When Elton met Billy

John recalls his emotional introduction to 'Billy Elliott'

by Chris Jones

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

17 March 2010


CHICAGO — In 2000, Elton John walked, unannounced, into a second-tier screening room at the Cannes International Film Festival. No rock-star arrangements had been made, no security provided. Accompanied by his longtime partner, David Furnish, John sat quietly in the back. He was trying to support independent British filmmakers, but he knew next to nothing about what he had come to see.

On the screen was an unlikely little movie, directed by a theater director named Stephen Daldry, about a kid who wanted to be a ballet dancer. The pre-adolescent boy had been born into a family of miners in North East England. The movie was then called “Dancer.” But Lee Hall, the screenwriter, had called the kid Billy Elliot.

In such blue-collar communities at the best of times, boys didn’t say they loved ballet with any hope of surviving the pummeling by peers. And this wasn’t even the best of times. Hall set the movie in 1984-85, as Margaret Thatcher, that famously unyielding former British prime minister, was trying to break the back of the very antithesis of Thatcherism, the National Union of Mineworkers. The miners were in the middle of a shattering strike. One they were destined to lose.

But in Daldry’s film, which included music from T. Rex, The Jam, The Clash and The Style Council, Billy Elliot just danced away from all that. And his dad, a man for whom entry into the Royal Ballet School was as foreign a journey as crossing a picket line, was the one who helped him fly.

John collapsed in his seat in a bucket of tears.

“He was inconsolable,” recalls Furnish. “I thought, ‘How the hell am I going to get him out of Cannes without him being photographed?’”

Simply put, John had seen himself, or an idealized version of his own relationship with his father, in Billy Elliot. And that’s how “Billy Elliot the Musical,” score by Elton John, came to London’s West End in 2005 (where it still plays and has been responsible for a massive spike in the number of British boys dancing ballet), to Australia in 2007, Broadway in 2008 and now to Chicago, where it begins previews Thursday at the Oriental Theatre.

“I always used music as my escape, just as Billy uses dance,” John says one afternoon, sitting in one of the bungalows at the Beverley Hills Hotel and observing that — wealth, celebrity trappings and newfound personal happiness notwithstanding — he is still dealing with the painful reality that his dad never really thought much of his choice of career.

“My dad never really came to see me after I had become successful,” John says, speaking rapidly. “He didn’t know how to be a good dad to me. My mum and dad married very soon after the war, when everyone was getting married, and they were so unsuitable for each other. My mum was really protective of me. But my dad and I never really got on. I reconciled with him later, after he remarried, and I took him to football games, when I was chairman of the Watford Football Club. But we never really clicked.”

In “Billy Elliot,” though, the boy’s father comes to understand what the arts mean to his child. Billy mostly just wants to dance. His dad is the one who takes the profound emotional journey.

“That,” says John, who is approaching his 62nd birthday, “was what I wanted.”

Back in Cannes, John pulled himself together enough to show up at the after party. There was Daldry, Hall and the film’s producers, a group that included Eric Fellner and Jon Finn. With the room agog at John’s unexpected presence, Furnish remarked that this movie — which was, after all, based on a performance art — would really work well as a stage musical. Heads nodded. Especially the famous head of Elton John.

Before long, he started telling people he needed lyrics.

“I don’t think Lee (Hall) had ever written lyrics,” John says. “But when I worked with Bernie Taupin, he would write the lyrics first, then I’d look at them. I’d spread them out in front of me, and I’d sit down at the piano and the song would come. That’s how I’ve always worked.”

So Hall, who indeed had never written lyrics in his life, started writing. “Elton works very fast,” Hall says, from his home in London. “I’d fax him the lyric in Atlanta, he’d meditate for a few hours or something, and then, about midnight, he’d call me up and play me the song on the piano, down the phone. Then about five minutes later, he’d get with his band, and there would be a fully made demo.”

Making the movie had been tough — Hall had shopped the screenplay around the BBC and beyond. Finally, Daldry took the project to Working Title, of which Fellner is co-chairman, and helped them wrestle the movie into being for about 3 million pounds. But now, with John writing the songs, raising the money for the more costly musical was less of a pain.

The politics of the show — with its implicit pro-union sympathies and overt criticism of Thatcher’s conservative government — caused ripples. With the notable exception of Willy Russell’s “Blood Brothers,” most modern British musicals shy away from class-based politics. One song in particular, a dark satire called “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher,” musicalizes the miners’ feelings about their nemesis. It eviscerates Thatcher.

“We all celebrate,” goes one line, “‘cause it’s one day closer to your death.”

“I played the score for this group of producers,” says John, chuckling. “One of whom was Cameron Mackintosh. He said, ‘You can’t do that. You just can’t do that in the theater.’ I said, ‘Why bloody not?’”

It stayed in.

Other than The Wall Street Journal, which attacked the show’s politics after the Broadway opening (“They said we were Karl Marx in a tutu,” mutters John, darkly), “Billy Elliot” has generally been seen not as a left-wing polemic, but as the story of a boy who wants to dance, and a father who must learn how to get behind his kid.

Albeit with the game-changing addition of songs by John, “Billy Elliot the Musical” was pretty much put together by the same people who made the breakout movie, who happened to have mostly come from the British theater in the first place. That’s unusual for a screen-to-stage transfer. But in many ways, this all-British crew is far removed from the commercial-musical team. Their collaboration was born mostly at London’s Royal Court Theatre, a citadel of new and experimental work, where Daldry served as artistic director.

As he revealed in numerous conversations, Daldry, in particular, is fiercely protective of the growing cadre of vulnerable young boys on whose 10- to 12-year-old backs the show must rest. And Billys have short shelf lives.

Nobody makes on-the-record comparisons among the different kids who play the roles (although one can discern a particular enthusiasm, mostly expressed as relief, for the new crop of kids in the Chicago show), and the production won’t be announcing which kid is doing the lead role in advance. If you read stories on the young actors playing Billy, you’ll likely be reading stories about all four of them at once. Incredibly, “Billy Elliot” managed to talk the typically stubborn Tony Awards committee into considering all three New York Billys as one best actor in a musical. They all won.

Those rules of engagement are locked into place by now. And the group has a certain disdain for the hype and gossip that typically surrounds big musicals, even though they have a juggernaut on their hands. “I compare it to people who fantasize about having a really successful restaurant,” Daldry says, “without realizing that such a restaurant is dependent on you always being in the kitchen.”

Daldry and his team may be in the kitchen. But there’s a boy out in the front room — or, rather, several boys splitting the performances. That has made “Billy Elliot” a much more complicated and expensive-to-produce show than its peers. There are four boys playing Billy in Chicago. They need tutors and wranglers. “And if they don’t have constant dance classes to build their stamina,” says Finn, the producer, “they risk getting injured.” All shows need technical and dress rehearsals. They don’t all need to repeat everything four times. But that’s what was going on last weekend at the Oriental.

That’s also partly why there has been uncertainty about how long the show is staying. When the show was initially announced, Finn said he intended to keep the show in Chicago for as long as the city wanted it to stay. But given its casting needs, “Billy Elliot” can’t turn on a dime. And very early box-office returns were, in Finn’s words, “a little scary ... given the cost of producing the show.”

And thus, when the Toronto production was announced last month for February 2011, the idea of moving the Chicago cast to Canada (after a 10-month run) became a more comfortable option. That’s still a likely scenario, but Finn says that if the Chicago box-office, which has been flying in recent weeks, really takes off after the opening, he could leave the show here and hire a Canadian cast. “We have about two months before we have to make that decision,” Finn said. “This show has always sold tickets based on word of mouth.” So far, that word-of-mouth has brought in some $380 million (some three times as much as the film).

The entire original creative team has been gathered in Chicago since January because the Chicago “Billy Elliot” is going to be different from New York, Australia and London (all of which had similar stagings). To a large extent, Chicago is the beginning of an international rollout that has been a long time coming. A second U.S. tour will bow in Durham, N.C., in a couple months. There’s Toronto. And there is also about to be a “Billy Elliot” in Korea. With a Korean cast.

The Chicago “Billy Elliot” (which does not feature Billy’s house rising up from an excavated basement and has a variety of new staging ideas) is to be the model for all of them. Future members of the creative team are in Chicago, watching.

“I’ve told Stephen (Daldry) he’ll be selling ‘Billy Elliot’ salad dressing before all of this is done,” John says. “There will be ‘Billy Elliot’ soap.”

So Chicago is the beginning of something, but also the end. This is the last time the original team will put the show together themselves from scratch. (Daldry has been mentioned as a likely director of “Dumbo” for Disney, and if that happens, he’ll surely be taking choreographer Peter Darling and others of his “Billy Elliot” team.)

All will check in on future “Billy Elliots,” which will still carry their names. But other people will be in the kitchens. “I suppose,” Daldry says, seemingly trying to convince himself, “that, after Chicago, I have to get on.”

Daldry says the new production now needs an audience to progress further. Although they’re careful not to slight their prior performers, several members of the creative team say they think the Chicago staging will be by far the best of all the shows they’ve done. They say that especially when they’ve had a couple of drinks.

“That ability to change the show is the only reason these guys have all come to Chicago and been willing to do this,” says Finn, who says “Billy Elliot” has taken up his entire professional life for the last six years, not to mention his heart.

“They’re all proud of it. And none of us really wants to leave it alone.”

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