Next week sees the home entertainment release of Billy Elliot the Musical, Live on DVD and Blu-ray, recorded at a special London performance with a stellar cast and even more impressive crew that includes music by Sir Elton John.
Lee Hall, the writer and lyricist, took time out to tell us about his own experiences growing up in then-depressed Newcastle in the UK, and the parallels he drew between his own life and those of his characters.
He first created the story of Billy Elliot for the film version, which was released in 2000 before writing the book and lyrics for Billy Elliot the Musical, which opened in 2005. Lee has since adapted Warhorse for the screen, released in 2011, and recently adapted the film Shakespeare in Love for the West End stage. He is currently working on Rocketman, a biopic about the life of Elton John.
“I thought I was writing something very, very tiny,” he says of Billy Elliot’s success. “I thought that if it was made into a film, it would be a very small film that maybe somebody would dust off a VHS recording in 20 years and find it really curious. The fact that after all this time it’s still a going concern and that we’re doing this [DVD release] and new shows are about to open overseas – well it’s very surprising.”
Lee believes the enduring popularity of the Billy Elliot is because it’s based on an emotional truth about growing up in England at that time. The story of an innocent kid with a dream going against his environment to achieve it, and it taps into people’s own frustrations and ambitions. The real credit, however, he gives to the creative team behind the show.
“I think what happened is that a lot of people, from Stephen Daldry, Peter Darling, myself and then Elton John later, came together and we were all at the top of our game at a certain time. It was quite a ferocious time when we were making the film and the musical; we were really pushing everybody else to try and do something better; to try and dig deeper in the writing.
“I did hundreds of rewrites on it. So I think it was the creative team that really made it different. And I think we all really saw a way to express something about our own childhood and our own life in it, from Stephen to Elton to myself. It seems to affect people emotionally in a way that a lot of other musicals just don’t.”
Lee reveals that it was during the early 1980s when he stumbled upon doing theatre, literature and music, and he wanted to write a tale that encapsulated that discovery of the thing he would spend the rest of his life doing. Watching a kid write would be “the most boring thing in the world”, so in searching for a visual image, he came across the idea of ballet – something unthinkable for a kid in a tough working class environment, yet something that actually included all thing things vaunted from that same community – the physical prowess, the determination and the toughness.
“I’ll tell you a little story,” Lee says, bringing up his relationship with his own father. “He’d seen [Billy Elliot] several times and he’d seen the film when we did it in London, and he was proud that it was getting a good response. Just before he died we opened the show in New York and he was sitting along the row and I looked at him and for the first time he realised that the dad on stage was him. It was really bizarre. His jaw dropped when the penny dropped that this was him, which seemed to bewilder our entire family because it was almost a portrait of my father. But to see him accept the whole thing on Broadway was an emotional moment for all of us because he was very proud that the dad is the one who changes in the story. The dad comes round to Billy’s point of view. So he became proud of himself in this very weird loop that tied everything up.”
When Elton John saw a preview of the film and broached the idea of a musical stage version, Lee initially thought it was the “worst idea in the world” but the British tradition of turning stories like Oliver! and Oh, What a Lovely War into musicals soon changed his mind. He agreed to the concept but only if they could “make sure it’s better than the film”. That was the benchmark he and the creative team set themselves and met. Even so, Lee reveals that he still tweaks the script in some way or another “every other production.”
“Partly because you learn a bit about the show,” he says, but “also because as I get older I see other things that I wrote as a young man – it could have more depth, it could work slightly better… Somehow it’s very alive. We care very deeply about the show and what it means to people and the people who are in it. And that’s a really unusual thing to happen.”
The London stage recording of Billy Elliot the Musical, Live is being released on DVD and Blu-ray on 4 December 2014.