The man who put the music and lyrics into Matilda the Musical talks to Dionne Christian about his work, his running and what comes next.
Auckland media, theatre promoters and makers can be a tough crowd on a cold night but in the Wintergarden, beneath the Civic Theatre, there's standing room only as a bearded, bespectacled Australian enthrals everyone in the room.
He sings of life as a rock 'n' roll nerd who longed to be famous but felt he had nothing to sing about. There's spontaneous applause after every number and when he finishes, shouts from the audience demanding more.
Dressed in tight black jeans, a black sweatshirt and boots, he seems equally taken with the audience but far too self-deprecating to let the adulation go to his head.
His fans include Hollywood heavyweights Joss Whedon and Steven Spielberg but, he tells me, he can walk down the street and have 90 people not recognise him. There'll be a handful more, however, who completely lose it when they see him.
He's Tim Minchin - composer, actor, writer and comedian - who started small, never gave up and, on Broadway and the West End, became one of the biggest names of a generation.
Minchin played a pivotal role in bringing the late, great Roald Dahl's book Matilda to the stage by writing music and lyrics that are sassy rather than saccharine, bright - as in brainy - but equally breezy.
Much to his astonishment, it worked. In fact, it worked better than anyone - director Matthew Warchus and script writer Dennis Kelly included - dreamed. Matilda the Musical, about a 5-year-old girl determined to take control of her own destiny, is one of the biggest stage shows on the planet, ever; it's won more than 80 international awards and played to packed houses in the UK, US and Australia where, this year, it welcomed its millionth patron.
Minchin was on the cusp of international superstardom as a cabaret artist when Warchus asked him to join the team.
"When Matilda came along, I'd gone from playing 200-seater venues to 500-seaters to 1000-, 2000- and 3000-seaters and things were really taking off for me," he says.
"I did hesitate; I did think, 'why do I want to go back to writing theatre for kids? I'm a rock star now!' and then I thought, 'don't be a dickhead, Minchin, it's the Royal Shakespeare Company, it's Roald Dahl', although I never dreamed it would do what it has done. It was a pretty good decision in hindsight."
Since Matilda the Musical's debut in 2010, Minchin has written music and lyrics for Groundhog Day, based on the 1993 film and now playing on the West End and Broadway, and added to his haul of musical theatre awards. He's won rave reviews for his portrayal of Judas in the UK and Ireland arena tour of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, made his Sydney Theatre Company debut in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead as well having scene-stealing guest roles in the TV series Californication and The Secret River. He appears as Friar Tuck in the 2018 movie Robin Hood alongside Jamie Foxx, Jamie Dornan and Ben Mendelsohn.
He's been in the news (again) after a song he wrote early last year, imploring Australian cardinal George Pell to come home to answer questions about historical sexual abuse allegations, went viral.
Besides the obvious career benefits he owes to Matilda the Musical, there have been more personal gains, which take us back to earlier chapters in Minchin's own story.
Raised in an upper-middle-class family in Perth, the 41-year-old can't recall a time when he wasn't writing and playing music - although he quit formal piano lessons when he was a kid and can't read music - and acting in community theatre groups.
His friends went off to drama school but he says it didn't even cross his mind to think he could get into acting school. After leaving the University of Western Australia with a Bachelor of Arts, he headed to Melbourne with his soon-to-be-wife Sarah (they have been together since their late teens), wanting acting work and a record deal. "I didn't get a record deal and I couldn't get an agent; every agent in Australia said no to me, which was fair enough because I'm weird looking and I had no training, so I don't blame them."
And there's the bit that made Minchin possibly the best choice to write for a musical about a kid who's not prepared to take it on the chin and wear it. Always raised to value hard work, he simply refused to give up.
"The thing about me, compared to a lot of artists, is that when I was in Melbourne playing in cover bands till 2am and getting all sorts of rejections and living in a house with a lot of cracks and not being able to afford anything - and Sarah, working as a social worker up at St Vincent's, which is a really tough job - is that I ran four times a week.
"It was a really big part of how I kept my mental health. When everyone was saying, 'no, you don't get to work in this industry', I had this quite punishing 40 minutes, 10km run that I did. Setting myself that task and achieving it made me feel like not a loser so I guess that's pretty bloody-minded.
"But the difference between Matilda and me is that she has no privilege and I had all the privilege, so it's easier for someone like me to be bloody-minded."
Success came, slowly, through a comedy cabaret show Minchin developed; a collection of satirical songs - wryly amusing and saturated with social commentary - about his own predicament as a middle-class white male with not a lot to complain about.
"For a while, people would say 'comedian Tim Minchin, who's written a musical', but now they say composer so, you know, it's finally happened that people aren't defining me as a comedian, which never really bothered me but was always hilarious given I did comedy for five years but had been a songwriter for 25 years.
"I feel for the first time in my life - since Matilda - that my offering as a composer/lyricist is legitimate and it's also allowed me to define what I care about. What you care about is always defined by what you're not good at so I know I want to write musical theatre that is lyric- and idea-driven, not repeated-melody-driven. I don't have too much imposter syndrome at the moment, except on bad days."
It suits Minchin that success came later in life because it's given him time to define his values, build an established and enduring relationship and become dad to Violet, 11, and Caspar, 8. "Having kids just keeps everything in perspective but, more than that, I think you develop your personality in your 20s; you find your values and I think it's much easier to do that when there's no one looking at you and when you're poor.
"Having no money, having to be a bit Matilda-esque, reading books and finding your own power so when you hit something like I did in my 30s, well, [it meant] I knew who I was so you're not going to turn me into a dick.
"Well, I've probably turned into a bit of a dick but, you know, on a film set and watching people shout at assistant directors and that sort of thing, I just don't know how you even get to that point where you're an overpaid actor raising your voice.
"I just think, 'what the f***?'"
It's also given Minchin a platform to address issues important to him. He likes that Matilda is a tough, cheeky young girl, who believes her power comes from knowledge, learning and empathy and that she is outraged by injustice; it's a marked change, he says, from heavily sexualised female role models valued because of their looks. But there's more to it. The story emphasises education and although it may worry Minchin that Matilda can be interpreted as saying, "toughen up and educate yourself if you want life to get better", he reckons ultimately promoting education is a good thing.
"Believe it or not, the notion that education is something to be aspired towards is almost contentious," he says, leaning forward.
"All through previous centuries, you would not have not have found a poor person in Britain who would have said, 'I don't even aspire to be educated'.
"Any poor person, if they got a bit of money, the first thing they would do would be to try to get their kids better educated because everyone understood knowledge was freedom and power.
"I understand where the idea that education is a form of snobbery has come from, but we're almost at a point where you can't say, 'to be educated is better than being poorly educated' because to say that is elitist but that is a f***ing worry to me."
"We need to hold on to the notion that being educated is a good thing; we can't keep saying things like, 'why listen to experts?' or we end up with someone like Donald Trump as president."
Matilda the Musical is important, he says, for the positive messages it promotes about knowledge, freedom and power, but more than anything, that it brings people joy and kids love it. After its initial success, Minchin chose to stop touring and turned down offers to do his own chat show to head to Hollywood and create an animated film called Larrikins. Earlier this year, having already spent millions on the movie, production company Dreamworks shelved it, leaving Minchin devastated and angry.
"I wasn't to know that's how things would end up but when I think of the things I could have been doing in the past four years it really breaks my heart and I've lost a lot of confidence so I have to get back to running - not that I can run anywhere near the four-minute kilometres I used to," he says.
But, as Minchin wrote for young Matilda to sing: "just because I find myself in this story doesn't mean the ending is written for me "
He says he'll get his head back into a brave, creative, fearless space. "At the moment, I am battered and angry, and angry is not a good place to make stuff from so I am just going to jog on, quite literally."
If your kids like Matilda, they may like these.....
Howl's moving castle
Diana Wynne Jones
An enchanting fantasy story, this is buckets of fun and has plenty of adventure and cheeky humour set in the magical kingdom of Ingary, where it is common folklore that the eldest of three sisters is destined never to be successful. One such is flame-haired Sophie. A highly-skilled hat-maker, Sophie also possess the ability to bring objects to life by talking to them. When she incites the wrath of the wicked Witch of the Waste, who turns her into an old woman, Sophie can break the spell only by venturing to the enchanting moving castle, where the enigmatic and reclusive wizard Howl resides. A magical tale of youth, courage and love.
Harriet the spy
Aspiring writer Harriet M. Welsch is a precocious, bubbly and sassy 11-year-old girl living in New York under the watch of her adored nanny Catherine. A keen observer of the world around her, Harriet studiously jots down her thoughts and observations in her treasured notebook. But when she loses it and it ends up in the hands of her classmates, who read all the crushingly honest observations she has written about them, Harriet becomes miserable as her classmates seek revenge. A delightful and fun classic of children's literature.
This truly gorgeous folky New York Times bestseller needs to be seen at least for the stunning cover and intricate illustrations. When Prue and her friend Curtis race to rescue Prue's baby brother after he is abducted by a "murder of crows", they stumble upon the secret world of Wildwood tucked away in the wilderness and nestled within the bustling city of Portland, Oregon. Filled with belligerent talking creatures, mystics, an animal king and an evil sorceress, Wildwood is an atmospheric, beautifully illustrated tale that explores the Roald Dahl theme of crooked adults v smart children.
Lois Lowry's series of Anastasia novels endures as a classic, and the titular character is sharp, intelligent and headstrong. Tapping into the vicissitudes of growing up and everyday life, the first book Anastasia Krupnik sees our lovable 10-year-old going through challenging times as she grapples with an unrequited crush, a blossoming friendship with her doddery 92-year-old grandmother, and - most troubling of all for Anastasia - the imminent arrival of a baby brother.
"Mr Stink stank. He also stunk. And if it was correct English to say he stinked, then he stinked as well ... " In a nice link to Roald Dahl, Mr Stink is illustrated by Dahl's regular collaborator, the inimitable Quentin Blake, and is just as delightfully kooky and fun as Matilda. Chloe is 12 when she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Mr Stink and tries to hide him in the garden shed. She discovers that her beloved dad was once in a rock band and when the family is invited on to a television programme, Mr Stink ends up tagging along. Both hilarious and eye-openingly touching,
Where & when: The Civic, from August 18
- additional reporting Kiran Dass