shows dozens or even hundreds of times, but I personally like to spread my love and money around.)
The first time we saw Matilda was soon after it opened. I bought full-price mezzanine seats, and my daughter and I were blown away by the dark, moody score; the explosive dancing; and the powerful story about how even the tiniest child can use her smarts to take control of her own fate. Watching the show from up there gave us a great view of the big musical numbers, though we did have to squint a bit to see Matilda's face.
The moment the house lights went up, my daughter began begging to go again. But I didn't relent until a year later, when her classmate was cast as one of the replacement Matildas. I purchased tickets from the Times Square TKTS Booth -- decent seats, but still up in the mezzanine. Watching it this second time was a very different experience. At this point, we knew the score and the plot, so we could focus a little deeper on the intricacies of the music, twists in the dialogue, and on side characters like Bruce Bogtrotter. It was sort of like reading Harry Potter again, when hindsight lets you see how all those early clues and seemingly disparate pieces come together to create the perfect tale.
After that second time, I thought we were done. But then another friend of my daughter's joined the cast as Lavender! (When you live in Manhattan and are involved in theatre, you get to know a lot of successful kids.) My daughter pleaded to see it a third time, and I finally caved one weekend when she had a huge homework assignment. "If you finish by 5pm on Sunday, I'll take you to Matilda again," I bribed promised her. You have never seen a kid work so fast.
Just before curtain time, I ran up to the TKTS Booth to see if there were any tickets left. "You're in luck!" the clerk said, smiling. "I've got some great seats for you."
I didn't even look at the locations, we were in such a rush to make it to the theatre on time. So I didn't realize just how great those seats were as the usher led us down the orchestra aisle, WAY down the aisle, until we were practically climbing onstage. Our seats were in the first row! Now, for some people, that's too close -- you have to lean your head back to see, you can't get a grand overview, and you might even get spit on by an over-enunciating actor. But for a 12-year-old Matilda fanatic, this was entrancing.
And it turned out to be special for me, too. Our up-close and very personal view provided a whole new perspective on a show I thought I knew inside and out. I marveled at all of the little but amazing details I had never noticed before. Like the socks! Matilda's dad, a sleazy used-car salesman, wore a bright green pair to match his loud plaid suit, while the schoolgirls had little white cotton anklets that reminded me of the footwear I used when I was five. I gaped at how intensely the children in the cast cowered in fear when they entered Crunchem Hall for the first time. I spied their names scribbled on their book bags. Most incredibly, we were able to catch one of the paper airplanes thrown into the audience during "Revolting Children." It wasn't just a blank piece of paper -- it was Bruce Bogtrotter's actual report card! (And just because I know you're curious: He got a 9 in physics and a 13 in history, and is described as "A very naughty, cheeky, badly behaved boy.")
For the first time, I thought about all of the tiny, handcrafted elements that go into shows that are never seen by the vast majority of the audience. Yet even though they may go unappreciated, they still help create theatre magic. Without them, the illusion would be incomplete. It reminded me of the time I took a behind-the-scenes tour of Wicked and the guide explained that the buttons on the Emerald City costumes were custom-made and embossed with EC. No one in the house could ever spot such a detail without binoculars. Yet it helped make the moment more real for the actors, and they in turn made the audience believe in that world.
Fictional Matilda may have supernatural powers, but that night I realized the designers and performers cast authentic spells onstage.
Marisa Cohen is a freelance magazine writer in New York and a lifelong theatre fan.
Photos by Joan Marcus