It’s an IQ test, which you failed,” says Tim Minchin. He calls over to his publicist: “Why didn’t you get me a smart journalist? You got me one of these stupid ones that can’t open a can.”
The multitalented songwriter / composer / comedian – big leonine face, magnificent mane, piano player’s biceps – is sitting at a table in a space above a gallery in south London. On it are two designer cans of still water. Minchin has to show me how to open one.
I get off lightly, though. In the next hour and a half, the 43- year-old will take down a major Broadway theatre producer, the Australian prime minister, Left-leaning virtue signallers, and, it might be said, America itself. He’s cross, verging on furious, but wry with it, and his mind leaps dizzyingly from topic to topic.
He’s glad to be back in Britain, though. The Northampton-born, Perth-raised, now Sydney-residing star lived here for eight years, until 2013, and misses us.
The night before, a friend threw a dinner party for him, and Stephen Fry, Claudia Winkleman and Jamie Oliver were there. He didn’t come up through the comedy clubs, he says, so he’s not really part of that scene, but he would say hi to Brian May, Ian McEwan and Zadie Smith if he saw them.
Minchin is here on a flying visit, during which he’s workshopping a new musical about the Seventies American atheist feminist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, with hot British playwright Ella Hickson (Oil; The Writer). But he’ll be returning next month to perform his new solo show, Back.
And, for now, he’s excited by his first starring acting role, as a dissolute 40-something piano player, Lucky, in Upright, the boisterous eight-part Outback TV drama. Coming soon to Sky Atlantic, it’s a wild road trip that begs to be binged.
Variety comes naturally to Minchin. Writing the music and lyrics for the RSC smash Matilda the Musical made him rich; the Telegraph called it “hilarious, moving and magical” and praised Minchin’s “delicious lyrical wit”. Nine years on, it’s still playing in the West End, but he has no plans to create its like again. “I don’t want to be the guy who writes children’s musicals,” he tells me.
He also grumbles about being pigeonholed as a comedian. Ever since he travelled from Melbourne to the Edinburgh Festival in 2005 and won the award for Best Newcomer with a show, Dark Side, that revealed his talents as a pianist and very funny songwriter, he has been expanding like the universe after the Big Bang.
He hasn’t even been able to find time to record the album of quirky songs – a bit like Randy Newman, he tells me, a bit like the Kinks – that he’s written, but has agreed to deliver it by February anyway.
Two years ago, though, Minchin was standing on a beach wondering where it had all gone wrong. His musical Groundhog Day, trailing praise and awards from its London debut at the Old Vic in summer 2016, had closed early on Broadway, and production was shut down on Larrikins, the $100 million (£80.7 million) animated film about a plucky marsupial that he’d moved to Los Angeles to make. It hit hard.
“I was really down,” says Minchin, “and I think Lucky’s got a lot of me feeling pummelled about him … I was very angry and really drained of mojo, like, I just really had this pervasive thought that I was done. America had successfully broken the magic thing that makes me able to have a dozen thoughts about a thing and throw myself into things … not just squashed it for a minute but broke it.”
It brought on a bout of depression, he says, “which I hadn’t really experienced before. I lost years of work. It made me feel like I wasn’t going to be able to create again. I slightly got reminded that actually people are [not nice] and they don’t care about your enthusiasm and your art – once you get to America and you start playing on Broadway with a $10 million musical.”
Minchin isn’t the only person who believes that Groundhog Day suffered in New York partly because of the surprise success in the same period of two other new musicals: Dear Evan Hansen, which is coming to the West End next month; and the 9/11 show Come From Away. “We went in late in the season. A couple of musicals had hit, and there’s just not room…”
But he also points to the fact that one of Groundhog Day’s producers, powerful US impresario Scott Rudin, withdrew from the production little more than a month before it was due to open in London, which led to the planned Broadway opening being pushed back from January to April.
Rudin told the New York Times, “The more it evolved, the more it felt that there was no way for me to do what I like to do.” Minchin sees it differently: “[Rudin] bailed on us, like took all his money and left.”
In any case, Minchin says, his own sense of merit is not based on bums on seats. “There’s almost an inverse correlation between quality and popularity,” he insists. “The greatest composer of musical theatre of our time, Stephen Sondheim, can’t run any of his shows for more than six months on Broadway, while Mamma Mia! is the most popular musical of all time.”
As for Larrikins, the DreamWorks musical that was set to star Minchin’s fellow Australians Margot Robbie, Hugh Jackman and Naomi Watts, it slipped away after Universal bought the animation studio in 2016 and pulled the plug on production. By then, it was already half completed, Minchin says, “We were 50 million bucks in. We had fully finished, animated, amazing sequences of songs produced by Hans Zimmer with Hugh and Naomi. They wrote the money off as a tax break.
“I don’t think any of it will ever be seen,” he adds, “because it’s not in [the studio’s] interests to let it be seen… I asked them: ‘Netflix wanna buy it, why won’t you sell it?’ and eventually [Universal president] Jimmy Horowitz said, ‘It’s schmuck insurance – if someone makes a lot of money out of it, we’ll look like schmucks.’”
Upright gave Minchin a route out of his misery, although this was compounded by a bout of midlife blues. “I don’t know how you went with turning 40,” he says. “It is a corner turn … your butt gets droopy, and you just start feeling a bit sore, it’s weirdly a big thing, and so – for the first time in my life – I’m having to really work on feeling happy.”
He puts a lot of this new anxiety down to his sense that, politically, the world has gone mad, as well as to guilt about his own privilege. “I have had this incredibly lucky life. I have a house where I can see the ocean and I have no financial worries and I get to do a job I love, and I’ve got healthy children and a beautiful partner, who I’ve been with my whole life, and I’m not happy… because I read the news.”
He’s had to tell himself that his sense that “I shouldn’t be happy, there’s too much suffering” is “bull----”. He and wife Sarah – they met at university – moved back to Australia at the end of his annus horribilis, with their children, Violet, who’s 12, and Caspar, 10. It was mainly for schools and to be close to family, he says, but also because he needed “to get my feet back on red dirt”. He wants to “put brakes on the famey thing”.
What sort of parent is he? “Ohh, absent,” he says. Does it feel like that? “Yeah, but I’m very lucky because my partner’s full-time on the ground and they function very well without me.” He circles back to the question. “I’m quite strict, I’m quite talky.”
I wonder how he gets on with being famous and married. He talks rather surprisingly about how it feels, as “a sort of plain guy” with “slightly s--- self-esteem”, to be suddenly desired. “Somewhere back then I developed a bit of my brain that does not like what’s in the mirror in a quite full-on way, maybe in a bit of a dysmorphia way,” he says. He had come to believe that people would only want to sleep with him “because they’re a bit sorry for me”, then discovered that wasn’t the case. “Choosing monogamy is probably the thing I’ve worked hardest on in my life,” he says.
The return home of this established atheist neatly coincided with Australia electing a proudly Pentecostal prime minister, Scott Morrison, of the Liberal Party. “That’s a nightmare,” he says. “If he was a highly empathic, intelligent person who went to church on Sundays I’d have nothing to say about it, but the fact that he has literally said we need to pray because of the drought, and basically rejects the conclusion of climate science, makes it hard not to say, ‘Well, of course you reject the conclusion of climate science, because you think Jesus is a magic man you can ask for rain – you obviously have been brainwashed to the extent that you don’t know how to think.’ ”
You can almost taste the dry red dirt in Upright, which follows Lucky’s struggles to return home to Perth, including a nightmare journey across 800 miles of desert wilderness of the Nullarbor Plain, with a piano and a runaway teenager, Meg, whose toughness and vulnerability are brought to life by young Milly Alcock.
Lucky is thrown into an unlikely partnership with Meg – a premise that some will inevitably find problematic. Minchin elected to tackle the issue head-on early in the drama to make any “Lolita doubts” go away. “It is a real pity that as soon as you talk about a female teenager, you think that has to be addressed,” he says, “because there’s no sense anywhere in the show [that you’re thinking]: ‘When’s this gonna get creepy?’”
Minchin has long been aware of the sensitivity of public opinion. “I’m not a stupid man and I’m not a narrow-minded man,” he says, “but you’re not born woke.”
He believes that the atmosphere is having an effect on even the most determinedly impervious, such as the gleefully offensive Ricky Gervais. “He is being honed by those pressures,” he says, “it is making him work hard.” But, he adds, alongside the necessary checks and balances that they bring, “the ‘woke police’ are distressing, childish, petulant and virtue signally, and definitely free-speech challenging.
“There’s a false premise in all this,” he adds, “which is that what we want to do is live in a world where no one is ever made to feel smaller than anyone else, where no one’s culture is ever touched by anyone else… there’s no end to cultural appropriation, y’know – should people stop using mathematics?”
He decides he’s talked for too long and hopes he hasn’t said too much, then leaves with a hug – “You probably don’t do those, you’re English.” Despite the doubts, it’s clear Tim Minchin is far from done.
Upright airs on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV later this year. Minchin’s Back UK tour begins in Ipswich on October 15