Writer Lee Hall Discusses Bringing Billy Elliot To The Stage
Billy Elliot the Musical made its Wales' debut at Wales Millennium Centre last week as part of its first ever UK and Ireland tour. Based on the highly successful film, the show is set in a mining town in the North of England against the background of the 1984/85 miners’ strike and follows Billy’s journey from boxing to ballet class where he discovers a passion for dance that inspires his family and whole community and changes his life forever.
Billy Elliot the Musical is brought to life by the multiple award-winning creative team behind the film including writer Lee Hall (book and lyrics), director Stephen Daldry and choreographer, Peter Darling, joined by Elton John who composed the show’s score. The production features scenic design by Ian MacNeil, the associate director is Julian Webber, costume design is by Nicky Gillibrand, lighting design by Rick Fisher and sound design by Paul Arditti. Musical supervision and orchestrations are by Martin Koch.
Andy Howells recently chatted to writer Lee Hall about how Billy’s journey has developed from a film screenplay to a stage musical.
Stephen Daldry, Elton John and Lee Hall, Photo: Craig Sugden
Billy Elliot has been a part of your life for a long time now?
I first came up with the story almost 20 years ago, I then wrote the screenplay and the film came out in 2000 and we started work on the musical pretty soon after that, so its been part of my life for a long time.
Has Billy Elliot’s success surprised you at all?
Completely! I really thought it was going to be a small British film that would come and go like films do. I was quite surprised by the affect of the film and then we did the show and that went on for so long, it was pretty amazing to me.
Where did you get the inspiration?
It was one of those weird acts of imagination. I had grown up in the North East of England in that time, I knew all about the mining communities because of the miners strike. I think I was quite different from the others because I liked poetry and drama and that kind of thing and I was thinking of a way to tell the story about my journey but in cinematic terms. I thought writing was a boring subject to write about and I thought what if a little kid wanted to become a ballet dancer? I think at the time and possibly still so been a ballet dancer is something that a young lad would never think of doing because they’d get picked on in school, so I was quite interested in the story and I just made it up.
Haydn May as Billy Elliot, Photograph: Alistair Muir
Years later, I found out there were a few dancers at the Royal Ballet who had come from mining backgrounds. One of the mainstays Philip Mosley, came from Yorkshire and had a very similar journey to Billy Elliot, so fact has followed fiction.
It’s also an iconic tale about anyone who has a dream to do something different to the circumstances they were brought up in, everybody’s got something that is unique about themselves or in something that they want to do. It’s a story for everybody.
How did the musical come about?
It came from Elton John, he saw the very first public showing of the film which was in Cannes and he really identified with it. He could see a lot of his own journey in Billy Elliot.
I just got a phone call from Elton’s people asking “Would you like to meet, because he’s really interested in doing it as a musical.” To be honest, when I first heard that, I thought it was a terrible idea. I went to see him and he explained how we should do it and his total passion for the project. I thought “well you can’t not do it,” of course, we gave it a go and the rest is history.
You hadn’t set out to write Billy Elliot as a musical, so how was the experience writing with Elton John?
The thought of writing songs with Elton was beyond ones wildest dreams. I assumed he’d want Bernie Taupin to write the lyrics. He wanted me to do it rather than a lyricist because he knew it needed to be in the language of the characters. He was very determined on that and very experienced having worked on musicals like The Lion King and Aida. He said to me “Listen, We’ll just start at the beginning and work our way through it” and it was great advice not to take too much off, but just to take little bits and build it up gradually. I was in very safe hands with Elton - he looked after me!”
Lewis Smallman with ensemble cast in Billy Elliot, Photograph: Alistair Muir
So now the Billy Elliot musical is touring the UK, how important was a tour to you?
Coming from the North East, I was dying for the last ten years or so that people from home could see it. Eventually, it went to Sunderland on the tour and it means a lot to me that we can take it to regional theatre to let people see it who couldn’t make the trip to London. It’s been a long time coming so I’m really excited about it.
For those who are planning to see Billy Elliot, how would you describe it?
Quite genuinely, there’s something in it for everybody. I think we all set out to make something you could laugh and cry at.
There are also the amazing kids who play Billy Elliot. I’ve been watching it for over 11 years and I’m always astonished at how brilliant they are. They can act, dance and sing and I don’t think there’s another show you’ll see where the kids are so brilliant. I really wanted to make something that my Mam and Dad could go and see as they never went to the theatre. I wanted to make something for everybody. It was really important to me that I made a show that everyone could go and see.
- Billy Elliot the Musical continues at Wales Millennium Centre until Saturday July 16. To book tickets or for more information visit www.wmc.org.uk or call 029 2063 6464.
- A version of this interview by Andy Howells appeared in The South Wales Argus on June 17, 2016