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Stephen Daldry and Lee Hall - Billy Elliot the Musical

When director Stephen Daldry was awarded a Herald Angel for his debut feature film after it premiered at Edinburgh Film Festival in 2000, it was one of the first of many plaudits for what was a relatively modest production. Given what has happened to the film since, it also showed the considerable foresight of those behind the awards. Billy Elliot, after all, went on to become an international phenomenon, with the Herald Angels' championing of the film recognised when this newspaper's name was displayed on billboards across the globe.

But Daldry and writer Lee Hall's tale of a working class boy who discovers the transcendent power of dance in the thick of the civil war that was the 1980s Miners Strike went further, scooping a multitude of awards, including three BAFTAS. Five years after the film was released, this seemingly local story was given fresh life with the arrival of Billy Elliot the Musical, reuniting Daldry, Hall and choreographer Peter Darling, as they got back to their theatrical roots in a project instigated by pop superstar Elton John.

After a decade that has seen the show take the West End and Broadway by storm prior to being seen worldwide, Billy Elliot the Musical finally embarks on its first UK tour which arrives in Edinburgh this week for a month-long run. It is an event that Daldry and Hall have been looking forward to for some time.

“I've been dying for this,” says Hall, who derived Billy Liar from an early script called Dancer, which was given a performed reading at the Live Theatre in Newcastle. “It's quite unusual to have to wait so long to tour a London show, and because Billy Elliot is written from my perspective of growing up in Newcastle, I think the show speaks to people outside London, so it's been a long time coming.”

Daldry concurs, pointing out that “The seeds of the show were in the north, and when we first did it we originally wanted to open in Newcastle, but we couldn't afford it, so in a sense the tour is very much about coming home.”

The roots of Billy Elliot the Musical date back to the film's very first screening at the Cannes Film Festival when it was still called Dancer. It was here that the stage version's final creative partner first declared an interest.

“We had what we thought was a small independent movie,” Daldry remembers of his screen debut after running the Gate and Royal Court theatres, “and no-one really had any expectations. By chance, Elton John and David Furnish happened to be in the audience, and it was Elton John who first suggested that it could be a musical. Then the film became this worldwide success, and Elton kept on badgering us. It was only his determination and tenacity that made it happen, and to be honest I think it's a much better fit onstage than as a film. It's getting back to its natural home.”

With John on board to write the music and Furnish a producer of the show, Daldry and Hall determined to invest Billy Elliot the Musical with substance as well as emotional power.

“We sat down,” says Hall, “and we said, if we can't make it better than the film, and if we can't make it more political than the film, then we're not going to do it. It's something that was historical, but now it feels like a contemporary drama. It's heartbreaking what's happening in the North-East of England. I thought they'd closed as much heavy industry as they could there, but now that the steelworks are being closed down it just makes things worse. It feels more like the 1980s now than it ever has done in my life. The Brexit vote is really affecting things, and that came out of thirty years of neglect. The time the play is set was a real watershed moment of post-war politics, and was the first time the state used the police to attack a state industry with violence against ordinary people”

Daldry points out how “1984 was the last great battle of the trade union movement. It was so painful and so emotional, because industry was completely decimated after that.”

To putting all this into a commercial musical, Daldry and Hall again looking to their theatrical roots.

“People these days tend to think of musicals in the tradition of Andrew Lloyd Webber,” says Hall, “but there's an important tradition as well that stems from Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, which filtered through me watching 7:84's work when I was growing up. I wanted to make a political musical in that great tradition of British theatre, and do something that was a piece of protest, but which was also a good night out. When I started writing it, I thought, what would John McGrath do if he was doing a musical with Elton John?”

The politics of the show almost scuppered a performance in 2013 after it was announced that former Conservative UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had been in office throughout the Miners Strike, had died. Backstage discussions ensued regarding the song, Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher, which includes the line, 'We all celebrate today, 'cause it's one day closer to your death', and whether its inclusion would be in bad taste. Daldry and Hall put it to an audience vote.

“Only three people voted against us doing it,” says Hall. “It was democracy in action, and for me was about everything that Thatcher was against. What she represented was such a perditious influence, and isn't something to be celebrated. To say that in a piece of entertainment, it's important for us to have that. I think the play has things in it that most musicals don't.”

As with the film, Billy Elliot the Musical has been hailed to the rafters wherever it has played, picking up five Olivier awards for its original London run and a staggering ten Tonys on Broadway, as well as winning awards in Australia, the Netherlands and Korea.

“What's amazing is how the story travels,” Daldry observes. “It's about a very particular time and a very particular place, but I think what audiences connect with wherever its done is that it's a story about a community that's under threat. The show is about community more than the film ever was, and in a post-industrial context people respond to that. People are fighting for their dignity and survival, and in the middle of that, this little chap is trying to express himself.”

For Hall, whose National Theatre of Scotland adaptation of Alan Warner's novel, The Sopranos, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, is currently running on London's South Bank, Billy's discovery of his artistic voice is a reflection of his own experience.

“The play is about ordinary people trying to overcome things,” he says, “and I think I was writing about my own journey, if you like. I'm from this working class background where I was thinking I wanted to do this thing, which was write, and that's been transformative fore me. and for me.

“The play has also allowed us to look at gender and sexuality. Dance is sometimes seen as effeminate, and Billy has a gay friend, but because of the play, for the first time ever, the Royal Ballet had more boys applying than girls, so it's had an effect on art and how it's accessed. The play is saying that there are other ways of exploring masculinity, and that art can be for the working classes, and not just for the middle classes.”

Billy Elliot The Musical, Edinburgh Playhouse, September 20-October 22.
www.atgtickets.com/edinburgh

The Herald, September 20th 2016

ends

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