'Billy Elliot' Makes The Leap To Broadway

David Alvarez i i

He just wants to dance: David Alvarez is one of three young performers alternating in the title role of Billy Elliot. David Scheinmann hide caption

itoggle caption David Scheinmann
David Alvarez

He just wants to dance: David Alvarez is one of three young performers alternating in the title role of Billy Elliot.

David Scheinmann

Scenes From 'Billy Elliot'

Haydn Gwynne and David Alvarez i i

Haydn Gwynne (with Alvarez) plays Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher who believes in Billy when his family doesn't. David Scheinmann hide caption

itoggle caption David Scheinmann
Haydn Gwynne and David Alvarez

Haydn Gwynne (with Alvarez) plays Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher who believes in Billy when his family doesn't.

David Scheinmann

Hear the Music

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Song
Letter
Album
Billy Elliot [Original London Cast] [Bonus CD]
Artist
Original London Cast
Label
Decca
Released
2006

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Purchase Featured Music

Song
Stars Look Down
Album
Billy Elliot [Original London Cast] [Bonus CD]
Artist
Original London Cast
Label
Decca
Released
2006

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Billy Elliot, the modest independent British film about a boy from a mining community who wants to be a ballet dancer, quickly became an international sensation when it opened in 2000.

One of its early fans: Pop-rock superstar Elton John, who saw an early Billy Elliot screening and found himself really relating to the story.

Like the movie's hero, John grew up working-class in England. And he, too, had a father who didn't approve of his career ambitions.

"The fact that Billy's father did come round and was there, actually, when he became a star, I didn't have that," John says. "So it made me very emotional."

At a party afterward, John recalls, his partner David Furnish suggested that Billy Elliot would make a great stage musical.

"And we all said 'Yeah — yeah!'" John remembers.

Well, not everybody. Lee Hall, who wrote the screenplay, grew up in Northern England during a miner's strike that challenged Margaret Thatcher's government. And he was skeptical — to say the least — about turning his story into a tuner.

"My first reaction was it was the worst idea I had ever heard in my life!" Hall says. "I guess when you write something you can only see it in the way that you've done it — that's the point of writing a screenplay, rather than, say, a novel or a play. So I thought it was impossible. But when I talked to Elton, he was very clear about why and how the music would work, and how that would fit."

What John heard, it turns out, was not typical Elton John music. He wanted to tell the story of people in a distressed mining town by utilizing elements of their own music.

"Because it's the Northeast, and I have a great knowledge of Northeast British folk music ... brass bands and stuff like that," the singer-songwriter says. "Colliery bands were essential to mining communities. They all had a brass band."

John and Hall wrote several songs together — including this one — to see if the idea would work. And then, they convinced the film's choreographer, Peter Darling, and the film's director, Stephen Daldry, to collaborate with them on the musical. One thing all four agreed on was to rebalance the story.

"I think the biggest thing that we decided to do was focus as much on the community as on the kid," says Daldry. "And maybe in the film the strike and the struggle of that community was in the background, and we wanted to put it much more forward in the narrative drive of the story, so that the struggle of the child was very much counterpointed by the struggle of the community."

In one extended musical sequence, the tensions between the coal miners and police are told in counterpoint to Billy Elliot's ballet lessons, where the boy discovers his talent and passion.

Darling says the choreographic challenge wasn't finding a dance vocabulary for the kid, but for the adults — the same adults who've been less than supportive of Billy's ambitions.

"I began to think how, in a world where they're rejecting dance, might they dance," Darling says. "And then I began to think about folk dances, and how folk dances are always acceptable. And I wanted then to think how one might merge the folk dance outside with, say, the ballet classes inside. I'm very interested in abstract things; jamming odd images together to see what the result provokes."

Of course, the beating heart of Billy Elliot is Billy Elliot — an 11-year-old who's lost his mother, whose father and brother are being crushed by the miner's strike, and who wants, more than anything else, to express himself in dance.

In one touching moment, Billy sings a letter his mother wrote to him while she was dying — and it turns into a trio, as Billy's ballet teacher sings it and is joined by the ghost of the mother.

Haydn Gwynne plays the ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson. She created the role in London and says she can tell the show has been connecting with preview audiences in New York.

"It's one of the rare moments in the show that's quite quiet," Gwynne says, "and people are — I can hear them blowing their noses. And that's just the men! You know, and the sniffing and the grappling for Kleenexes."

Gwynne has performed with 11 Billys thus far; the demands of the role are such that three different boys alternate in the role in the New York production.

One of them, 14-year-old David Alvarez was born in Montreal to Cuban parents and spent a year in a special training program to learn all the aspects of the role — from lessons in ballet and tap dancing and acting to mastering the Northern English dialect.

"That was really hard for me, 'cause, uh, English is my third language," Alvarez says. 'So, you know, I had to, first of all, learn how to speak proper English, 'cause I had a bit of an accent. And then, after I learned how to speak proper English, I could start my Geordie accent."

And what's the Geordie accent like?

"You can't really say it's English; it's more like dirty British language," Alvarez says. "Um, I mean, it comes from a mining town. You don't — you can't expect miners to speak proper English!"

The musical has three big dance numbers featuring the title character, including "Electricity," where Billy tells the auditioners at the Royal Ballet School how it feels when he dances — and then dances how he feels.

Darling says he didn't simply choreograph the number to propel the narrative. He changes the choreography to showcase each of the three Billys' individual strengths.

"One of my big pushes on the show is that you actually also really, truly go, 'My goodness, that child is extraordinary,'" Darling says.

Another extraordinary child will be onstage for Billy Elliot's official opening-night performance Thursday, but Alvarez says he doesn't care. He's having the time of his life.

And besides, he plans to play the role "pretty much until I grow too tall, or my voice changes."

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