"Born to Boogie": Billy Elliot Readies for Broadway

News   "Born to Boogie": Billy Elliot Readies for Broadway
 
Billy Elliot, the smash-hit London musical based on the uplifting 2000 film of the same name, is currently preparing to electrify Broadway audiences this fall at the Imperial Theatre.
Broadway's Billys: Kiril Kulish, David Alvarez and Trent Kowalik.
Broadway's Billys: Kiril Kulish, David Alvarez and Trent Kowalik. Photo by Peter Lueders/ Paul Kolnik Studios

Now in its fourth year in the U.K., Billy Elliot-The Musical has grossed roughly $175 million between its London and Australian productions and has been seen by 2.3 million people.

With a score by Elton John and the creative team from the film — including screenwriter and lyricist Lee Hall, director Stephen Daldry, choreographer Peter Darling and producer Eric Fellner — Billy Elliot–The Musical will greet American audiences at the Imperial Theatre Oct. 1 with an official opening scheduled for Nov. 13.

In the late 1990's playwright and screenwriter Hall sent a script to Working Title Films president Fellner. The script, about a young boy in a depressed northern England mining town who longs to dance, was not an immediate seller. "We thought, 'Well, there's no reason to make this into a film whatsoever, so why bother reading it,'" Fellner said at the recent Billy Elliot press event.

Fellner and his partner, however, did read the script and despite their trepidation that "it had no obvious commercial life whatsoever," Working Title Films opted to produce the compelling film, says Fellner.

Nominated for three Oscars, the 2000 "Billy Elliot" film garnered a host of awards and many fans across the world. Among them was Elton John, who was so moved by the film during its Cannes Film Festival premiere that he approached director Daldry and the film's creative team about adapting the property into a musical. It took two years for Daldry, Fellner and Hall to seriously consider Billy Elliot as a musical. Hall, who, prior to Billy Elliot, had never penned lyrics describes his initial meeting with Elton John: "When I met him, I thought he would say, 'Oh yes, we'll do the musical, but I'll get Bernie Taupin.' But he said, 'No, you must do it.'"

Hall admits to being "terrified," but John advised him to start from the beginning of the script and assured him that it would flow naturally, which it did. "I guess because I knew the characters so well, because I knew the world of the story," the lyrics came naturally, Hall says. "A lot of the songs came from speeches in the movie, and we just then slightly altered and filled [them] out to become lyrics."

He adds, "The great thing about musicals is that you can say things that you couldn't possibly say in a film or in a play because the music allows you a bigger emotional range. It was fantastic to be able to fill out all those things that in a movie you're always cutting back, and here you could really go to town on."

Inspired by his own upbringing on England's northern coast, the musical incarnation of Billy Elliot has brought many parts of Hall's life full circle. "When I grew up at that time," Hall recalls, "I was kind of dancing in my bedroom to the Elton John songs of the day and had all his albums. . . . [And, now I'm at] the end of the piano, watching Elton set music to my lyrics. Because it was about my childhood, loving Elton John and music and that being a way out for me, the whole thing is very sort of strange and circular."

Many critics have said Billy Elliot features Elton John's best stage score. Hall acknowledges that "at the heart of the musical is, of course, Elton John's music. What he managed to do was to take the popular idioms of the place where I grew up and create songs using these different forms from the community."

Hall and his collaborators have been sensitive to ensure that characters of Billy Elliot, with their Geordie accent and North England vernacular, aren't foreigners to Broadway audiences. Although the creative team has been refining moments that may not be clear dramatically or culturally, Hall says, "It was very important to us to keep the integrity of its setting and what it's about. You know, a Broadway audience is a really sophisticated audience, probably the most sophisticated in the world . . . Most of our changes are nothing to do with the cultural differences but really trying to dig deep and . . . have a show that really works here."

The Billy Elliot creative team also notes that the musical has continued to evolve since its 2005 London bow and its recent Australian premiere in late 2007. "It's always changing and always growing, and we're always discovering new ways of doing things, new ways of sort of clinching moments," Hall explains.

The Broadway company, featuring a trio of Billys (David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish) as well as Carole Shelley (Grandma), Gregory Jbara (Dad), Santino Fontana (Tony) and original London cast member Haydn Gwynne (Mrs. Wilkinson), has also provided Lee and his collaborators an opportunity to take a fresh look at their characters.

"There are loads of opportunities to write for the specific actors, and just hearing the last two weeks of rehearsal and them tackling the parts, I can see opportunities to make things tailored to them. . . . That's what's great about the way we work — it's quite an organic process really. And rehearsing with a lot of people who don't share the background, you know, the Northeast of England and what everything means, really forces you to ask questions about anything that isn't clear," Hall concludes.

Scenic designer Ian MacNeil also relishes the opportunity to revisit the work: "I love going back to shows that I care about because you get another crack at it," he says. "And, designing a new musical is really hard because it's being written as you do it, but the deadlines for the delivering of the design for the scenery never match the deadlines for the writing, and obviously, it's a thing in flux."

MacNeil had the task of creating a cohesive world where all of the small scenes from the film could be translated to the stage. "We were anxious not to trundle scenery around a lot. There are short scenes, long scenes, and it's important to stay inside Billy's head and to stay with Billy all of the time," he says. "Things just kind of move discretely around him, and I think the audience doesn't notice, and I think that's quite an achievement — to go from one large location to another and really have the audience not be thinking about that but be thinking about the experience Billy's just had and the experience he's going into."

Ready for new experiences are Billy Elliot's three young stars, who have recently returned from London to train for their Broadway debuts. "It was wonderful. I loved London. It's very different from New York. It's a wonderful city, and I loved the rehearsals," said David Alvarez.

Long Island native Trent Kowalik, who was performing the title role in Billy Elliot in London, said, "I think the biggest difference [between London and Broadway] is the actors and actresses [are] different people . . . And, [on Broadway], I have to make my accent a little bit more clear so that the people in America can understand it."

When asked if he had a certain moment he loved best in the musical, Kiril Kulish offered, "I think I love everything about it because everything is so different. There's joy, happiness and there's, you know, sad emotion. I think all of it's great — to combine everything together. I that's what makes the show the most unique."

Hadyn Gwynne and Stephen Daldry
photo by Carol Rosegg

Also making her Broadway debut will be Olivier nominee Haydn Gwynne, who originated the role of dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson in the show's London cast. "I suppose I always knew that there was a technical possibility that I might do it [on Broadway]," Gywnne says, "but to be honest, if I'd had to put money on it, I did not expect to come and do it… Although it's been talked about, and we thought it was probably-possibly-probably going to happen, it didn't become definite 'til recently. So, I can't quite believe I'm here to be honest." Though she performed the role of Mrs. Wilkinson for 15 months in London, Gywnne has had a two-year absence from Billy Elliot and describes the challenges of returning to the role in a new production: "I've never come back to a role before. Quite a bit of it has changed. . . There will be new challenges for me because our very brilliant choreographer Peter Darling is changing a lot of the choreography to suit his new performers."

The new choreography includes a tap-based number incorporated to showcase the hoofing skills of Trent Kowalik. Though Gwynne is portraying his dance instructor, it looks like Billy may have a thing or two to teach her, Gwynne reveals. "I'm not a tap dancer," she says, "so I'm having to learn that from scratch, and I'm completely, completely terrified. I haven't got quite long to get some really big new stuff under my belt. So, I'm not sitting back on my laurels and thinking, 'Oh yeah I can do this, this is easy-peasy,' 'cause it isn't. This is really hard."

In addition to helping Billy discover his talents as a dancer, Mrs. Wilkinson also becomes a surrogate mother for the young boy. About playing opposite numerous Billys, Gwynne says, "I have children. I'm a mother to each of my boys, but there are differences. I can't describe what those differences are except that it's one of the nice things about the show. One of the challenges of doing eight shows a week is keeping it fresh, and by having different children and different Billys, there is variety within it. And that's a positive, no doubt, about it."

Tony Award winner Carole Shelley will create the role of Billy's grandmother for the Broadway production. "She's just wonderful," Shelley says of her character. "I find that she's a very memorable part of Billy's life, and the song that I have to sing, my 'Grandma's Song,' is such a revealing portrait of this woman who adores Billy, was unhappily married for 33 years [and is] now a widow. [She] hated her husband. The only time they were happy was when they went dancing, when all the nasties would fall away and they would love each other for three hours."

When asked if she had been a fan of the 2000 film, Shelley quickly responds, "Oh God, yes. I've seen it many times; in fact, I think I have a copy of it." The actress had also attended the London production and recalls, "I came back and I said, 'I want to be in that. When they bring it to New York, I want to be in that.' So, I auditioned at the beginning of this year, and low and behold, I got it!" One of Billy Elliot's strengths is the musical's use of choreography to provide a means of expression and escape for its characters. Choreographer Peter Darling, who received an Olivier Award for his work, has incorporated traditional dances from Eastern and Russian folk dancing as well as clog and English morris dancing. Darling, who also choreographed the film's athletic dances, is currently at work putting the musical's young cast through the demanding choreography that has audiences jumping to their feet in London and Australia.

As challenging as the work may be for the cast, Darling is constantly refining and creating moments to showcase the skills of each new Billy. He remarks that most of the boys arrive "heavy in one discipline," perhaps street dancing or ballet dancing, and then must learn to incorporate the various styles and techniques employed in the show, including acrobatics.

"It's very hard on them," Darling says, "but I think one of the things that I always try and work from is [each boy's] strength — and then from that strength work outwards and always remind them, that whatever we do, we're always telling a story."

"It was an astonishing level of skill," Darling says of the New York auditions for Billy Elliot. For Broadway, Darling selected three boys who come from different dance backgrounds. "Kiril is what I term a ballet boy," Darling says, "but his training is very much in the Russian training, and so his inclination is toward much bigger movement, more tricks, as opposed to someone like David who trained at [American Ballet Theatre], and his technique suits a different kind of movement. You're always trying to make them look as good as you possibly can. Neither of them had ever tap danced in their life before, so that's been a huge challenge for them. Trent is an Irish step dancer, who has learned to become a ballet dancer and is trying to sort of adapt his technique to ballet, [which] is sort of a struggle."

Due to the rigors of the show and the fact that the Billys are always outgrowing the role, Darling and his team will begin casting replacements for the Broadway company in the next few weeks. However, it looks like there will be a long line of boys ready to dance their way onto the stage. "The thing that I feel proudest about," Darling says, "is that the Royal Ballet School in England is the only conservatoire in the world that has more boys than girls in their year intake, and they attribute that directly to Billy Elliot. Very few things you're involved in have a real [influence]. . . And the film does seem to have changed the way that boys can say, 'I want to be a ballet dancer like the kid in Billy Elliot,' and somehow that's okay."

Lee Hall, who originally created the phenomenon that is Billy Elliot, summarizes the experience by stating, "Ultimately, it's about the kids. It's kind of like watching the most expensive school play ever because you go through the three hours, and you cannot believe that the kids have actually managed to do this. It's an incredible feat, and it's by far the most special thing I've ever been involved with. . . . What these kids manage to achieve is the meaning of the musical, and I'm always moved and humbled by what they do."

For more information, visit BillyElliotonBroadway.

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The cast of Billy Elliot also features David Bologna and Frank Dolce (Michael), Stephen Hanna (Billy's Older Self), Joel Hatch (George) Leah Hocking (Mum), Thommie Retter (Mr. Braithwaite) and Erin Whyland (Debbie).

The ensemble comprises Juliette Allen Angelo, Tommy Batchelor, Kevin Bernard, Grady McLeod Bowman, Heather Burns, Maria Connelly, Samantha Czulada, Kyle DesChamps, Eboni Edwards, Brianna Fragomeni, Greg Graham, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Eric Gunhus, Meg Guzulescu, Izzy Hanson-Johnston, Keean Johnson, Aaron Kaburick, Donnie Kehr, Cara Kjellman, Kara Klein, David Koch, Jeff Kready, Stephanie Kurtzuba, David Larsen, Caroline London, Merle Louise, Marina Micalizzi, Mitch Michaliszyn, Matthew Mindler, Tessa Netting, Daniel Oreskes, Jayne Paterson, Liz Pearce, Corrieanne Stein, Jamie Torcellini, Grant Turner and Casey Whyland.

Billy Elliot features choreography by Peter Darling, scenic design by Ian MacNeil, costume design by Nicky Gillibrand, lighting design by Rick Fisher and sound design by Paul Arditti. Producers are Universal Pictures, Working Title & Old Vic Productions and Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Jon Finn and Sally Greene. Angela Morrison and David Furnish are executive producers.

David Alvarez, Hadyn Gwynne, Kiril Kulish, Gregory Jbara, Trent Kowalik, Carole Shelley and Santino Fontana.
David Alvarez, Hadyn Gwynne, Kiril Kulish, Gregory Jbara, Trent Kowalik, Carole Shelley and Santino Fontana. Photo by Carol Rosegg
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