It’s 8 April 2013, and the cast of Billy Elliot are about to go on stage in London’s West End. Earlier that day, the death of Margaret Thatcher was announced, and there is concern over whether one of the show’s numbers should go ahead.
When the musical was written eight years earlier, the lyrics “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher, we all celebrate today cos it’s one day closer to your death” echoed the depth of ill-feeling towards the former Prime Minister during the 1984 miners’ strike. On that day in April 2013, however, it felt a little raw.
“Some people said, ‘we can’t sing it because it will be disrespectful’,” says director Stephen Daldry. “And I said ‘Well, let’s ask the audience and put it to a vote.’ So we went out on stage at the start of the show and explained that we have a song which celebrates another Christmas because we’re closer to Margaret Thatcher’s death – do you think it’s appropriate for us to sing it tonight? And 99 per cent of the audience said yes.”
The idea of a stage musical having such a strong political core isn’t unheard of, but it is certainly unusual. The 2000 film version of Billy Elliot had captured both hearts and minds with its powerful coming of age tale, set against the backdrop of one of the most intense and emotive industrial disputes in recent history, but when Elton John contacted director Daldry and writer Lee Hall suggesting they turn the film into a musical, there was understandable scepticism.
“I couldn’t see how you could ever do it on stage,” says Hall. “Primarily because I thought finding a kid who would be able to dance like that would be a really big ask, and we were lucky enough to find Jamie Bell. So I had never considered it until Elton saw the film at the Cannes Festival.
“When he rang up and suggested it, I thought it was a terrible idea that couldn’t possibly work. But because it was Elton, I thought, well, he probably knows a thing or two about music, so I’ll give it a go.”
Hall’s assumption was that Bernie Taupin, John’s long-time collaborator, would be brought in for the lyrics, especially since Hall, although a respected playwright and screenwriter, had never tackled lyrics before. But John had other ideas.
“The first time I met Elton, I said who’s going to write the lyrics?,” recalls Hall. “And he said, ‘Well, you are.’ I was really surprised but he felt that because the show is written in my native north east England dialect, it needed that authenticity.
“So I was thrilled, and very nervous. But Elton was brilliant and understood that I was new to this. And rarely do you get a chance to have a more experienced collaborator as a first time lyricist than Elton John – it doesn’t come much better than that, so I was really lucky.”
Adding music and song to the story not only gave lead protagonist Billy some cracking numbers and dance routines, but it allowed Hall, Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling to bring the wider community far more into focus.
“Lee and I both felt that the only reason to turn the film into a musical, was if we could make it better,” says Daldry. “And one of the things we felt we could do better on stage was depict the community as much as the boy’s struggle. We wanted the struggle of the miners’ strike to be much more at the forefront of the storytelling, in a way that perhaps it wasn’t quite so present in the film.”
Both Hall and Daldry were first time filmmakers back in 2000, and felt that their long-held experience of stage work – and the passing of time – could make the musical a more successful vehicle for the tale.
“We wanted the politics to be much clearer,” agrees Hall. “Because a lot of political things in the film had to be cut out – not through censorship, but because it was our first film and we were inexperienced in how to tell a story and weave that in.
“But we really wanted the musical to have the point of view of that community, because although Billy Elliot has a fairytale structure, it’s also about some of the hardships those communities suffered. And enough time had passed between making the film and the musical to see what had happened to the mining industry, which had gone down to just a couple of thousand men – so it was much clearer what that historical moment in 1984 meant.”
Since opening in the West End in 2005, Billy Elliot the Musical has played to audiences of over 10 million people worldwide, the appeal lying not just in Elton John’s music or the huge political and social heart of the piece, but in Billy himself.
Watching a young boy of 12 sing, dance and act his heart out for over two hours, you’re left wondering where on earth they find such talented children (three Billys are cast for each show). The answer is, they don’t – the audition for Billy Elliot is just the start.
“They have to have contemporary dance skills of a really high standard, very good ballet skills, excellent tap skills, they’ve got to sing and they’ve got to act,” explains Daldry. “And finding a young boy with all those skills is almost impossible. So each child will come in with one or two of those skills, and over time – sometimes it can take a year, sometimes two years – they go through a training programme to get them up to a place where we think they can perform it.
“It’s a big process of nurturing, and each show is handmade each time. It’s re-thought and re-taught and always works around the skills of that particular kid, so it’s always different and new. No show will be the same as the next one, because the child will be different.” n
Billy Elliot the Musical, Edinburgh Playhouse, 20 September until 22 October