Tim Minchin: I've said 'No' to Baz Luhrmann

"Do you know how hard it is to write a musical? I can’t write five and be an LA telly actor and tour with Jesus Christ Superstar and be a touring comedian and a father to my children..."

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Tim Minchin: I've said 'No' to Baz Luhrmann
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Ginny Dougary

Tim Minchin, the Australian-to-London transplant and ginger-haired, kohl-eyed, bare-footed,foul-mouthed, proudly atheist, hippy comedian, musician, composer, lyricist, actor, is in a respectable café enthusing about his bottom. There’s no one sitting near us, but even if there were, it’s doubtful that he would tone himself down.

We are talking about his post-Matilda the Musical career – the hugely successful show based on the Roald Dahl book about a little girl with special powers, with Minchin as composer and lyricist, which won an unprecedented seven Olivier awards last year. One consequence of its triumphs has been to put Minchin on the radar in the States (Matilda is opening on Broadway in March) and he has been inundated with offers, mainly to write musicals, but also acting roles.

Over the summer, the 37-year-old had been flying over to LA to film a part in the TV series Californication, playing “a completely out of control, spoilt-child rock star – coked up and nude half the time.” Was it fun? “Well, I had to lose weight and get my bum waxed.” Ooooh, that must have been painful? “It felt fantastic. I don’t have a very hairy bum, it’s just a bit fluffy and afterwards it felt so nice to have a smooth bum.”           

In the autumn he had a blast playing Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, brought back by its co-creator Andrew Lloyd Webber as a rock extravaganza in huge stadiums: “I love the show and I can sing the notes – who would have thought it? And the reviews were very kind on me.” He will play Judas again in the spring in the UK and in the Australian tour, and in August he will take up the role of Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Sydney Theatre Company.

He says that he has “literally a dozen offers to write really big musicals and I’m saying ‘No’ to all of them – which is hard. Can you imagine a boy from Perth saying ‘No’ to some Broadway producer? I said ‘No’ to Baz Luhrmann recently.” How could you? “I went to days and days of meetings, but do you know how hard it is to write a musical? I can’t write five and be an LA telly actor and tour with Jesus Christ Superstar and be a touring comedian and a father to my children. And, of course, I love being a dad [to Violet, six; Caspar, three]. I adore it but I’m about to leave them again for 12 days, and then there’s Australia. I’m just away such a lot.”

One can understand Minchin’s reluctance to take a back seat when he’s so in demand. It must seem like only yesterday that he was playing with covers bands in pubs in Australia. When I ask him what his ambitions are now, he says: “Maybe I’m not very imaginative but what I want to do is more cool stuff in the areas that I’ve worked very hard to break down doors in.”

His current projects, on top of the acting and performing, is a high-profile musical that he’s not at liberty to discuss – other than to say that it’s a new stage musical adaptation of a popular film – as well as an animated musical for Dreamworks. What he would really like to do is his own original project, and he has an idea that’s based on a short story he wrote at university when he was 19 and has had in a file as a potential musical since he was 21.

Give me a one-line pitch...

“It’s about fate and destiny – it’s star-crossed lovers with some gods. It’s very Greek, actually, but it’s going to be very modern and weird and it’s the coming together of many strands – kind of almost Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels... it’s an explosion of butterfly-wing flaps mucking it up for lovers. It’s a bit Sondheim-style, and what’s interesting about the couple is that they don’t meet until the very, very end. They keep missing each other but we know from the beginning that they’re destined for one another. So it’s as though Romeo and Juliet didn’t meet until the moment of the poison.”

And then Minchin goes off on one of his rants about God. “The premise is that if fate or destiny or God exist they’re off their heads because if there is some interventionalist playing us like puppets, what sort of dope-smoking, acid-tripping, psychopathic, uncaring, racist, sexist, homophobic idiot must he be?” And then, smiling sweetly, he says, “It’s not going to be angry. In fact, it’s a love story with a romantic end.”

We turn to Matilda, which has made life so easy for him, financially at least, that, as he says, “I don’t need to work if I don’t want to.” It’s possible that he may never need to work again but, anxious not to tempt providence or sound too smug, he says that it’s possible that, “Matilda could close in two years in London because of some economic downturn or Broadway could bankrupt us.” The former seems unlikely because the reason we’re meeting is to discuss the possibility that Matilda will receive another Olivier award this April in the Audience Award category.

Interestingly, unlike the Tonys in America, the Oliviers don’t have an award for the composer or lyricist: “No, there’s no award for me, but it’s not like I came away from them without anyone recognizing my contribution. There’s no scarcity of affirmation for my work; it’s an embarassment of riches of affirmation and I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was complaining.”

We may think of Minchin as Mr Musicals but when he was growing up in Perth he says that he wasn’t particularly into musicals and still isn’t. “I haven’t spent my life consuming musicals. I guess I’ve seen one or two Sondheims and three or four Lloyd Webbers, Annie and Hair in amateur productions in Perth and I love The Rocky Horror Show.”

His great grandmother, however, had a pianola, “which around the First World War was quite a status thing and she had hundreds of music rolls, so we used to play a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan and sing along, and the other thing we had a lot of were songbooks and my brother made me listen to this stuff because I wasn’t, and am still not, a great consumer of music.

“My brother’s the reason I got back to piano after I quit at grade 2 or something. He would say, ‘Come on and play this’ or ‘Come and listen to this song by Crowded House’ or get The Rocky Horror Show songbook out.” This reminds him that all the songs from Matilda have just been published. “I’m so thrilled about that, having played things from songbooks all my life, and now you can buy the album and the songbook and learn all the songs.”

He is quite clear-eyed about his talents, saying that, “I’m not the best composer in the world and I haven’t yet written a musical with melodies as strong as Phantom, but my strength is that I’m the package. But I’m a lyric-head probably first. I love playing with words. I’m unashamed about the density of internal rhyme and alliterations and making words jump and play and sparkle.”

But alas, he’s now discovering the downside of fame. He always loved doing small gigs in clubs but an experience at a gig last year at the 100 Club in London made him realise that it’s no longer an option because “my weird fans were too close. Not my weird fans,” he corrects himself, “but my very ‘fan’ fans. I couldn’t get out of the room and I felt panicky and I’m not a panicky person. People feel that they have an intimate relationship with me, which I foster by being on Twitter, and I want people to feel that they have discovered my work and it has not been forced on them by record companies, but when you can’t get out of a room...”

From time to time, he says something that sounds as though he’s a bit hard on himself – and I think his rigorousness about all aspects of his life and work, along with his talent and originality, is what makes him such a highly engaging interviewee. “I’m trying to use my brain to do well, and now that I’m independent and have a lot of options, part of doing well includes acting ethically and giving the right amount of money to other people and doing the right amount of charity work and so on. So I’m hard on myself when I think, what sort of person should I be now that I’m not playing in a covers band any more like I was six years ago. Now what?”

The shortlist for the BBC Radio 2 Olivier Audience Award will be announced during Elaine Paige's show on Sunday

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