TCU grad takes starring role on Broadway’s "Matilda the Musical"
Broadway actor Ben Thompson says TCU paved his path toward musical theater
A part in the ensemble for TCU’s 2000 production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" convinced Ben Thompson that musical theater was his passion.
“It was like I found my home,” Thompson, a 2003 TCU alum, said.
Following "Jesus Christ Superstar," the theatre major started dreaming about Broadway, and on March 18, he got his first starrring role on that famed New York strip, playing the villainous Miss Trunchbull in “Matilda the Musical” at the Shubert Theatre.
“It’s crazy to be performing on a stage where I was once in the audience, dreaming of being up on the stage,” Thompson said.
Thompson isn’t the only Horned Frog who has graced Broadway. He joins a group which includes alumni such as Carman Lacivita, who acted alongside Kevin Kline in “Cyrano de Bergerac," and Jonathan Fielding, who worked with Claire Danes in “Pygmalion.” Tony award winner Betty Buckley, who also starred in the classic TV show “Eight is Enough,” attended TCU as well.
Nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical in 2013, "Matilda the Musical" is the story of a young girl who overcomes the obstacles set by her abusive parents and Miss Trunchbull, the big-bodied and terrifying headmistress of Matilda’s school.
Thompson, 34, is taking over the role following the departure of Miss Trunchbull’s previous actor, Chris Hoch. Actor Christopher Sieber, who was originally meant to take over from Hoch, broke his hand during rehearsals. Thompson is filling in until Sieber recovers.
“Every chance you get to perform, every audition you have, is an opportunity to learn something about yourself,” Thompson said.
Finding the spotlight
Thompson grew up in Tulsa, Okla., where he was an athlete, playing everything from football, basketball, soccer and track, all while balancing theater on the sidelines.
Once he was cast in the ensemble of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” however, theatre took center stage.
“I can honestly say that was the first time I ever looked forward to going to class in my whole life,” Thompson said.
One of Thompson’s former theatre professors, T. J. Walsh, said Thompson always came to class prepared, bringing in a serious work ethic mixed with a friendly personality.
“He’s the kind of student that you want when you’re a teacher—independent but ready to learn,” Walsh said.
Film-television-digital media professor Richard Allen said he saw Thompson in “My Fair Lady” at TCU. Thompson played Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Eliza Doolittle’s love-struck suitor, who sang the solo “On the Street Where You Live.”
“Ben blew me away,” Allen said. “He stole the show.”
Thompson’s performance showed the same caliber as any performance he had seen on Broadway, Allen said.
Senior year arrived and Thompson's mind was set on one goal. When he performed at his senior jury, his jurors asked: “What do you want to do?”
“I’m moving to New York. I’m going to be on Broadway,” said Thompson.
A week after graduation, Thompson said he packed up his things in Fort Worth, made a stop in Tulsa and then drove straight to New York—all within a three-day span.
Stepping toward Broadway
Thompson’s first Broadway role came through the fledgling musical “American Idiot.” The musical, penned by punk rock band Green Day, was in early workshops in New York when he snagged a role in the ensemble.
The show moved to the Berkeley Repertory Theater in California, where it met a sold-out crowd, received positive critical response and broke box office records.
When the show moved to Broadway, Thompson, too, made his Broadway debut. In 2010, “American Idiot” received a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Musical.
The second Broadway musical Thompson joined would be nominated for Best Musical as well—that’s “Matilda,” where he now stars as the villain.
He isn’t certain as to what his “dream role” on Broadway is, but Thompson said Miss Trunchbull comes pretty close to it.
Before the show, Thompson arrives at the theater an hour and a half early to warm up alongside the child actors. Then, safety checks are made up until about 45 minutes before curtain.
Thirty minutes before the show, his transformation into Trunchbull begins. His wig comes first, then the shoes. Shoes go on before the fat suit, because once he’s in it, Thompson can’t bend over.
As for his makeup, Thompson’s regime includes gluing on warts and painting his teeth brown.
Finally, Thompson takes the stage, and his reign of terror begins.
“I love playing that part,” he said. “She’s absolutely insane.”
Always a Horned Frog
Even in New York, Thompson said he still proudly represents his Horned Frogs. He refers to TCU as “home,” despite hailing from Tulsa, and is a die-hard TCU football fan.
At his Trunchbull dressing room, there’s a large horned frog on the door. An array of purple and white filled his old dressing station, which was plastered with TCU Fathead stickers, while a TCU gnome hung from the ceiling.
Thompson said TCU taught him “what it means to be a good human, not just a good artist.”
“I would never change my experience that I had at TCU,” he said. “It made me into such a well-rounded individual.”