PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Billy Elliot — A Balletic Leap for Broadway
By Harry Haun
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."
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.
"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.
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