Matilda’s Elise McCann on her new Roald Dahl inspired album Dahlesque

Known for her award-winning role as Miss Honey in the recent Australian tour of smash-hit musical Matilda, Elise McCann has now taken her love and knowledge of Dahl’s work one step further- creating an album that draws upon and inspired by the magical works of one of the world’s most beloved authors.

We caught up with Elise to find out how her moment of pure imagination transformed in Dahlesque.

Kat: This album Dahlesque, how did it come about? Were you a Dahl fan growing up?

Elise: I was a Dahl fan as a child but we read a lot- Enid Blyton, as well as Roald Dahl, just all kind of different books. Both of my parents were huge readers, and my sister was a massive reader as well. Really to be completely honest the reason this came about was I had loved Dahl as a child, but was really reintroduced to him through Matilda. At the same time as Matilda happened I went back and started to read his books and it seemed like everywhere I went I kept coming into contact with different adaptions of his work. The Johnny Depp new adaption of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there was the new BFG movie and someone else had told me about the George Clooney’s Fantastic Mr. Fox movie. Then there was a fund raiser at the Hayes Theatre and Tony Sheldon sang a song from a new adaptation that’s being made based on Roald Dahl’s autobiography Boy. Everywhere I went!

Kat: Dahl, Dahl, Dahl.

Elise: Yeah, adaptations of Dahl! It made me have this moment of, gosh, Dahl is not just his books he’s also inspired movies, musicals, poems… The time when I came out with the idea for this it was also around his 100th anniversary. I said to Richard Carroll there’s so many adaptations of Roald Dahl works we should do a show using all of the music from all these different adaptations. Rich was like, that’s a great idea. I was like, yeah, and then I left it. I was just like sure, great.

Then I was talking to Eddie Perfect about the cabaret festival and I said, “Hey, I’ve got this idea what do you think?” He was like, that’s a great idea, what would be the sound scape of it? So I sat with Stephen Amos, who was my musical supervisor on Matilda, and Stephen said, “what do you feel? I said, “for me, the thing with all of the adaptations of Roald Dahl work, is that a lot of the adaptations sometimes miss that darker edge of Roald Dahl that’s so prevalent in his books.” It’s one of the things I think make it so effective, both for adults and for children, that it had that spiky kind of quality. Something that is slightly absurd and slightly magical and slightly dark. Some of the adaptations are a little bit Disney or a little bit saccharine, a little bit sweet. Anyway I said that to Stephen, and he was like, yeah you right, he said, “Okay, what if we do the whole thing with like a string quintet and huge percussion. It’s got a percussion instruments like xylophones, and marimbas, and glockenspiel, and tubular bells, and then all these string instruments?”

I was like, that’s a great idea, I love that. We actually were like let’s do it as an album, why not? Let’s not just make it a show for Adelaide, let’s do it as an album, and it all kind of just kept snowballing!

Kat: So the album was born from the show?

Elise: Stephen and I had been talking about doing an album for a long time, but I’d never had anything that I really, really wanted to do. Then when this came I thought, well actually that could be really cool because they’ll be full arrangements, and they’re all connected by something. There’s a reason for why we’re doing this catalogue of music.

What’s so super awesome about it is that so many people have responded to the concept. They are really intrigued by it. I think what’s so great about Roald Dahl is that he makes adults feel like children again. He makes children feel like adults, and so something like this when you get to the songs that you know from Willie Wonka, but then we’ve done it with a slightly more… like an oompa loompa you do it with a slightly more spiky or wacky kind of way of doing it. It’s reminiscent of your childhood.

Kat: I think one track that particularly stood out for me was “Naughty”. I feel there’s just such a quality to the songs in Matilda, and you’re quite right that dark quality, and I just feel that sometimes get missed when it’s sung in that younger voice by Matilda.

Elise: Also, I guess, the concept of some of the lyrics are like- it’s up to you to stand up for what you think is right. It’s up to you to fight for what is important to you, you know things like that are so prevalent in contemporary society right now. Whether they should be taken that way or not I think…

Kat: Well it is Tim Minchin, so most probably yes.

Elise: Yeah, and I think that’s it, we just find different layers when you get to play around!

Kat: And you mentioned it already, that once you started you were Miss Honey and once you started being in Matilda the Musical your impressions of Dahl started changing?

Elise: Because I remember Dahl, and I loved Dahl, I loved The Witches. It terrified me senseless but I loved it, and I loved Matilda as well, there’s so many of his stories that I love. But doing Matilda was an entirely new experience because, this is an adaptation, but I do really think that Tim Minchin’s music combines with Dennis Kelly’s book completely captured the heart of Roald Dahl. I think that they had this perfect compilation and for me music speaks so much, I find music really moves me in a way that text doesn’t always on its own.

When you get to hear a lot of those Dahl thoughts, and feelings through music it hits you again. It really hit me tenfold I think, and also because Matthew Walker is in the RSC, and the whole way that they constructed this piece and the integrity with which it was upheld. They really wanted to uphold it for the Australian production, one where they didn’t shy away from the darker elements. Obviously being in it, you really sit within the tragedy as well as within the sense of magic. All of those things that we feel when we’re reading it, felt more-

Kat: Magnified?

Elise: Prevalent, and magnified, exactly yeah.

Kat: And was there anything you that you thought after you’d recorded and obviously planned all the show, that you were like, oh I wish I could have included from this particular piece? Or I wish there was something more musical from The Witches that I could have included or something?

Elise: Yes, that was the biggest thing, I was like gosh I wish there was music for The Witches that we could include, and we’ve actually been talking about, maybe for the next version. I just want someone to write a musical about The Witches! That’s all I really want, and do it really quickly.

Kat: That would be really good!

Elise: I know right?!

Kat: I just have one final, fun sort of question. If you could play absolutely any character from any Dahl book in a musical adaption, whether it exists or not, who would it be?

Elise: Well look because Miss Honey existed, if you hadn’t said, “Exists or not.” I would have said, “Miss Honey.” Because to me, and again I mean this with no disrespect to any of the other musicals that have been created, or films that have been made, but I do think that Matilda the Musical is probably the best adaptation of Dahl. I personally think, and I might be biased…

Kat: I think so too!

Elise: But if we’re saying, “not created.” Then The Witches, I’d love to see a Witches one created for sure. Let me think, there’s so many great books of his though, you know what I mean? I don’t know I’ll have to go back to the drawing board, but also Pasek & Paul’s James and the Giant Peach has incredible music, it’s so beautiful and they had a beautiful cast.

Dahlesque is available now from ABC Music.