'Matilda': Meet the man behind the worst woman in the world

Matilda The Musical

Miss Trunchbull is such a legendarily loathsome teacher, the late author Roald Dahl himself described the beastly woman as “a gigantic holy terror; a fierce, tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of pupils and teachers alike.”

So what does it say about Bryce Ryness that when an actor pal saw the new Broadway stage adaptation of Matilda the Musical on Broadway, he immediately thought Miss Trunchbull was a role Ryness was born to play one day?

Bryce Ryness“Hey, that’s a really good question!” Ryness said with a laugh. It’s a funny question because Ryness is an affable father of three who would not seem to conjure immediate comparisons to the most horrible head mistress in literary history.

Miss Trunchbull is the antagonist in Dahl’s modern children’s classic Matilda, the story of an extraordinary little girl who decides her story is going to be an astonishing one despite rotten parents, a terrifying school and a vicious head mistress. It was adapted into a popular stage musical by the Royal Shakespeare Company that last week celebrated its 1,000th performance on Broadway. A new national touring production featuring Ryness as the aforementioned Miss Trunchbull visits Denver from Sept. 9-20 at the Buell Theatre.

“It is so much fun to be in a position where I have the freedom and even the mandate from the creative staff to be funny and terrifying,” Ryness said.

It was Kristoffer Cusick, Ryness’ castmate in the 2013 Broadway musical First Date, who encouraged Ryness to audition for the role.

Bryce Ryness stars in the national tour of 'Matilda The Musical' as Miss Trunchbull.I think what Kristoffer probably saw was this character who has to be really intense and able to execute a joke,” Ryness said. “I am a pretty intense guy, and I am also able to run head-first into a joke. I am fearless in that regard. I tend to gravitate toward characters who say ridiculous things, but they have no idea that they are being funny.”

Like when Matilda calls Miss Trunchbull a big, fat bully, and Miss Trunchbull responds: “You ought to be in prison. The deepest, dankest, darkest prison.”

“I mean, come on!” Ryness said with laugh. “A 5-year-old should be in prison? That’s ridiculous. But what makes it comical and what makes it scintillating and interesting for an audience is that the character is not joking.”

On any given performance of Matilda the Musical, the collective audience reaction to Miss Trunchbull might be laugh-out-loud funny. At other times, viewers might recoil with uncomfortable stoicism. Either reaction is fine with Ryness, as well as his director, Matthew Warchus.

“Mark told me, ‘Listen, if you go through this entire show and you are terrifying, that’s totally OK. On the flip side, if you go through this show and you are very funny and only sort of terrifying, that’s OK, too.’ The primary challenge with this character is that she must not come across as a panto (or stock) character. They like to hire actors to do this role, not clowns. It just so happens that the role is perceived of as hilarious. But I am not setting out to make people laugh. So it’s not slapstick or Borscht Belt or a Seth Rogen kind of comedy.”

In order to play Miss Trunchbull meaningfully, Ryness needs to play her as a real, three-dimensional human being. Something awful must have turned innocent young Agatha into the feared Miss Trunchbull. And it’s a doozy.

“Part of the Matilda the Musical lore is that the story Matilda tells in the show is not just some fiction,” Ryness said. “It’s actually Miss Trunchbull’s childhood she’s talking about. And it goes that little Agatha grows up in the shadows of this sister who was a beautiful and brilliant acrobat in a circus family. But wherever Agatha goes, she is laughed at because she looks ridiculous. She’s this massive creature who is mercilessly harangued by kids everywhere she goes.

“But she finds, finally, the one place that she fits in, and the one thing in her life that she is actually good at – which is throwing the hammer. And so she takes all of that energy that she used to use to defend and protect herself, and she dives into discipline and training – and she wins. She is the hammer-throwing champion of 1969. And what do ex-Olympic athletes do? She becomes the phys-ed teacher at this school called Crunchem Hall. And over time, she becomes the Head Mistress. And her task is to right all of the wrongs that were levied against her when she was a little kid.”

‘Being scared is part of the human experience’

Matilda The Musical may be a quintessentially British musical. But no matter how British the name sounds, Bryce Ryness is actually an All-American Boy from Danville, Calif. He grew up with aspirations of playing catcher on a major-league team until a broken finger made baseball’s loss theatre’s gain. At 34, Ryness already has four Broadway credits: Legally Blonde, Hair, Leap of Faith and First Date.

He has a unique perspective on Matilda, given that he has three children under age 6. He knows that Roald Dahl became one of the world’s most revered storytellers for children because of his affinity for unsentimental and dark humor (James and the Giant Peach, The BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)

Ryness is aware some parents might naturally feel some trepidation about taking their kids to see Matilda The Musical if it might possibly frighten them. Ryness actually believes that is all the more reason to take them.

“Being scared is part of the human experience,” he said. “That has never changed. I believe as a parent that we shouldn’t run away from fear, and I don’t think we should shelter our kids from fear. Whatever scares our kids should be talked about.”

Ryness’ kids are age 5 1/2, 4 and 18 months. The oldest celebrated her 5th birthday watching Matilda the Musical on Broadway. Later, when the tour opened earlier this year in Los Angeles, she brought her brother to see their father’s debut as Miss Trunchbull together.

“They had been briefed, and they had listened to the cast recording, so they knew what they were getting into,” Ryness said. “My daughter totally took it in stride. She loved every second of it. What was interesting was that there were a few moments when my son was a little bit scared, but what was actually frightening to him were the lights and the sound. It wasn’t the story. It wasn’t seeing his father playing this tyrannical monster who is going around terrorizing these kids.

“But I think that’s what Roald Dahl, as well as the creative people who crafted this piece, do so well: There is just enough humor that for every moment that could be terrifying, it never gets out of control. There’s a safety.

Matilda the Musical is an excellently told story. It’s theatre of the highest quality in terms of its composition, in terms of its formatting, and in terms of its execution. So if people are scared, or if kids are frightened for a moment, just know that will turn into satisfaction and joy. What is that line from Lord of the Rings where Sam is trying to encourage Frodo to keep going? He says, ‘You actually want it to be hard, because it makes the end more satisfying.’ For good storytelling, and a good, satisfying piece of theatre, you want the bad guys to be bad, so that when the good guys win, it is so much more satisfying.”

“I am of the school that says the villain defines the hero,” he said. “And if you are laughing at the villain, the hero does not need to have as much substance. If I do a good job, then you are really satisfied when Matilda wins.”

Ryness suggested that parents use this pop culture icon as a litmus test: If you have shown the movie Star Wars Episode 4, A New Hope to your kids, he said, you can take them to Matilda the Musical.

“I don’t think anything that goes on on-stage is any more terrifying than anything that you would see in that movie,” he said. “The character of Darth Vader … the fact that Obi-Wan Kenobi is killed right in front of you? There is nothing we do on-stage that is any more terrifying than what you see in that film.”

And nothing has been more terrifying to Ryness than stepping into a woman’s boots.

“I definitely have a new empathy for anyone who is overweight  … and for women with enormous breasts,” he said. “I mean, anything that leads us toward more compassion is a good thing, isn’t it?” 

Matilda The Musical: Ticket information in Denver
Performing Sept. 9-20
At The Buell Theatre
Tickets: 303-893-4100, 800-641-1222 or  BUY ONLINE
Kids Night on Broadway: 6:30 p.m., Sept. 10
Accessibility performance: 2 p.m., Sept. 20

Bonus: How do you say it?

Bryce Ryness has a tip for how to correctly pronounce the author who wrote Matilda, Roald Dahl. Says Ryness: “You know how you can pronounce it and sound really cool? Think of it as R-O-L-L-E-D. As in, ‘I rolled it down the hill.’ ”

Bryce Ryness stars in the national tour of 'Matilda The Musical' as Miss Trunchbull, the evil, sadistic headmistress of the school Matilda's ridiculously boorish parents force her to attend. (Photo courtesy Matilda The Musical.)
Bryce Ryness stars in the national tour of “Matilda The Musical” as Miss Trunchbull, the evil, sadistic headmistress of the school Matilda’s ridiculously boorish parents force her to attend. (Photo courtesy Matilda The Musical.) 

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