The triumph that is the stage adaptation of the film Billy Elliot is all the more remarkable when one considers the many ways it could have gone wrong. Director Stephen Daldry's 2000 movie about a pre-adolescent boy in an English mining town discovering his love of dancing against a background of struggle among striking mine workers was set in 1984, but made excellent use of a score full of '70s songs by T. Rex and several new wave bands. A stage producer might have tried to turn it into a T. Rex jukebox musical, but that ...
The triumph that is the stage adaptation of the film Billy Elliot is all the more remarkable when one considers the many ways it could have gone wrong. Director Stephen Daldry's 2000 movie about a pre-adolescent boy in an English mining town discovering his love of dancing against a background of struggle among striking mine workers was set in 1984, but made excellent use of a score full of '70s songs by T. Rex and several new wave bands. A stage producer might have tried to turn it into a T. Rex jukebox musical, but that didn't happen. When The Full Monty, a British film with a similar setting and themes, was made into a musical, the story was moved to the U.S., and an American composer, David Yazbek, brought in. The results weren't embarrassing, by any means, but the British flavor of the piece was lost. That didn't happen to Billy Elliot, either. The hiring of Elton John as composer may have been the most dangerous choice in adapting the work, however. John has enjoyed success with the film-to-stage transfer of The Lion King, of course, and his Aida even won a Tony Award against a weak field in 2000, but he hasn't really been accepted in the musical theater ranks. Billy Elliot, which opened in London on May 11, 2005, should change that. John, who came out of a working-class background and overcame his father's resistance and other social pressures to attend the Royal Academy of Music, must have felt a special affinity for the story of a boy who does exactly the same thing, even though he winds up at the Royal Ballet School. As a result, he hasn't just dashed off a few pop songs that he could have sung himself and called it a score. His two main influences seem to have been the quintessentially English soccer anthem and swing music. The former serves him well in writing the many choral numbers in which the miners declare "solidarity forever" and the police respond derisively. The swing element serves the many dance numbers, and there's plenty of dancing. But if John is gifted in his ability to compose pastiche numbers nearly as good as the originals, he also knows his way around a ballad, and his music for such songs as "The Letter" (sung in the words of the boy's dead mother) and "Electricity" (in which the boy tries to explain how dancing makes him feel) is as appealing as anything he's ever written. But John's music is only one element in the production. An even stronger one is Lee Hall's libretto and lyrics, which bring out the twin aspects of the story, contrasting the miners' troubles with the boy's. Hall captures not only the idealism of socialism as it encountered the harsh policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's conservative regime, but also Billy Elliot's emergence as a dancer against the odds. And the score is well realized by a cast including Liam Mower in the title role and Haydn Gwynne as the dance teacher. Running 75 minutes, the original London cast recording is an excellent rendition of an excellent musical work. Elton John has done too much good work to call Billy Elliot his greatest achievement, but it is certainly the most outstanding theatrical project with which he has been involved so far, and it finally establishes his claim as a legitimate theater composer. [This edition includes a bonus CD containing three Elton John recordings of songs from the show. His performances of "The Letter" and "Electricity" have the unintended effect of demonstrating how impressive Martin Koch's orchestrations for the show are, since in John's hands they just sound like typical tracks that could be on any Elton John album. But the real corker is John's decision to record his own rendition of "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher," the miners' sarcastic holiday song, in which they celebrate Christmas only because it brings the hated prime minister one day closer to her death. This must be the most politically charged song John has ever recorded, and it is especially provocative taken out of the context of the show and...
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