Billy Elliot the Musical: From Screen to Stage

Following the premiere of Billy Elliot at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, a sobbing Elton John, who by chance happened to be at the screening, had to be helped from the theater. “It touched me so much,” he said. “The story is very similar to mine: Trying to be something out of the ordinary. Having a talent and wanting to break free from what your parents want you to do. Wanting approval from your father, especially when your father doesn’t approve of the profession you’ve chosen.”
Billy Elliot is the story of an adolescent who discovers he has a talent and passion for ballet, and pursues it despite the vehement objections of his father and the derision of his community, a coal-mining village in Northern England. Intertwined with Billy’s journey is the unfolding of the 1984 coal miners’ strike in Great Britain, an event so devastating that the repercussions are still felt today.
John was so moved and so inspired by the movie that he immediately envisioned the piece as a stage musical.
“What Elton felt was very personal to him, and he understood the story from the inside,” screenwriter Lee Hall said. “One of my big concerns was to keep an emotional core. I also realized there was a tradition of musical theater that completely embraced all the things Billy Elliot is about [and] that the music from the mining communities – the folk songs, the hymnal singing – could provide a kind of soundtrack for this show.”
The musical puts a greater emphasis on the plight of the miners than there is in the film. “It’s not possible to exaggerate the cultural flowering that happened during [the miners’ strike],” director Stephen Daldry said. “We wanted to talk about the community and the family as much as Billy in the musical. The theater lends itself to big, working-class anthems of struggle and loss. You can present that in a much more believable and moving way onstage than on film.”
Making the miners more prominent posed a special challenge for choreographer Peter Darling: How could he create dances for characters who were so opposed to dance?
“You want to include them in the dances, because a musical can encompass a wider community,” Darling said. “But they make fun of dance, so how was this going to work? When men dance, they do social dancing and folk dancing. So that’s where I started. I believe that all human movement – walking, running, jumping and falling – is dance. If someone corrals it and gives it form, before you know it, it’s dance.”
Since opening in London in 2005, Billy Elliot the Musical has become an international phenomenon, the recipient of more than 70 awards. In 2009 the show won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical; Daldry won for Best Direction of a musical, Hall for Book of a Musical, and Darling for Choreography.
“You can’t just look at Billy Elliot as a piece of theater,” Hall said, “because it actually transforms the lives of these boys. If there had been no Billy Elliot, if these boys had not been discovered for the role, then they would not have flourished in the way that they do. Their growth is almost a symbol, a metaphor at the heart of the piece. We actually demonstrate that it is possible, if everyone pulls together, to achieve something quite extraordinary.”