LONDON — Will “Billy Elliot — The Musical” pirouette on Broadway? Now that the show is a British stage hit, questions about its chances of crossing the Pond have intensified from idle speculation to feverish debate.
Ever since the musical adaptation of the Oscar-nominated 2000 movie opened in May to ecstatic domestic reviews, talk of its viability as a Broadway vehicle has centered on the show’s cultural specificity.
The bitter, yearlong 1984 miners strike in northeastern England and the very real threat posed by the conservative government of the time to the survival of working-class industrial life seems not the most accessible narrative fodder to land on a Gotham stage.
But while a picket line shouting “Coal, not dole” might not register much urgency with Yank theatergoers, it’s the personal and not the political heart of “Billy Elliot — The Musical” that makes the show work.
The story of an 11-year-old miner’s son who bucks macho expectations to follow his dream and earn a place at London’s Royal Ballet School has an emotional pull more than potent enough to captivate U.S. auds — no matter where they stand on the show’s melancholy indictment of the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.
Fanning the flames for a Broadway transfer, the traditional post-Tony Awards London excursions of Gotham theater crix have yielded a number of vocal supporters: In addition to a New York Times rave and a favorable piece in New York magazine, columnists Michael Riedel and Liz Smith at the New York Post have begun lobbying for the show to transfer. Only the New Yorker has so far given a thumbs-down.
While Working Title — the Brit production company behind both stage and screen versions — has made no official announcement regarding a U.S. staging, co-chairman Eric Fellner confirmed a decision should come by end of summer.
And after Universal — of which Working Title is a wholly owned subsidiary — successfully dipped its toe in the waters of Broadway musicals with “Wicked,” the studio would conceivably be an eager investor.
“We’re genuinely, seriously considering taking the show to Broadway,” Fellner says. “I’m off to do a whole load of research about economics, feasibility, availability. We’ve had requests from all sorts of places. The ideal is to have this show working all over the world.”
Timing for Broadway will likely be next season, either late 2006 or early 2007, allowing choreographer Peter Darling to complete work first on stage musical “The Lord of the Rings,” bowing in Toronto in March.
Fellner also acknowledged many of the issues being discussed by American legit pundits who have seen “Billy Elliot” are the same questions the creatives are asking themselves.
From preliminary discussions, one aspect is clear: Unlike the musical version of “The Full Monty,” which uprooted the film’s steelworkers from Sheffield, England, to Buffalo, N.Y., “Billy Elliot” will retain its County Durham setting. The challenge for director Stephen Daldry and writer-lyricist Lee Hall — the team behind both film and stage versions, here working with Elton John as composer — will be to make the show palatable to U.S. audiences without sacrificing its integrity.
“If the piece works, it’s because it has a truth, all those characters have truths, and if you start changing that and messing it around, then you would lose that,” Fellner says.
Still, for every West End smash like “Cats” or “Les Miserables” that found equal glory on Broadway, the road is littered with imports that fizzled on arrival or failed entirely to make the crossing. That makes the process of tweaking “Billy Elliot” for U.S. consumption an especially delicate one.
Certain potential changes are no-brainers — excision of the dialogue’s more impenetrable regionalisms, or some softening of its liberal sprinkling of profanities, which are far more diffuse in British popular culture than in mainstream U.S. entertainment, particularly from the mouths of tykes. (The box office at the Victoria Palace in London carries a warning that the show’s language and themes might not be considered suitable for young children.)
More important, the sociopolitical background may benefit from being scaled back. The show at times feels burdened by dueling missions that tread on each other’s toes — the working man’s struggle between miners and cops/government on one hand, and the more classical musical fantasy of a boy’s self-fulfillment on the other. Daldry integrated these two strands more successfully in the film.
In the three-hour musical, the political voice has been amplified in ways to which British auds clearly are responding. But the show seems likely to come alive most for Americans when Billy is center stage; a shift in the balance, along with a half-hour trim, might serve the material well in New York.
Perhaps the most problematic number to translate will be the post-intermission “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” which celebrates a holiday that brings the miners one day closer to the former prime minister’s death. The use of puppets to caricature politicians is a cultural tradition for the Brits, fostered by the satirical comedy of cult 1980s TV show “Spitting Image.” That connection will be lost on most Yanks, who are unlikely to know Michael Heseltine from Princess Michael of Kent.
However, Fellner believes the highly specific historical and cultural setting will pose no major problem: “If you think of a show like ‘Evita,’ what did anybody know about that history when it started?”
“Billy Elliot” was brought into the West End on a budget of £6 million and would require capitalization in the $10 million-$15 million range to open on Broadway.
One area where economies can be made in the U.S. is casting. British child-labor laws dictate that the London production alternate three actors not only in the role of Billy but also in the show’s two other key kid parts. (Working Title, in fact, set up a stage school in Leeds to provide a conveyor belt of young actors to populate the show through its indefinite West End run.) U.S. laws are more flexible, indicating that only one lead and a substitute for matinees will be required.
Whatever the challenges involved, the time seems ripe for a tuner that provides real emotional involvement, something that has become increasingly rare in Broadway musicals.
Gotham theater pundits have been calling vociferously for the death of the jukebox musical, and the self-satirizing genre-pastiching of tuners like “The Producers,” “Monty Python’s Spamalot” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” appears to have run its course.
That climate means an uplifting musical with a warm, beating heart, a gritty social context and a strongly felt sense of time and place just might dance its way to a big Broadway embrace.
(Adam Dawtrey in London contributed to this report.)