PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Billy Elliot — A Balletic Leap for Broadway

By Harry Haun
14 Nov 2008

Others populating the Elliot household include Billy's dotty granny (Tony winner Carole Shelley), his firebrand bro (Santino Fontana) and, on a clear day — and particularly troubled days — the ghost of his dear, departed mum (Leah Hocking).

"Until I came to New York, I hadn't really been in a musical so I hadn't really sung on stage," confessed Fontana, who has certainly made up for lost time with roles in the recent revivals of The Fantasticks and Sunday in the Park With George. "That's actually one of the great things about this part of Tony — that I don't sing that much.

"I did a lot of work at the Guthrie. One of the guys who worked on my Hamlet was here tonight — I gave him one of my tickets — and he said, 'It's kinda like Hamlet, except you get all the highs that Hamlet gets but you don't have any of the stage time.' He's right. When I come on, I'm getting on to a finely tuned treadmill and do these things. I'm in a Greek play, and everyone else is in a musical. I've had many freaking-out conversations with Stephen Daldry, saying 'Why is this so hard? I'm not on that much. It should not be that hard. I've done harder things than this.' And he said the reason it's elusive is because when I come on stage I'm the dark cloud. I have to remind people of reality and it's not always fun — but neither is what these people went through. So I like to get to go to bat for them and tell their story."

One of the casualties of the play's reality — but a stubborn survivalist all the same — is the aforementioned Mrs. Wilkinson, the second-rate ballet-school mistress who spots Billy's balletic potential and ushers him into an audition with the Royal Ballet.



Haydn Gwynne, who earned an Olivier nomination for the role and got special Equity permission to reprise it on these shores, is the lone cast carryover from the original London production, so she knows her way around the sharp and angular Mrs. Wilkinson pretty well. "She's a truth-teller, isn't she?" she beamed blissfully.

 

John Stamos, Rachel Weisz, Christine Taylor and Ben Stiller, Kevin Spacey, Joel Grey, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Cindy Adams, Ron and Cheryl Howard, Byran Batt, Deborah Cox, Billie Jean King and Mark Indelicato
photos by Aubrey Reuben

"I like how ballsy she is. She takes no prisoners. She says what she thinks. She is incredibly rude with the children, but there is a true heart there unseen. Although she's living something of a disappointed life — as most people do, at some level — she's still got it in her when she sees something that she can still inspire —Billy — and be inspired by him. I love that it's all there, but she doesn't indulge it."

A tall drink of Perrier, Gwynne was glamorously decked out at the after-party in midnight blue silk mikado sheath with an organza portrait collar and center slit on skirt (thank you, Michael De Paulo for Kleinfeld); stylist Karen Kleber picked the jewelry (Verdura) and handbag (Michael Teperson). Clearly, she was dressed for her Broadway debut. "I'll never be able to make my Broadway debut again," she offered by way of an explanation. But then, from this point on, she's a Broadway star.

Mrs. Wilkinson's opposite number is George, the boxing coach who shares the same union hall space. Joel Hatch (late of Off-Broadway's stark Adding Machine), who plays this character, explained how these two diametrically opposed disciplines came to roost under the same dilapidated roof: "During the time the strike took place, Margaret Thatcher shut the schools down. She not only punished the union workers, she punished their children as well. And because the schools were shut down, the strikers tried every way they possibly could to educate their children. The dance class, the boxing class — that was just a couple of things that would happen in one of those union halls during that strike. Everyone chipped in to do the best they could, and some of us weren't as good as others. Stephen Daldry tried very hard to show this community not just as heroes but as real everyday people, warts and all. I think my character is the warts part."

Prominent among the oppressed strikers is a manly bruiser named Big Davey. "To me, he's the heart and soul of the miners," said the actor playing him, Daniel Oreskes. "He represents their emotional form. He's got a big heart. He fights for his people. He's very loyal and expects that from everyone else, and he doesn't give up."

One of the most striking things about Billy Elliot the musical and "Billy Elliot" the movie is how they tell the same story but get there in radically different ways that are true to their respective media. Explained Hall, who is more playwright than screenwriter: "Even though we made the film, everybody was a theatre person and we have the same team. There's a poetry you can do on the stage that you can't do on film, and you can do many things at once on stage, and we tried to embrace that as best we could. What's lovely is that it still cuts across cultures and across time."

To thine own self, Hall was true, recycling huge chunks of his film script. "Because I also adapt other people's work, I think I'd have been much less faithful doing someone else's. I had the confidences to go different places since it's my own work."

What is it about his Billy Elliot that audiences respond to? "I think the key to the experience is the kids because the kids are really there. There's nothing fake about the experience of watching this show. They are, dancing in front of me, living kids.

"The story is about aspiration and determination, determining your own life, the force of community and themes about hardship and working in a time of distress."

And has Hall, who was driven into Cambridge and theatre instead of ballet, determined his own life? "Doing this, entertaining people by being true to myself, is what I do — so I feel liberated," he admitted. Besides, "I'd have been a terrible miner."

First-nighters included Polly Bergen with Rex Reed, Ben Stiller and Christine Taylor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg (his first Broadway show since Xanadu), Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Oscar winners Rachel Weisz and The Old Vic's Kevin Spacey, Rosie O'Donnell, Barbara Walters, Jane Krakowski, fashion icon Anna Wintour, Anthony Edwards, John Stamos, Billie Jean King, Jerry Dixon and Mario Cantone, Bryan Batt, Tony and Oscar winner Joel Grey, Mark Indelicato, Mark Morris, Deborah Cox, James Lipton ("Beyond belief!"), Corey Snide, Colin Bates, Harvey Weinstein, Tina Brown, Heather Randall, Martin Richards and Stephen Schwartz.