Who's stuck on treacle?

17th May 2013 at 01:00
Why some feared Matilda's British idiom would baffle audiences on Broadway

After huge success in the West End of London, Matilda the Musical had a language makeover before arriving on Broadway in the US. Words such as "treacle" were excised because it was feared that American audiences would not recognise them.

The show is based fairly faithfully on the children's novel by Roald Dahl. But the writer of the lyrics, comedian Tim Minchin, was worried that theatregoers in New York City, already dealing with the show's British accents, would struggle with the colloquial British English.

The American ear often struggles to make sense of British English. So, to make Matilda's lyrical whimsies more palatable, Minchin tried to "thin out" some of its more oblique Britishness. The word "treacle", for example, was changed to "syrup".

"It's being changed a little because there are a few lyrics that they're just not hearing because (the words are) so dense and require thinning out," Minchin told UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph. The four girls cast as Matilda on Broadway are American but have been trained to do English accents.

British voices have proved problematic for US audiences in the past, with some films given subtitles. Last year, when Northern Irish pop singer Nadine Coyle appeared as a guest judge on television show America's Next Top Model, subtitles appeared on screen.

But Billy Elliot the Musical was a success on Broadway, despite concerns that American theatregoers would not understand its specific cultural references. The show is set in Durham in the North of England during the miners' strike of the 1980s.

Writing on the website Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals, American reviewer Chris Caggiano confessed that, even after seeing Matilda twice when it opened on Broadway, "my lack of response to the first half may have been partly because I couldn't understand the lyrics to many of the songs". Indeed, although he loved the production, Caggiano added: "The lyrics remain a liability".

Other US reviewers agreed, with one blaming not the British accents but the scansion. When Minchin writes a lyric such as "the subsequent fall was inevitable" (inevita-BALL), the reviewer wrote, he succeeds in "confusing the audience and betraying the character". True, the reviewer points out, Matilda is only 5, "but she's also a genius and speaks flawless Russian, so why this kind of syntactical rubbish?"

"Mr Minchin should be sent home with a note to his parents, which reads (to paraphrase Miss Trunchbull) 'could do better'," the reviewer added.

CLASS QUESTIONS

- Can students make up a new word for sad? Angry? And how would they help their friends to understand the new word?

- Ask children to choose three words that they think might be pronounced differently in the US and the UK (for example, tomato or herbs).

- Why would the directors of the musical Matilda change some of the words in the script and songs when the show was taken to the US?

- What would students do if they came across a word that they did not understand?

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