NEW YORK (AP) — The four girls who play the title role in the new Broadway musical "Matilda" have to always remember not to smile onstage. Backstage is entirely another matter.
Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro are an exuberant bunch, barely able to sit still during a break in rehearsal as they giggle over their love of unicorns, marshmallows, pie, gummy bears and french fries.
"People think that this is work, but it is not work to me. I'm doing something that I love to do, and doing something that you love to do is not really work," says Sophia, 9, who will share the role of Matilda twice a week with the others. "It feels like it's just one gigantic playground in here or like falling into marshmallows."
The musical, a smash in England, is based on a Roald Dahl story about a telekinetic child who must navigate past her disinterested parents and a malicious school headmistress to realize her potential. It is much darker than "Annie," another Broadway show that features a large child cast.
The four Matildas — one from New York City, two from the surrounding region and one from Pennsylvania — hadn't met before they landed the part around Halloween. All are making their Broadway debuts, but they're clearly no divas: Each politely raises her hand when she has something to say.
They spend long hours at the Shubert Theatre, sometimes sharing dinners and lunches, and running up and down stairs from one task to the next with a dozen other child actors. Like Broadway veterans, they confess that technical rehearsal flew by. They've had an occasional night out together, like a recent outing to see "Wicked."
Two Matildas are required to be in the theater for every performance — that day's understudy and star — and all four are being privately tutored so they keep up with schoolwork. They've also had to learn to speak in an English accent.
"It's been a little harder than I expected, but still awesome," says Sophia. "You can't believe that you're actually performing in front of an audience."
The start-and-stop process of rehearsal has led to plenty of inside jokes, a special handshake and even an appropriately off-kilter original song that they are happy to sing for a visitor — in Broadway perfect tone, of course.
"I just got eaten by a pie/so I guess I'll be digested," they sing with gusto. "But I wish I weren't dead/'Cuz then I would have a head/I guess I'll just lie in bed/and wait to be digested."
They jokingly say they are thinking of doing an album together. The suggested title? "The Four Matildas: Just About Pies and Unicorns." Saying the title aloud makes them crack up more.
The use of four rotating Matildas echoes the way it was done in Britain, to huge success. All four actresses in London were jointly declared best actress at the Olivier Awards, the most prestigious honor in British theater.
The American Matildas say they miss their friends, but have embraced new ones as the show gears up for opening night on April 11. While all have been onstage before, they understand that Broadway is the biggest so far.
"I feel like I'm a different person in a way because I kind of made my dream come true," says Milly, 10, whose credits include "Anything Goes" in Tampa, Fla.
"Matilda" is written by playwright Dennis Kelly, with music and lyrics by Australian comedian-composer Tim Minchin. It is directed by Tony Award winner Matthew Warchus and also stars Bertie Carvel.
The actresses say they connect with the musical's message of independence, its humor and imagination, and the complexity of the part, which requires some cartwheels in addition to a good pair of pipes.
Bailey, 10, says the role is hard because Matilda is bullied and feels alone. "We really feel bad for her because we realize how hard it is for her to live like that," she says. "But she always does something about it, which is pretty good."
Oona, 10, agrees: "It's really cool having this role because it's almost like a magical way of telling a lesson."
All four say one of the biggest things they've had to work on is not the dancing or singing or acting but trying to stay in glum character and not smile even as hundreds of people in the theater erupt with laughter.
"It's hard and easy at the same time," says Bailey. "It's easy not noticing them but it's hard when they laugh because it makes you want to laugh, too. It's hard not smiling with them."
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