Going legit: ‘Billy’ soars onstage

In 1985, Working Title’s critically acclaimed first feature, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” repped an auspicious debut for a company that would gradually prove itself a production powerhouse. Twenty years later, the legs of the company’s first legit venture, tuner “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” would prove stronger and sturdier than those of its film predecessor.

After five months of rehearsals and six weeks of previews encompassing major script and production changes (there were technical tweaks on the afternoon of the opening night) the team behind the stage tuner, inspired by Working Title’s BAFTA-winning theatrical release, awoke on May 13, 2005, to largely ecstatic notices. Since then, the show has played to capacity at the 1,517-seat Victoria Palace, recouped within a year, and is being rolled out to five foreign productions over the next two years.

All this for a musical that was dreamed up during an overexcited cocktail party conversation at the 2000 Cannes Festival following Working Title’s premiere of the original movie. And the dreamers coasting and toasting their success? The film’s first-time helmer, Stephen Daldry (who despite illustrious theater credits had never directed a musical), legit producer Sally Greene, Elton John and David Furnish. Working Title immediately came on board, with Eric Fellner (with no background in legit production) as hands-on producer.

Although the show has since won four Oliviers and every major U.K. award for best musical, there are no plans for Working Title to launch a legit arm, and there are no other projects in development for the stage.

As it stands, “Billy Elliot: The Musical” is a unique project for Working Title, in more ways than one. Its stratospheric running costs put it in a league of its own. Most of the key roles are played by children, who are legally allowed limited numbers of performances per week. That necessitates having three specially trained casts of kids running simultaneously.

The dancing, singing and acting skills, not to mention the sheer stamina required, are so immense that the production runs a long-term training program for kids from all over the U.K., some of whom work for a year before being cast. “We never stop auditioning,” Daldry says.

The upside, however, is that this long-runner never gets stale because the cast is refreshed on an almost daily basis. Liam Mower, the last of the three original Billys who collectively won the Olivier for actor in a musical, has just “retired” from the show at the ripe old age of 14.

The first North American production was scheduled for Toronto. That has now been abandoned in favor of Broadway, with a projected opening of winter 2008. Thereafter, it will be produced in Germany, Japan and Canada. First up, however, is Sydney’s Capitol Theater in January 2008.

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