NEW YORK — “Even if you’re little, you can do a lot” sings the spirited 5-year-old heroine of “Matilda, the Musical,” the Broadway hit adapted from the children’s classic by Roald Dahl. The lyrics are a message of self-empowerment for Matilda, a Dostoyevsky-reading prodigy neglected by her dim-witted, vulgar parents.
For the four young actresses who share the role onstage, the words are a mantra for making it through the frenzied run-up to Sunday night’s Tony Awards, where “Matilda” is nominated in 12 categories. Even if you’re little, you’ve got to do a lot: rehearsals, performances, interviews and, oh yeah, homework.
But if Bailey Ryon, Milly Shapiro, Sophia Gennusa and Oona Laurence are feeling overwhelmed by awards-week madness, they certainly aren’t letting it show.
During an interview this week at Ripley Grier Studios near Times Square, the actresses are a boisterous (if extremely well-behaved) bunch, as quick with a grin as with a hand in the air in response to a reporter’s question.
“This week is probably the craziest week of our lives, but in a good way,” says Bailey who at 11 is the group’s elder statesman.
She breaks down their jam-packed schedule: Each girl would portray Matilda at the Shubert Theater two times over the week before the Tonys, and report twice more as a standby. The role is divvied up in this manner to keep the performances as fresh and unstudied as possible, and to prevent exhaustion.
Squeezed in between their regular “Matilda” obligations are three rehearsals for the Tonys at Radio City Music Hall, as well as the annual Tonys Eve Cocktail Party on Saturday evening. They’ll perform in two numbers during the big show Sunday night, before the blitz finally winds down Tuesday with a trip to “Late Show With David Letterman.”
The musical, originally staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, swept last year’s Olivier Awards. Though not all West End imports thrive in New York, “Matilda” has dominated the Broadway box office since opening in April. It’s also earned uniformly glowing reviews, with the New York Times’ Ben Brantley proclaiming it “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain.”
Now it’s a front-runner for best musical, with the score by Tim Minchin and book by Dennis Kelly also vying for Tonys.
A large part of “Matilda’s” success rests on the narrow shoulders of its four leading ladies, who appear in the vast majority of the musical’s 2.5-hour running time. In addition to singing and dancing, the role requires them to (literally) swing from the rafters, deliver several lines of dialogue in Russian and speak throughout the show in a British accent. (All four are Yanks.)
It’s an exceptionally demanding part for performers not yet in middle school, which is why some in the theater world cried foul when the “Matilda” leads were deemed ineligible for a joint actress prize. Instead, the Tony administration committee decided to bestow them with a special award, the Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre. It is an apparent reversal of the precedent set in 2009, when the three teenage stars of “Billy Elliot” were nominated for and won the actor Tony.
For their part, “Matilda” producers have publicly remained diplomatic, saying only that they “appreciate the decision,” and the actresses themselves seem nothing but thrilled.
“Many people have been on Broadway and they haven’t ever gotten a Tony or even maybe nominated, so it’s pretty amazing to actually get something on your Broadway debut,” says Sophia, 9, the youngest and most effusive of the bunch.
They’ll receive their honors at Saturday’s cocktail party, conveniently scheduled between a matinee and evening performance of “Matilda.” (A bit of advice, girls: Go easy on the Shirley Temples.)
That way, as Bailey points out, they’ll be free to enjoy the show on Sunday night. “We can just relax and watch but still get an honor.”
The girls, rather sensibly, already have their outfits picked out for the event. (Fashion forecast: lots of sparkles.)
“It’s going to be a big difference from just watching it on TV, sitting sloppy on the couch with popcorn. Sitting in the red velvet seat and just having, like, manners and sitting like this,” says Sophia, correcting her slouch.
The quartet will be rooting for their costar, Bertie Carvel, nominated for his cross-dressing role as Miss Trunchbull, the sadistic, tot-tossing headmistress at Matilda’s school. Carvel, who originated the role in the U.K., is known for staying in character backstage, which can be slightly intimidating for the show’s young ensemble.
“He has to stay in the mode because he’s a really nice person and he plays a really mean character,” suggests Milly, 10, a blond who seems to share Matilda’s sensitive, serious nature.
Getting into character is just as much of an ordeal for the actresses, who spend two hours prepping before each performance — doing vocal warm-ups, reviewing notes and sitting patiently while their hair is teased and matted to unruly perfection.
The most difficult step of all is getting into Matilda’s headspace. Per director Matthew Warchus, the actresses are forbidden from smiling while performing.
Oona, a 10-year-old with the eyes of a Margaret Keane waif, has developed a technique that helps her remain straight-faced: “I go into the little dressing area where nobody is and think what would it be like if I was actually her, so that kind of helps me get my smiles out.”
And it helps that Matilda, for all her eccentricities, is such an inspiring heroine. As Milly puts it, “Usually in fairy tales the girls just wait for something to happen or their prince to save them, but she does something.”
Whoever wins Sunday night, the best part of the Tonys, according to all four Matildas, is the chance to finally be onstage with each other before an audience.
Says Oona, “It’s going to be a really special experience when all of us get to perform together because people have only seen one girl, but when they see all of us it’s like ‘Wow, they really are inseparable.’”