Long preview period allowed tuner to grow in London
LONDON — As “Billy Elliot — The Musical” enters the final stretches of the longest preview period in West End history, its creators are sounding confident about a London success while, for the moment, unsure about a Broadway transfer.
“I’m so pleased we did it this way,” says John Finn of Working Title, the film company co-producing the tuner with Old Vic Prods.
What “way” is that?
Namely, to give the £5.5 million ($10.5 million) musical adaptation of the Oscar-nommed film nearly six weeks to settle in before folding critics into the mix May 11.
The advance stands around the $6 million mark, with capacity running at 97% in the 1,520-seat Victoria Palace Theater. (Tuner breaks even around the 60% mark.)
“We have been altering and refining the show quite substantially,” says Finn, referring to “a quantum leap from the show we first opened.” That initial preview was March 31, a week later than the original March 24 start date.
The delay was to allow the three boys alternating the title role to develop their chops. “The kids just needed more time onstage,” says Finn. “They were knackered.”
Changes, meanwhile, continue apace: The finale, for instance, only went in at the April 20 perf.
A long rollout allows for all sorts of informal assessments, which can be good and bad. “Billy,” unusually, has generated positive buzz from the start, getting an early thumbs-up from Daily Mail columnist Baz Bamigboye (“a dazzling 40-carat gem of a show”) and a full-page encomium from Evening Standard writer Nick Curtis in the April 22 edition.
“Already, the stage show created by director Stephen Daldry and writer Lee Hall, with the music composed by Elton John, shows a caustic vigor and audacity that go beyond the original film,” Curtis wrote.
The same paper is all but making a media sensation of the youngest of the Billys, 12-year-old Liam Mower, who got a two-page feature to himself in the Standard’s Thursday listings magazine.
As yet, it is undecided which Billy will do the press night in a theater town that sends major crix to one opening perf rather than peppering them throughout late previews, as is the New York norm. Besides Mower, the other Billys are James Lomas, 15, and George Maguire, 14.
“We’re still trying to decide,” says Finn, adding initial thoughts of having three separate but equal press nights were “a bit absurd.” That’s especially true given a fiercely busy May for London legit that finds “Billy” opening between Old Vic a.d. Kevin Spacey in “The Philadelphia Story” and Gael Garcia Bernal in “Blood Wedding” at the Almeida.
The plan at present is that one boy will do the crix opening, another a separate “premiere” for family and friends the following night and the third a gala evening that Saturday, May 14. All three boys are part of an apparently bustling “Billy Elliot” house established in London for the young cast members, who come from all over the country.
That residence has just shifted from Shoreditch, toward the east of the city, to Ealing, way out in west London. The move was a pragmatic one. Notes Finn of the Shoreditch abode: “The plumbing system couldn’t take the strain of 20 kids.”
But what of reports that American theatergoers have been baffled by the regional Geordie accents? (Like the film, the show is set in Newcastle, in England’s industrial northeast.)
“We really need more people to see it before we get a sense of how it would play” on Broadway, says Finn. “Stephen Sondheim (who has championed the production ever since he caught a preview) reacted so well, which is fantastic.” But the producer resisted any suggestion that the substance — and sounds — of the show would need dilution for foreign export.
“Look, my personal take on it is you don’t change it,” says Finn. “This musical lives or dies by what it is.”