As a 20-something, I have a lot of conversations with my friends about growing up, being adults, and how much it sucks most of the time. Life gets complicated after college, and it promises to just keep getting more difficult. Looking to the future can sometimes be a bleak exercise, where the road ahead seems either completely unknowable, or much too predictable. Either way, it looks pretty hopeless. I have often felt that way, but I got a jolt of hope recently when I went to see Matilda, the Musical on Broadway.
Based on the book by Roald Dahl, Matilda tells the story of a 6-year old girl. Little Matilda, raised by parents who alternate between verbally abusing her and maliciously ignoring her, takes refuge in the books that she has taught herself to read. She becomes frustrated, however, by the passivity of characters who sit back and let terrible things happen to them, “they never stood a chance, they were written that way. Innocent victims of their story.” Matilda refuses to buy into this. She loudly (seriously, the little girls that play this role are crazy talented) proclaims “Nobody else is gonna put it right for me, nobody but me is gonna change my story. Sometimes, you have to be a little bit naughty.” At the beginning of the show, it’s tough to imagine a happy ending for Matilda through all the crap that life has dealt her, but after this song you truly believe that this 6-year-old girl will do what it takes to be in control of her life. It’s also an encouraging reminder for anyone who feels like their choices have already been made for them, and that their life is already planned out. No matter how powerless you feel, you always have a choice.
The song that really caught my imagination was the wistful number that helps open Act 2, “When I Grow Up.” It’s sung by a group of young children, and it plays out like an extended daydream: “When I grow up, I will eat sweets every day on the way to work, and I will go to bed late every night.” My first reaction to this song was pure nostalgia. I missed being a kid, and wanted to go back to those days. But when I moved beyond that, I realized that the surge of joy I felt was not just a desire to return to childhood. It was a sense of the grand possibility of life. When you’re a kid, you dream about being grown up because of all the things you’ll be able to do. But when you actually grow up, you have responsibilities and commitments, routines and bills, disappointment and confusion. Basically, growing up turns out to not really be that great. Matilda reminded me that, even when I’m discouraged by my current situation, life is still full of amazing possibilities. There is so much more to see, learn, and try that I haven’t even thought of yet. For those on the road that looks dark and unknowable, it’s a reminder not to dread the unknown, but to celebrate the terrifying beauty of the Possible.