Following the premiere of "Billy Elliot" at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, a sobbing Elton John, who by chance happened to be at the screening, had to be helped from the theater.
“It touched me so much,” he said. “The story is very similar to mine: Trying to be something out of the ordinary. Having a talent and wanting to break free from what your parents want you to do. Wanting approval from your father, especially when your father doesn’t approve of the profession you’ve chosen.”
Billy Elliot is the story of an adolescent who discovers he has a talent and passion for ballet, and pursues it despite the vehement objections of his father and the derision of his community, a coal-mining village in Northern England. Intertwined with Billy’s journey is the unfolding of the 1984 coal miners’ strike in Great Britain, an event so devastating that the repercussions are still felt to this day.
John was so moved and so inspired by the movie that he immediately envisioned the piece as a stage musical. Neither director Stephen Daldry, nor screenwriter Lee Hall, initially shared his enthusiasm, but John changed their minds.
“What Elton felt was very personal to him, and he understood the story from the inside,” Hall said. “One of my big concerns was to keep an emotional core. I also realized there was a tradition of musical theater that completely embraced all the things Billy Elliot is about. Going back as far as Show Boat, musicals have dealt with issues and politics. So I realized that the music from the mining communities – the folk songs, the hymnal singing – could provide a kind of soundtrack for this show.”
The musical puts a greater emphasis on the plight of the miners than there is in the film.
“What appealed to me most about doing the show was to have the opportunity to delve into the miners’ strike,” Daldry said. “That strike was one of the most important events in my life, as well as in domestic village politics. It’s not possible to exaggerate the cultural flowering that happened during that year in the pit villages. There was a real shift in consciousness for everybody involved in those villages, which is part of the sadness of the whole story. Because something extraordinary happened – and then it was wiped out as they shut down the pits. So we wanted to talk about the community and the family as much as Billy in the musical. The strike bookends the show. The theater lends itself to big, working-class anthems of struggle and loss. You can present that in a much more believable and moving way onstage than on film.”
The two strands of the narrative are so thoroughly integrated in the show that, in the end, each story is incomplete without the other. But making the miners more prominent posed a special challenge for choreographer Peter Darling: How could he create dances for characters who were so opposed to dance?
“You want to include them in the dances, because a musical can encompass a wider community,” Darling said. “But they make fun of dance, so how was this going to work? I started to think about when men dance. They do social dancing and folk dancing. So that’s where I started. And I believe that all human movement – walking, running, jumping and falling – is dance. If someone corrals it and gives it form, before you know it, it’s dance.”
Since opening in London in 2005, Billy Elliot the Musical has become an international phenomenon, the recipient of more than 70 awards. In 2009 the show won 10 Tony Awards, including best musical; Daldry won for best direction of a musical, Hall for book of a musical, and Darling for choreography.
“You can’t just look at Billy Elliot as a piece of theater,” Hall said, “because it actually transforms the lives of these boys. If there had been no Billy Elliot, if these boys had not been discovered for the role, then they would not have flourished in the way that they do. Their growth is almost a symbol, a metaphor at the heart of the piece. We actually demonstrate that it is possible, if everyone pulls together, to achieve something quite extraordinary.”
Billy Elliot the Musical will play June 19-24, 2012 at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit foxcitiespac.com!
Content Disclaimer: Billy Elliot the Musical contains profane language and some scenes of confrontation between police officers and minors.