Making 'Billy Elliot: The Musical'
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It's a tale about a coal miner's son who wants to be a ballet dancer against his father's wishes. The family drama plays out against a major strike in which the government is out to break the union. Sound familiar?
This scenario could have happened in Western Pennsylvania. But they're actually the dynamic threads that drive "Billy Elliot: The Musical," a quintessentially British production that hit the London stage in 2005, then moved to New York City in 2008, sweeping up a gaggle of awards, including those for best musical, book, score and choreography.
Most of those awards were generated by a trio of men who have worked together for over a decade -- director Stephen Daldry ("The Hours," "The Reader"), playwright Lee Hall and choreographer Peter Darling. They first assembled for the original film, a luminous effort sans music, in 2001.
When Elton John saw it at the Cannes Festival, he was so moved that he immediately sought out Mr. Daldry, urging the director to make it into a musical. Mr. Daldry wasn't so sure and neither were the others. Ever the wordsmith, John eventually persuaded the men to sign on for a workshop format.
Perhaps Mr. Darling had the hardest task of all in the transfer from film to stage. First and foremost, it was a ballet story, which would ideally generate a certain kind of movement. But that somehow had to connect to the underlying but equally important miners' strike, for the village men normally wouldn't be caught dead in a dance routine.
Mr. Darling had studied numerous forms at his local studio before he dropped dance to take up acting. Eventually, he found his way into a prominent British physical theater company, DV8. There he learned that movement could "make you weep or it could make you angry or it could be expressive in such ways that I, until that point, had never really come across."
So he didn't feel that ballet was the only avenue for "Billy Elliot: The Musical." Mr. Darling would go on to use tap, hip hop, jazz, acrobatics, a post-modern approach to walking and folk dance, which turned out to be the key to connecting the two vastly divergent worlds of ballet and coal mining.
What's even more amazing is that Mr. Darling had only done one musical, "Oh, What a Lovely War," which led to his selection for the Billy projects. But he was able to convince his partners that a broad mix of dance would work in the theater.
"When you're up against sequences which are mystifying everybody, everybody is just desperate for somebody to come up with an idea," he said in a softly rollicking British accent. "And the moment an idea starts to yield, everybody starts to go "OK! Let's keep pushing."
It also helped that the three men were "really good at arguing with each other," although "everybody was sort of fighting for what they believed the show should be."
That process produced a musical that arguably eclipsed the popularity of the movie with a broad range of universal themes like self-discovery, labor disputes, economic depression, recession, triumph over adversity and just being who you are. "Billy Elliot: the Musical" even made the surprising transfer to South Korea, with Japan, Germany and Holland waiting in the wings.
Nowadays it takes a small army to keep the production moving, including a resident director, two resident choreographers and a dance captain.
One of the resident choreographers, Matthew Prescott, is solely in charge of six boys -- five performers and one "training up" who will head the show. Most are veterans from the Toronto and Chicago productions and the first national tour.
His career contains parallels to the Billy story. Born in Idaho, he was the only boy in his local "tap and twirl" studio before heading to Interlochen Arts Academy. He went on to perform with The Joffrey Ballet, Alonzo King LINES Ballet and Karole Armitage before taking a break to work on Billy.
But, if Mr. Prescott were still 12, he would love to do the flying sequence. After all, that's the aesthetic behind ballet, to escape the earth's gravity. Although the musical number may appear effortless on stage, the boys have a grueling schedule to prepare, with tutoring throughout the day and ballet class three times a week. There's also a core cardio class for an hour a week and show "techs" (notes and a run-through of the Billy numbers). The boys do a half-hour warm-up before each show in which one performs and another plays the Tall Boy and is a stand-by. Mr. Prescott calls it "maintenance."
Never before has a boy been asked to do what is required of him as Billy, to sing and act in a Northern English accent in addition to performing all of the above dance styles. He must virtually carry a three-hour show on his shoulders.
Talking about the London premiere, Mr. Darling admitted that his nerves ran rampant.
"I shall never feel quite like that again," he said. "We had all sorts of things in place in case he couldn't get through the whole show."
Thousands of young men have since aspired to be Billy in just these past few years (see bebilly.com for requirements) and it has already changed the performing landscape. Britain's Royal Ballet has more male students now than any other conservatory in the world, according to Mr. Darling. Now ballet has "something that they've been able to refer to that makes it feel OK."
The staff is careful to make auditions a learning experience and, for those who are selected, a support network helps them to make the transition back into the "real" world, either school, conservatory or summer programs.
Mr. Darling was pleased to encounter one of his former London leads in New York City, where the young man was attending Juilliard to study acting.
"You can't help but be attached to the children and want to know how their lives go," he said.
The choreographer has also been affected personally as well.
"I'll never ever stop being grateful to 'Billy' and the boys who have done it," he said. "You can't have something like that charge into your life without it completely turning things around 360."
First Published January 29, 2012 12:00 am