Nine-year-old Ellie Biron was in Israel when she learned she had gotten an audition for the title role in Matilda the Musical at Walnut Street Theatre.
She was eating lunch with her family when her mom’s cellphone rang. Her nervous mom almost didn’t answer, but Ellie could tell from the smile on her mom’s face what had just happened.
“I’m thinking in my head, ‘Did we get an audition?’” said Ellie, who is in fourth grade at The Philadelphia School.
Matilda the Musical is based on the novel Matilda by Roald Dahl, which tells the story of a 5-year-old girl who uses her smarts and courage (her telekinesis powers don’t hurt either) to change her destiny. The musical will run at the Walnut Street Theatre from Nov. 6 to Jan. 6.
Ellie, whose family attends Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, and Jemma Bleu Greenbaum, whose family attends Congregation Adath Jeshurun, will split the title role.
“I love the book. I love the movie,” said Jemma, who is 11 years old and in sixth grade at Elkins Park School. “I saw the Broadway show, and I just loved it so much. I actually did a book talk in my fourth-grade class … on Matilda and I was pretending to be Matilda and … talking about my life and I had sang during the book talk, and my fourth grade teacher told me, ‘This is what you’re going to do with your life. I know that you’ll be Matilda.’”
Matilda is Jemma’s Walnut Street Theatre debut; she played Flounder in The Little Mermaid and Young Fiona in Shrek the Musical with Beth Sholom and the Adath Jeshurun Players, among others.
This is Ellie’s second show at Walnut Street Theatre; she previously played Molly in Annie.
When the two girls landed the role, their moms arranged a breakfast for them to meet. They made Matilda friendship bracelets and clicked immediately.
On their second meeting, Jemma went over to Ellie’s house, where the host asked her a question that helped seal the deal on their friendship: “Do you like American Girl dolls?”
They ran up to Ellie’s room and were having so much fun they even didn’t care about eating breakfast. They also came up with a special handshake, which they still do, they noted.
“I’m glad that it was Jemma who got [the role] and not anyone else because, I don’t know, we just have so much in common,” Ellie said.
The girls have spent three weeks rehearsing, and their schedule has been packed. They work on the show most days from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and from noon to 11 p.m. during the tech rehearsals. Both girls have not attended school and instead have tutoring one day a week.
Now that the show’s run has begun and rehearsals are over, Ellie will have her tutor come every day, while Jemma will go to school on Mondays.
“It’s difficult that I miss my friends and my teacher because my teacher’s being really, really flexible on my work and I do miss everybody there,” Jemma said, “but I also know that what I’m doing here is really important. I’ve made friends [on the show who are] as close as I am [with my friends] at school like Ellie.”
The memorization of the script, the songs and the blocking is a lot on its own, but the girls are learning other skills as well while they work on Matilda. They have worked with a Russian dialect coach and have practiced their diction.
They’ve also learned from Matilda herself.
“Matilda always says that if something’s not right, you have to put it right,” Jemma said. “You can’t just sit around. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from just the character Matilda showing me how to live my best self.”
Both of them dream of seeing themselves on Broadway one day.
“My mom always says, and I agree with this: ‘Work hard, do well in school, and if you get past that, you can fulfill your dreams,’” Ellie said.
Even though Matilda is a lot of work, it doesn’t feel that way, Jemma said. It just feels like she’s doing what she wants to do with her life.
“When you split a heart in half, half of it’s just my home with my friends and my family but the other half is really just theater,” Jemma said. “It really just makes my life complete.”
Before the interview ended and they headed off, the girls gave a little preview of the show, by bursting into the song “Naughty,” which they will also sing in the 6abc Dunkin’ Donuts Thanksgiving Day parade.
“But nobody else is gonna put it right for me,” they sang. “Nobody but me is gonna change my story. Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.”