Friday, May 06, 2005

REV: Billy Elliott on the West End

Billy Elliott is now a musical just out of previews on the West End. Complete story here from The New York Times.

For 'Billy Elliot' It Takes Three to Tango
Published: May 7, 2005

LONDON, May 6 - As an initial investment, $10 million may seem a lot to gamble on the dancing, singing and acting talents of three fresh-faced boys, ages 12, 14 and 15. But that's more or less the wager in the new West End show "Billy Elliot: The Musical," which opens here on May 12 after six weeks of previews. If the boys can work their magic, the production certainly has the credentials to do the rest.

The show is adapted from the hit 2000 movie "Billy Elliot," which grossed $120 million and received three Oscar nominations. The score is by Sir Elton John, who first suggested making it a stage musical. And the Britons who made the film are again involved: Stephen Daldry, the director; Lee Hall, the writer; Peter Darling, the choreographer; and Jon Finn, the producer.

The lump-in-the-throat plot has also survived.

During Britain's bitter coal miners' strike in 1984, young Billy is mourning his mother and caring for his eccentric granny while his dad and older brother join the picket lines. Sent to boxing lessons, Billy instead discovers ballet. His horrified dad and brother first say dancing is for sissies but are eventually won over. Billy makes it to the Royal Ballet School and becomes a star.

When it came to retelling this tale as a stage musical, however, the production team found things far more torturous than when making the movie, which was shot in seven weeks and cost $5.5 million. "If we'd known what we know now, who knows if we'd have gone ahead," said Mr. Daldry, an experienced theater director whose first film was "Billy Elliot" and who later directed "The Hours."

For both movie and musical, the principal challenge lay in finding the right Billy. Jamie Bell, the screen Billy, had to dance, but the dance sequences could be shot in multiple takes until they were right, and ultimately his acting was more important. In contrast, the three boys taking turns as Billy on stage must dance, sing and act well enough to engage an audience of 1,500 for nearly three hours.

To find the three Billys, Liam Mower, George Maguire and James Lomas, 3,000 boys, ages 10 to 14, were auditioned. Many had seen "Billy Elliot," but enthusiasm was not enough. They needed a treble voice and to sing in tune, a natural ability to dance or improvise to music, stage presence and, preferably, a working-class background and a northern accent. (The story is set in a mining community in County Durham.)

A short list of 13 candidates was sent to what was nicknamed the Billy Elliot School, a house in Leeds where the boys prepared for their final audition by attending weekend classes for four months.

With eight shows a week after May 12, it was never a question of casting only one Billy. By law each boy can perform five times a week, so the production could have managed with two. But to avoid exhaustion and to allow for a sprained ankle or a bad cold, three were chosen and a fourth, Leon Cooke, is already in rehearsal.

Then came the realization that having three Billys who sang in different pitches and had different dancing skills meant having three slightly different shows. In fact, because each Billy has his own best friend, Michael, and pal, Debbie, not to mention a dozen little ballet students in tutus, there are a total of 46 children in three casts. The other performers - Tim Healy as Dad; Joe Caffrey as Billy's brother, Tony; Haydn Gwynne as Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher; and Ann Emery as Grandma - are fixtures.

"This is a different kind of show, where the dynamic of the child is crucial," Mr. Daldry said between matinee and evening previews at the Victoria Palace Theater here. "You have to gear the show to the child as you might to any leading actor. In that sense, the show is child-dependent."


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