The villain of the hit Broadway musical “Matilda” is Agatha Trunchbull, headmistress of Crunchem Hall Academy. She’s a brawny, scary tyrant who bullies her pupils, grabbing one little girl by her pigtails and hurling her through the air.
But Trunchbull may have some competition in the nasty department at “Matilda.” Associate director Thomas Caruso “threatens” the children in the show and “makes them cry, ” even sending one to her dressing room in “hysterical angry tears, ” according to a letter sent to the show’s company managers by Alissa Zulvergold, a child wrangler who works backstage.
The letter, a copy of which fell into my clutches, contains a harrowing description of a rehearsal conducted by Caruso on Dec. 5, 2013.
“I heard Tom raise his voice at one point but I neither heard what he said nor what prompted it, ” Zulvergold wrote. “The children then exited and I noticed many were crying.”
One of the kids, Marcus D’Angelo, bites his right sleeve when he gets nervous. He was trying to control his little tic, but Caruso “called him out” on it, Zulvergold wrote. “Marcus was essentially inconsolable. It was painful to watch . . . He did not understand why Tom yelled at him.”
Also in “hysterical angry tears” was another child, Erica Simone Barnett, who evidently got in trouble because she was talking to Marcus during the rehearsal.
Zulvergold texted one of the show’s stage managers, Michael Altbaum, who rushed over to the theater to calm the distraught kiddies down. He assured Marcus and his mother that the little boy was not in trouble.
Caruso wouldn’t comment. But the producers of “Matilda” responded: “This was an isolated event about which the producers received conflicting reports; they pursued it, and it was resolved to their and Actors Equity’s satisfaction.”
Matthew Warchus, the director of “Matilda, ” defended Caruso.
“I see no cause for alarm, and we all entirely support the excellent work that Tom is doing at the theater. And needless to say we take the welfare of the children as the first priority on the show. We have been utterly rigorous in maintaining that.”
Zulvergold didn’t return my phone calls, but in her letter to the company managers, she wrote that Caruso’s behavior around the kids “has been going on for months. He’s the worst with the current Matildas but all the children are scared of him.”
Their parents, she said, don’t complain “as they think their children’s jobs will be in jeopardy.”
She added: “When I have to hand over all the children back to their parents in tears after a rehearsal I simply feel awful. The parents are very upset about this current situation . . . they want answers and I have nothing to say.”
Theater people who know Caruso say he’s a “good guy” and “very professional.”
They were surprised to hear about the accusations of bullying.
“If they’re true, I can only think it’s because he’s under tremendous pressure to maintain a very complicated show, ” one theater producer said.
Zulvergold comes in for some criticism by members of the “Matilda” company. They say she is “overprotective” of the kids, bordering on “the proprietorial.”
But she, too, has defenders in the theater world.
“I’ve known her for over 10 years, and she is not hysterical, ” says a veteran actress. “She’s very popular with all the kids she’s worked with.”
Zulvergold is known in the business as a “child wrangler.” She looks after the kids during rehearsals, making sure they do their homework, eat their little lunches and don’t get too rambunctious.
Wranglers have been all over Broadway lately, thanks to shows with kids in the cast — “The Lion King, ” “Annie” and the upcoming revival of “Les Misérables, ” with its poster girl, Cosette.
“Matilda” has 16 kids in its cast.
Zulvergold has wrangled tykes on “Beauty and the Beast” and “Dracula.”
But she claims she’s never encountered a situation like “Matilda.”
“I’ve been working with kids on Broadway for the last nine years and I’ve never seen anyone allowed to treat the children the way Tom does, ” she wrote. “No one should ever be allowed to bully children and certainly not on our show.”
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