British director Stephen Daldry has found great success with a relatively small list of projects.
His career is not as steeped in credits as most directors, but everything he does seems to have a significant impact. His films number less than six, but among them are "Billy Elliot" and "The Hours," which have earned him two Oscar nominations. His stage productions include premieres that are likely to become part of theatre history, such as the first productions of Caryl Churchill's Far Away and A Number. He's only come to Broadway three times in the past 15 years, but those visits have been memorable. The first trip was to stage the Broadway version of his hit revival of J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls (onstage rain, sets falls apart). He won a Tony Award and so did the show. He returned in 1999 with David Hare's one-man show Via Dolorosa, in which Hare starred, garnering a lot of press at the time. Now he's back with what some critics have called the best British musical of all time, Billy Elliot. New York critics didn't exactly say that, but they came close. The show is one the few commercial smashes of a lean season. And Daldry worked hard for it. The director talked to Playbill.com about what it takes to keep multiple Billy Elliots and multiple Billy Elliots going.
Playbill.com: Many people wondered whether Billy Elliot would do as well on Broadway as it did in London, given the story's very British backdrop. Were you at all surprised by the positive critical and popular reception?
Stephen Daldry: We were, I think. We've never taken the show for granted, especially taking it into a very different cultural context. It was always going to be both scary and exciting. We had no idea how it was really going to play. We were more than delighted and more than relieved.
Playbill.com: The show is so big and technically complicated, and now you have it here and in London, with more productions likely to follow. Has caring for Billy Elliot pretty much taken over your life?
SD: I does take up a lot of my life. It's unlike any other show any of us have ever worked on. That's not just because of the technical requirements of the show, but because of the children. Playbill.com: Do you mean the finding of the children, or their training, or both?
SD: It's everything. It's the finding, it's the training and it's the maintenance of the children. We never stop auditioning. We're in a constant state of auditioning now to find more children for Broadway. At some point early next year we expect to open the show in San Francisco. So we're starting a whole new search for boys to play there. It's a long, incredibly involved and incredibly expensive process. It's not just the auditions. No child comes with all the required skills. So you have to put a child you're interested in into a training program. That means you have to start locating specific dance teachers, sometimes singing teachers, tap teachers, ballet teachers, depending on what the skill set is the child already has, and how you can augment them. Which means you have to source those teachers. They might already have those teachers, but more often they don't have those teachers. In England, it's much easier, because it's so much smaller. But in a country like the United States, if a child is in Houston, or Minnesota, you have to start putting time, effort and resources into making a training program that is evolved around what the child really needs. Putting that into place is a huge job.
Playbill.com: Will the three Billy Elliots in the Broadway production be staying for a while?
SD: I'd like them to stay there as long as they can. But of course, boys being boys, they grow into young men very quickly. How long they can stay is very much not in our hands.
Playbill.com: Do you think there's any chance that the show might follow the path of Hairspray or The Producers and go from a movie to a musical back to a movie again?
SD: Universal Studios are very keen, of course, to start the conversation of turning the musical into a musical film. I think it's an idea that Lee Hall, who wrote the screenplay and the lyrics and the book, and I kind of giggle at, rather than take seriously.
Playbill.com: There are so many remarkable theatrical moments in the show. I'd like to ask you about a few of them and where the inspiration for them came from. First of all, the long ballet sequence in which Billy dances with an older version of himself, and then flies above the stage. How did that moment come to be?
SD: Originally, when we did the show, it was called "The Controversial Ballet Sequence." (Laughs) That's what we all called it. And we called it controversial because we were not sure at all if this was a good idea. I think is was Lee Hall who said, "Isn't there always a dream ballet in the second act?"
Playbill.com: In every other musical, ever since Oklahoma!, it seems.
SD: Yes, with Carousel being one of my favorites of all time. We knew we couldn't have the grown up Billy at the end, which we had in the film. So I wanted to get some sense that you had a grown-up version of him and Billy could see him. And the dream ballet seemed like a wonderful way to do it. But when we first tried it out, it was more of an experiment.
Playbill.com: And the "Angry Dance" Billy does in the first act.
SD: The "Angry Dance" came out of the film, where I thought there would be some sort of number where Billy would dance in his father's boots, which in the show translated to tap shoes. I think we always knew the "Angry Dance" would be the end of act one, where he was going to dance his energy out of his legs, try to get rid of the dance. What's so funny about "Angry Dance" is so many of the abbreviations we used originally in rehearsals [were kept]. Now I look at the program and I can't help but laugh. Dad is just called "Dad." We don't call him by his name. Dead Mum is "Dead Mum." There's "Tall Boy" and "Small Boy." Our little abbreviations in rehearsal have actually become what the characters are called.
Playbill.com: The number "Expressing Yourself," in which Billy and his cross-dressing friend dance with huge dancing dresses is like nothing else in the show. How did that come into being?
SD: That comes about because, first of all, the number was written by Lee Hall, in wanting to enter Michael's world. When we started thinking about Michael's world, we wondered how that transformation would happen, in wanting to go into a child's world of big dresses and wild imagination. Again, in London, we were constantly experimenting with what that world might be. It just seemed totally appropriate that it would be a world of dresses and make-believe, something expressing his joy in just the fact of dressing up.
Playbill.com: For the big dancing dresses, did you turn to the costume designer, the set designer or both?
SD: A little bit of both, but essentially they were created by our costume designer, with a lot of help from the actors and a lot of help from Peter Darling in how they move.