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

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14 Nov 2008

Kiril Kulish, Trent Kowalik, Elton John and David Alvarez, Haydn Gwynne, Gregory Jbara, Santino Fontana, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Stephen Hanna, Donnie Kehr, Mitchell Michaliszyn, Frank Dolce and David Bologna, Lee Hall and Stephen Daldry
Kiril Kulish, Trent Kowalik, Elton John and David Alvarez, Haydn Gwynne, Gregory Jbara, Santino Fontana, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Stephen Hanna, Donnie Kehr, Mitchell Michaliszyn, Frank Dolce and David Bologna, Lee Hall and Stephen Daldry
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The fabulous invalid was bouncing on bedsprings Nov. 13 — bouncing with genuine joy — over Billy Elliot's belated jump from Britain to Broadway's Imperial Theatre.

An established blockbuster across the pond and Down Under, the Elton John-Lee Hall musical was exuberantly embraced by first-nighters like their new best-friend.

And, boy, do we need Billy now! With the world out of work, or at least tilting in that direction, the show arrived with real resonance for the plight of the poor caught up in the longest mining strike in British history — a cruelly protracted year-long (1984-85) coal miners' strike in northeast England, provoked by the efforts of Margaret Thatcher's conservative regime to dismantle England's nationalized coal industry.

Out of this bleak coalfield comes a diamond in the rough: one Billy Elliot, 11 years old, a coal miner's son defying gravity through dance, of all unearthly things! After his boxing lesson at the union hall, he is given the keys to pass on to Mrs. Wilkinson and her ballet class—and they wind up unlocking his creative heart.

Getting airborne in these ground-bound circumstances is no easy achievement, and that basically is Billy's story — or, more accurately, Hall's story (except for the creative overlay of ballet). Director Stephen Daldry told it first as a film in 2000 and then, radically reconceptualized as musical-theatre, as a London show in 2005.

Its better-late-than-never appearance here is a testament to Elton John's love of film — that film in particular, which he caught at its Cannes Film Festival premiere and, in some emotional disarray, volunteered his services to compose a theatrical score for the property should Universal be so inclined. The studio figured he'd get over it, but when it ran the idea by him two years later, his passion hadn't subsided.

"Exactly!" the composer exclaimed in eureka kind of italics. "That's why we did the musical, and here we are eight years later — and we're on Broadway with it."

What took so long was the fear that the show was "too British," that the Yanks wouldn't relate to a politically crushing mine-strike in the north of England two dozen years ago. Fear no more. The economy has made us all orphans of the storm.

John concedes that there might be some superficial resistance to the show: "There's obviously a huge colloquial story with the northeast accents and the political story that happened in the '80s, which most people might have forgotten about — there's that aspect to it. But, really, the story is about the human spirit. When the miners give up their money (that they haven't got, actually) to send this boy down to London — that, for me, is the saddest part of the story. Their future is finished, their livelihood is diminished, and this boy goes off to London to become a butterfly — because of their contribution. That's human nature. That's what people do, on a regular basis, every day. Somewhere in the world, something like that happens because of the generosity of human nature. We always hear about the bad things of human nature. This is about the positive side — and, my God, we need it right now."

Inspiration definitely helped the work flow faster, John said. "A theatre score is so much easier than writing an album. With an album you write 16 songs, you record them, then you have to put them in some semblance of order — doesn't make particular sense. It's easier to write when you've got a great script and a great set of lyrics. Lee Hall gave me the greatest set of lyrics, and I had the characters to write for — you've got the gamut here. But what I drew on most of all was a lot of choral pieces with the miners singing. And Dad's song — the second song in the second act, 'Deep in the Ground,' a northern folk song — and so I had to draw on northern folk music, which I know a lot about because I'm British. The score has a huge scope.

"This is a logistically impossible show to do, really — three sets of rehearsals for the boys, three sets of keys to sing in, no dancing relief. Everybody has worked their socks off, and they did an amazing job. And this boy here," he added, not necessarily as an afterthought, indicating partner David Furnish, "has been my eyes and my ears. He takes a lot of credit because I've been on the road. I didn't have to get involved in the process. [But] you don't tell Stephen Daldry what to do. This is his baby."

The title role is triple-cast with a trio of pint-sized teens. "Pint-sized" is a good thing here. As 13-year-old Trent Kowalik, a Long Island lad who danced the part in London and did the opening-night honors, noted, "How long we'll stay depends on how tall we get or when our voices start to break. We have our own strengths and weakness. Any of us could have played it tonight because we play it the same way."

His 14-year-old alternates — Montreal's David Alvarez and San Diego's Kiril Kulish — joined Kowalik on stage at the curtain call and then went into a dance.

"Just for tonight," said Kulish, "we all came out and tap-danced 'Expressing Yourself,' a number in the show. It was just so much fun, and we got an adrenalin rush."

None of the three knew how the opening-night Billy was determined, but it didn't matter to Alvarez. "I'm good with however it happened," he shrugged. "Trent did it in London and has worked really hard, so I'm really happy he did it. Now that the show has opened officially, I just want to give the best I can give to the audience."

Even director Daldry could not say how he arrived at his choice: "I couldn't decide. There's not one kid who came above the others so I just did one two three one two three during the week. I said to the boys, 'There's no kid that comes above another kid.' They're all fantastic. How can you choose? I'm so happy with these three boys."

True to those words, he hovered paternalistically over his three "sons" as they were shuttled through the interview gauntlet after the show. "Where are my boys?" he'd ask, following that up with "What do they know about how to run a press line?"

The show's on-stage father is a great, eminently huggable bear of an actor named Gregory Jbara, heretofore best-known on Broadway as the Large Economy Sized clown (Victor/Victoria, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Damn Yankees). Here, his moving portrayal of Billy's conflict-ridden dad should put an emphatic end to that image.

"It's the greatest job I ever had — truly," he stated quickly and without qualification. "I love it that I get to do things other than mug… Stephen was generous enough to give me a few silly moments in the show, but I get to connect with a journey that a certain parent will have to make for their sons. It's an honest journey. That really appealed to me as well. This dad was someone that I felt very close to. Now that I'm a parent and the father of two sons — 4 ½ and 7 ½ — I felt that I actually had some understanding experience that I could offer to this character."

When the three Billy Elliots emerged at the end of the show, Jbara could be spotted in the wings, applauding madly. "I have a respect for the profession of acting — but when I see these boys, what they have accomplished in that very limited time that they've been trained for this role — it makes me feel I have so much more to learn and so much more to do. I'm so proud of them. Honestly, I'm humbled by them."


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