"Huw is a scholar," Donald Crisp once observed of his last-born, Roddy McDowall, a boy too bright to follow the family business. "Why take brains down a coal mine?"
This mind-over-mine matter is age-old dramatic fodder — as old as John Ford's 1941 "How Green Was My Valley," in which these words were spoken, and even older if you count Carol Reed’s 1940 "The Stars Look Down" (which Billy Elliot obviously does count, since it's Elton John's first song in the show, opening at the Imperial Theatre on Nov. 13).
Billy Elliot The Musical is the latest creative spirit to sprout and, startlingly, flourish on the terminal turf of coal mines — in this case, those in northeast England during the bitter, brutally prolonged miners' strike of 1984–85. On another emotional planet at the time is our title character, a motherless lad of 11 who is drawn instinctually to the graceful movements he finds in Mrs. Wilkinson's ballet class for young girls and decides, against all odds and reason, to turn dancer — this while his dad and brother are strapping on riot-gear protection to do battle with the police at the picket line. When Billy Elliot played out all this angst and aspiration for the first time — at its 2000 Cannes Film Festival premiere — Elton John suddenly appeared before the producers a veritable and quite visual puddle, promising to turn their film into a musical should they so desire. "Naturally, we ignored that," cracked one Working Title Films exec — but, after two years of marinating, it seemed a perfectly sane, doable idea, so the company went hat in hand to John, who was still gung-ho on the project and proceeded to write what London critics called his best stage score yet.
To be partnered in this enterprise with John is sweet symmetry for Lee Hall, who based his original screenplay and musical book on his own embattled boyhood. His only relief from encroaching reality: bouncing up and down on his bed to Elton John songs. "That being the way out for me, the whole thing is sorta strange and circular."
Hall wound up at Cambridge studying poetry; his fictional facsimile found a place at the Royal Ballet, but their struggle to get there — sensitive soul vs. stifling surroundings — is the same. "I suppose everybody thinks their story is of no interest to anybody else," shrugs Hall, now 41, married with stepchildren, and a playwright (his latest, The Pitmen Painters, just played the National). "Billy started modestly and grew till it speaks to people beyond England. It wasn't planned like this, but I think it works because it feeds into some not-forgotten British literature about class and coming from the wrong side of the tracks, especially with literary or artistic aspiration."
Stephen Daldry has done almost a decade of directing Billy Elliot — first filming it, then musicalizing it for London, Australia and now Broadway. For the American company, Daldry filled the Elliot home with Gregory Jbara as the strike-strapped patriarch, Santino Fontana as the firebrand son and Carole Shelley as the grandmother, and in the crucial role of the dancing teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, the Olivier Award–nominated Haydn Gwynne, who originated the part in London.
"Haydn brings some extraordinary series of skills," says Daldry. "It's a thin line between the character's hardness and her warmth, and it was always the great difficulty to get that pitch-perfect. Haydn, for me, always had that, never veering off into sentimentality, actually keeping her hard as nails and at the same time having a huge emotional connection to this woman."
Another one of those late-arriving, fully formed London stars, Gwynne is gradually beginning to get a grip on her upcoming Main Stem bow. "I just woke up a few days ago to go, 'Omigod! I think I'm supposed to be starring in a Broadway show.' I'm terrified, excited, overwhelmed — in I-don't-know-what order."
But, of course, she comes thoroughly prepared: "I have my own personal backstory for this character. You don't necessarily find out literally, but you might guess at it. She's had a tough time and is essentially leading a disappointing life. Then — for a while, through this boy — she finds something inspiring and somebody to inspire. She's unsentimental, all-swearing, all-smoking, full-on and fun to play. But the real stars of the show are our children, as you will see from what they have to do. What Billy has to do — most people live their whole lives without getting a role like that."
James Lomas, George Maguire and Liam Mower rotated the title role in London and won a three-way Olivier as 2005's Best Actor(s). Stateside, the part is now shared by San Diego's Kiril Kulish, 14, Long Island's Trent Kowalik, 13, and Canada's David Alvarez, 14. Billy being Billy, brace yourself for lightning striking twice — er, thrice.