Tim Minchin: ‘Politics affects my mental health … I feel gaslit’ | Tim Minchin
The Australian composer and entertainer Tim Minchin sits outside a rehearsal room in London. It is a pleasant day in April. Tooled up on tea and creative adrenaline, talking quickly and well, the 47-year-old is comparing the experience of working on two big stage musicals. In 2010, there was Matilda, the planet-devouring omni-smash, which flourished in the West End, on Broadway and on family car journeys, transforming Minchin from an anarchic musical comedian who could fill a good-sized room at the Edinburgh festival into a feted and wealthy man. “I mean, Matilda, fuck,” is all the loquacious Minchin can say about that show’s successes for now. More interesting to him, because more troubled, was the follow-up, Groundhog Day, a 2016 musical adapted from the popular 90s movie of the same name.
“When you make something so detailed, over so many thousands of hours, something you think is broadly appealing, about how we’re to be as people – and it doesn’t fly? That’s incredibly painful,” Minchin says.
Dressed today in muted colours, his famous untidy reddish hair tied back under a baseball cap, he lists the little catastrophes that hobbled Groundhog Day seven years ago: investors pulling out; the choreographer falling ill; a feeling of being rushed to New York after a strong London opening, before the show was quite ready. Groundhog Day closed on Broadway in autumn 2017, after 200-odd performances, and has more or less sat in a drawer since. “It’s not a meritocracy,” Minchin shrugs. “Mamma Mia’s one of the highest-selling musicals ever … Broadway is not a measure of what is good, or not to me. If you want to go there to make your moolah, then you can’t be surprised if you have a rough ride.”
Fittingly, given that Groundhog Day is a story about do-overs, Minchin and his collaborators will try to revive their beleaguered musical at the Old Vic in London next month. He is confident things will work out better this time. From inside the rehearsal room, loud enough to boom through a soundproofed door, the new cast of Groundhog Day burst into song. They’re being taught the musical’s opening number.
“Tomorrow / There will be sun!” goes the line they’re belting out. Minchin tilts his head. Something is bugging him and when I ask what, he notes that the actors are singing “too-morrow” instead of “ta-morrow”. Minchin lives in Sydney with his wife and two children. He has flown to London for a fortnight of rehearsals, specifically to pepper the Groundhog Day cast with pedantic corrections. “It has to be ‘ta-morrow’. Who ever says ‘too-morrow’?”
It is not unusual for artists to contain a combustible blend of high confidence and low self-esteem. In this, Minchin conforms to type: belief by the bucket-load and plenty of doubt. But he was trained on the British comedy circuit. After years in that cauldron, most of what he utters is buried under layers of protective irony. There are micro shifts of tone, eye-widenings, manic grins, flirty pouts, all meant to signal his constantly modulating levels of seriousness. Minchin is aware that some of what he says in interviews comes over badly, his humour sometimes flattened without the accompanying performance.
He gives an example. “I could lean forward to you and say: ‘The trouble with you, Tom, is that you’re clearly a cunt’ … And you would hear from the juxtaposition of content and intent that I actually like you.” Now write the C-word down. Now put the C-word in a quote in a newspaper. Suddenly it reads differently. “That’s the problem with the internet right now,” Minchin says, bringing up a subject – what he sees as the shallowness and untruthfulness of progressive politics – that he’ll return to later. “Everybody clashes up against each other online, pretending irony doesn’t exist. It drives me nuts.”
A luckless Groundhog Day publicist emailed Minchin on the morning of our interview, listing what he wasn’t supposed to talk about. Minchin did not take well to that. Just as with the notes he was handed, the previous weekend, when he was invited to go on stage at the Royal Albert Hall and present an Olivier award, Minchin tends to ignore instructions on principle. “Many, many people have put a huge amount of money and time into Groundhog Day. They are invested in making sure I toe the line. But this is my job. Talking about what matters to me is literally my job, whether through art or by the words that come out of my own mouth.”
Good to hear, because I want to ask Minchin about something sticky. His musical of Matilda is still running in London after more than 4,000 performances. It was recently made into a movie starring Emma Thompson. Minchin has a long-standing, lucrative relationship with Roald Dahl’s estate, which, latterly, has meant a relationship with Netflix, which bought the rights to Dahl’s work in 2021. That Netflix deal roughly coincided with a move by the children’s publisher Puffin to make textual alterations to new editions of Dahl’s books. Certain words (outmoded, unfashionable, offensive, harmless: it depended on your point of view) were edited out.
In the revised Matilda, for instance, Dahl’s rather abrupt use of “female” as a noun was replaced with “woman”. A couple of plot points were tweaked, apparently to align the books more snugly with the 2010 musical and the 2022 movie. After an investigation by the Telegraph, and much public protest, Puffin has decided that two versions of Dahl’s books will have to be published, one altered, one not. What are Minchin’s thoughts on this?
“I decided not to wade in,” he says. His diplomacy is so uncharacteristic I simply wait it out.
“I think I’m not sure,” he says. “And I’m very happy sitting in that space.”
“It seems there’s an incredible slippery slope problem with editing texts. I mean, my initial reaction, when I heard about it? ‘Now we’ll have to get all the rapes out of all the history books. Then the world will be a better place.’”
“It’s not actually about morality. It’s about keeping the property, owned by the Dahls and Netflix, contemporary … It’s an interesting part of modern progressivism, that a huge amount of change is happening because corporations have identified where their bottom-line is best served.
“Problem one, as I see it? If you do this once, you’ll have to do it to all texts ever, taking out all the words that might upset people. Problem two? You’ll have to change it all again in five years when the new words you put in are out of vogue. So that’s two slippery-slope problems. You’re standing at the top of a double slide. And now you’re spraying soap on the fucking things.”
“I find it baffling! I’m perplexed by people’s willingness to apply ideas that only work in one direction, as if there aren’t going to be any bad outcomes of this.”
I thank Minchin for his honesty, and I ask him whether he would expect to get in trouble with his corporate collaborators for speaking so freely.
He winces, as if in real pain that anyone would think so. “Netflix know, and the Dahls know, that I’m not a mouthpiece for them. I may not always say the right things. But I never, ever say what I am told. I don’t owe anyone anything. Personal-me is agitated by the unsustainable idea of changing people’s fiction. But my view about that is only as important about your view about that.”
Minchin grew up in Perth on Australia’s west coast, part of a close, socially conservative family. To illustrate his unthreatening middle-class averageness as a boy, he recounts the first two decades of his life at double speed. “My parents were a stay-at-home mum and a doctor. I went to a boys’ school and I did fine. I played first-team hockey and third-team basketball. I was in the school play. I went to university and I did fine. I didn’t take drugs. I married my first girlfriend. I had a job in a hardware store. Then I happened to get good at … this thing.”
The “thing” was musical comedy. Minchin had initially dreamed of being a rock star, performing through his teens and 20s in covers and original bands at weddings and cabaret shows. Unable to get a record deal, Minchin tried acting, though not much more successfully. In the early 2000s, newly married to Sarah Gardiner, whom he met at university, and living in Melbourne, Minchin auditioned for an Aussie supermarket chain ad. It would have involved dressing up as a till receipt. He didn’t get the role. Shortly after, the Minchins moved to London, where they lived for many years. “Whenever I come back to London now, my agent tells me: ‘Welcome home.’ I feel like this is where I belong. London is the girl I fell in love with but didn’t marry. London is the first girl who fell in love with me back.”
He arrived in the city in 2002, when, he says, it was still just about fashionable to stumble on stage as if having arrived by accident: no costume, no makeup, no production values. Trying to make a name for himself, he showed up at gigs wearing eyeliner, his hair sprayed, and carrying a list of pedantic cues for the stage technician. Drawing on his years playing keyboards, he found that a cabaret-like format suited him. A bit of piano, a bit of ranting, bit of personal oversharing, song for an encore, done.
Around 2007, when his daughter Violet was born, Minchin wrote a sentimental ballad called White Wine in the Sun, about atheism and the search for contentment. He started playing it to end his gigs. He often ranted about organised religion from the stage, and audiences seemed to appreciate this softer finale. Minchin was performing in London one night when the director Matthew Warchus came to watch. It was 2009. Warchus was looking for a composer for a germinating Matilda musical. White Wine in the Sun, which often left people in tears, was the clincher. Warchus brought along a collaborator, the playwright Dennis Kelly, to see Minchin, too.
Soon the trio were in discussion about how Matilda might work on stage, in song. “I never reread Dahl’s book,” Minchin tells me now, “I never watched the  movie.” Instead, in typical fashion, his opening chat with Warchus and Kelly contained a rant. “If you get someone else,” Minchin concluded, “don’t let them fuck this up.” A year later, in 2010, the trio were together at Matilda’s press night in Stratford-upon-Avon, about to get five stars from virtually every critic there, about to begin a flawless run of glory that would include tours, transfers, Tonys and Oliviers.
Minchin’s post-interval number When I Grow Up quickly established itself as a musical-theatre all-timer, on a level with Sondheim’s Being Alive or Lerner and Loewe’s On the Street Where You Live – a song that does almost nothing, plot-wise, but that leaves the audience achy and elated. The popularity of Matilda supercharged Minchin’s performing career, in tandem. He got a part in the TV show Californication and played Judas in a 2012 revival of Jesus Christ: Superstar.
After that, Minchin took time off to concentrate on writing. He and Sarah had their second child, Caspar, and moved to Los Angeles, where Minchin signed a deal with DreamWorks to make an animated feature film. Collaborating again with Warchus and other members of the Matilda team, he wrote the music and lyrics for Groundhog Day, which won five-star reviews, another Olivier and moved in 2017 from the Old Vic to Broadway, where it was less fondly received. That year, DreamWorks abruptly cancelled Minchin’s feature film, Larrikins, after the company was bought by Universal, and, in Minchin’s account, made it too costly for another studio to acquire. (He has spoken about being told this high cost was “schmuck insurance” – the price of not being made to look like a schmuck if another company made it into a hit.) Four years of work, he says, nixed.
“I couldn’t be more affirmed,” Minchin says. “Thousands and thousands of messages from people who love my stuff. And I don’t undervalue that. But you just get used to it.” He means, each time a post-Matilda project has stuttered, the lingering glow of Matilda has not afforded much protection. “It’s, like, oh, your $100m film got shut down? Well you went to Hollywood, mate! It’s not a craft fair over there. Losing a movie is not really grief. But having time taken away from you? You grieve that,” he says. “It put me in a really negative space, one I had to write my way out of.”
The family moved back to Australia. To get over the DreamWorks disappointment, Minchin created a surreal TV show about a pair of misfits, Upright. “I’m gratified by Upright. It’s 8.4 on IMDb. It’s won awards. But fucking no one’s seen it. And that’s a bit sad.” These experiences of damp squibs or flops have taught him that doing the job is what counts; creation, not reception. “It’s always a bit of an anticlimax to put something new into the world. You’re, like, ‘It’s done! Everybody liked it! Or nobody liked it! I guess I’ll just keep going?’”
Of course, it is easier to keep going when you have the bank of Matilda issuing dividends. The 2022 movie will have made Minchin even wealthier, without him having to do that much more than mutter encouragement to the director, Warchus.
Er, I say to Minchin … can we talk about the Matilda loot?
“Brits don’t talk about that, do they? Money?”
He smiles. What can he tell me? “I think my retirement’s probably OK. Unless the ideas in Matilda become cancellable. There are some in there! I’ve heard people say that the line ‘Only you can change your story’ [from the song Naughty] is like blaming the victim. Owning your own fate is untrendy.”
Do any of Matilda’s lyrics, written by thirtysomething Tim, make fortysomething Tim wince?
“There are a couple where I think, ‘Shit! I was playing fast-and-loose there.’ And there are lyrics I’ve changed, for instance the word ‘midget’. I never thought of that word as a slur. I thought of it as a word for a small thing, a midget submarine, a midget plant … What you want to do is not hurt anyone. But as an artist – or as a person in life – you have to understand that you are going to sometimes hurt people.”
The song Revolting Children from Matilda expresses Minchin’s worldview pretty well. His lyrics play on the word revolt: to rebel, and to appal. Minchin is keen on mutiny, even where that means causing offence. In his comedy-cabaret days, he often attacked what he saw as the illogic of religious faith. In 2016, Minchin debuted a song about Cardinal Pell, the late Australian priest who had figured in multiple child sexual abuse scandals. It has been viewed 4m times on YouTube. In all this revolting, Minchin was cheered on by the liberal progressives of his core audience.
However, Minchin has found himself out of step with aspects of his own politics. When he speaks about making geographic relocations, he says: “There’s something fundamentally difficult about not knowing where home is.” I sense he no longer knows where his political home is. And this unnerves him. Time and again as we talk, Minchin returns to the subject of modern progressivism and his gradual unmooring from it. “I keep watching liberals assert stuff. And there’s this backfire effect. There are unintended consequences to the pushing-through of our ideals.
“What I’m anxious about is that in our attempts to push forward social justice we are losing people. We’re insisting people catch up very quickly. And when they fail to, they find themselves in opposition. If you tell people that they have to come on board very quickly with new ideas of social justice, and you don’t seduce them, if you simply demand it, it doesn’t work. They’re gonna look for another narrative. They’re gonna look for someone who makes them feel all right for not being on board with that shit … So a Trump comes along, and finds success by saying, ‘I give you permission to fuck all that off.’”
Minchin removes his cap and pushes back his hair. He does this a few times, a gesture of mounting frustration. “Where I think politics affects my mental health is that I feel gaslit. It feels like everyone’s playacting. On the right, it’s the playacting of pretending you’re not wealthy, the ‘common man’ stuff, the skullduggery of that. And on the left, it’s the idea that all of us perform this self-protecting brand [of politics] on social media, then go home, have dinner, and roll our eyes … I’ve been accused of drifting right. But, it’s like, hold on! I’ve spent my entire career criticising illogic. I feel like I’m still doing that, except that the religion I now see a problem with is identity fundamentalism. I feel like that is more damaging than monotheism. I don’t think my values have changed.”
Whoever does think their values have changed? From inside our own heads, it always looks as if the scenery is shifting, not us. I sketch out for Minchin my theory about political righteousness. Liberals, long used to the comfortable high of supposing they were on the right side of history, got addicted to that drug, and are now suffering the effects of its withdrawal. Younger liberals might just have cut off their supply.
Minchin nods. “People under 30 have always been incredibly passionate,” he says. “And they’ve always been a little bit dumb. Under 30? You’re passionate but you don’t actually know quite enough. Now we’ve made a mode of communication where those people have a huge amount of power, to have people lose their jobs or whatever. And as a 47-year-old, mostly what I see is immaturity with a gun.”
Isn’t that what Minchin practised, as a young comedian?
“Immaturity with a microphone,” he nods, “yeah.”
The Groundhog Day rehearsal has resumed. Morning is about to hit on that fateful Groundhog Day in small-town America. Normal forward progress is about to be disrupted and, to capture this, Minchin has arranged his song so that the cast all get lodged on a note. Instead of singing “If not tomorrow / Perhaps the day after”, they sing “If not tomorrow / Perhaps the day aaaaarrrgh”. The final note starts to sound like an anguished howl.
Minchin knows he cannot control political winds, not today and not the day aaaaarrrgh either. Watching his kids become young adults, watching them develop passions of their own, has helped him accept this. “What my kids have taught me is humility about your control over shit. When my kids were small, I thought they were blank slates, or things to be moulded. In fact, all you do as a parent is bear witness to their emergence. It’s beautiful.”
His kids are teenagers now. They sometimes get things wrong. Minchin is nearly 50. He sometimes get things wrong, too. He says: “We try to get things wrong together.” It’s probably the best that any of us can do.