'Billy Elliot' Makes The Leap To Broadway The big-ticket Broadway musical, based on the surprise-hit British film, has its opening night Thursday. Jeff Lunden explains what's new and what's different — and how the story's focus expanded for the stage.
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'Billy Elliot' Makes The Leap To Broadway

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'Billy Elliot' Makes The Leap To Broadway

'Billy Elliot' Makes The Leap To Broadway

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This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. "Billy Elliot," the small British film about a boy from a mining community who wants to be a ballet dancer, opened in 2000 and quickly became an international sensation. Three years ago, a stage version with music by Elton John opened in London. And tonight, "Billy Elliot" the musical arrives on Broadway. And Jeff Lunden has the story.

JEFF LUNDEN: Rock superstar Elton John grew up working class in England, and had a father who didn't approve of his career. Sounds familiar? Well, Elton John was invited to see an early screening of "Billy Elliot" and found himself really relating to the story.

Sir. ELTON JOHN (British Singer, Songwriter): And the fact that Billy's father did come round, he was there actually when he became a star. I didn't have that. So it made me very emotional. And when we went to the party afterwards, David, my partner, said it would make a great musical, a stage musical. And we - we said, yeah, yeah.

LUNDEN: Well, not everybody. Lee Hall who wrote the screenplay grew up in Northern England during a miners strike that challenged Margaret Thatcher's government, and he was skeptical to say the least.

Mr. LEE HALL (Screenplay Writer, "Billy Elliot"): My first reaction was it was the worst idea I'd ever heard in my life. I guess when you write something, you can only see it in the way that you've done it. And 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.

(Soundbite of musical "Billy Elliot")

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Through the dark and through the homeland, through the night and through the fear, through the fight and years of hardship, through the storms and through the tears. And although

LUNDEN: What Elton John heard 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.

Mr. JOHN: Because it's the Northeast, and I have a great knowledge of Northeast British folk music, and also brass bands and stuff like that. Colliery bands were essential to mining communities. They all had a brass band.

(Soundbite of musical "Billy Elliot")

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) We will always stand together.

LUNDEN: Elton John and Lee 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, says Daldry.

Mr. STEPHEN DALDRY (Director, "Billy Elliot"): I think the biggest thing that we decided to do was focus as much on the community as on the kid. 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 also counterpointed by the struggle of the community.

(Soundbite of musical "Billy Elliot")

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) All together at once. Solidarity, solidarity, solidarity forever. All for one and one for all, solidarity forever.

LUNDEN: 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. Choreographer Peter Darling says the challenge wasn't finding a dance vocabulary for the kid, but for the adults.

Mr. PETER DARLING (Choreographer): And then I began to think how, in a world where they're rejecting dance, might they dance. 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.

(Soundbite of musical "Billy Elliot")

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Solidarity, solidarity, solidarity forever. Welcome to the working class, solidarity forever.

LUNDEN: Of course, the beating heart of 'Billy Elliot' is the boy - 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.

(Soundbite of 'Billy Elliot's 'Letter')

Ms. HAYDN GWYNNE: (As Mrs. Wilkinson) And please, please know that I will always be about to have know on you. Love you forever. Love you forever.

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

Ms. HAYDN GWYNNE (Stage Actress): I can hear the audience because once one of the rare moments of the show, that quite quiet 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.

(Soundbite of 'Billy Elliot's Letter')

Ms. HAYDN GWYNNE: (As Mrs. Wilkinson) It must have been a very special one.

Mr. DAVID ALVAREZ: (As Billy Elliot) No, she was just me mam.

LUNDEN: Gwynne has performed with 11 Billies thus far. The demands of the role are such that three boys alternate as Billy in the role in the New York production. One of them is 14-year-old David Alvarez. He was born in Montreal to Cuban parents, and he 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.

Mr. DAVID ALVARES (Actor): Oh yeah, well that was really hard for me, because, English is my third language. So, you know, I had to first of all learn how to speak proper English because I had a bit of an accent. And then, after I learned how to speak proper English, I could start my Geordie accent.

LUNDEN: And what's the Geordie accent like?

Mr. ALVARES: You can't really say it's English. It's more like dirty British language!

LUNDEN: Can you give me perhaps a few lines like Billy says?

Mr. ALVARES: Just because I like ballet, doesn't mean I'm a poof, you know.

LUNDEN: The musical has three big numbers that feature the child actor playing Billy, including "Electricity," where Billy tells the auditioners at the Royal Ballet School how it feels when he dances - and then dances how he feels.

(Soundbite of musical 'Billy Elliot')

Mr. ALVARES: (Singing) And suddenly I'm flying, flying like a bird like electricity. Electricity. Sparks inside of me, I'm free, I'm free.

LUNDEN: Peter Darling says the number is built not just to propel the narrative. He changes the choreography to showcase each boy's strengths.

Mr. DARLING: One of my big sort of pushes on the show is that you actually also really, truly go, my goodness, that child is extraordinary.

LUNDEN: Another extraordinary child will open in "Billy Elliot the Musical" tonight, but David Alvarez says he doesn't care. He's having the time of his life. And plans to play the role.

Mr. ALVARES: Yeah, pretty much until I grow too tall, or my voice changes.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of musical 'Billy Elliot')

SIEGEL: We've got more from Jeff Lunden's interviews with the creators of 'Billy Elliot.' Plus video of David Alvares' dancing at npr.org.

(Soundbite of musical 'Billy Elliot')

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) And we are strong, all together we will go as one, the ground is empty and all thus help. But we all go together when we go. We will grab thee - and we will strong.

BLOCK: You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR news.

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