Portrait of the director as juggler
The giant-sized, multicolored dancing dresses that play a central role in “Billy Elliot: The Musical” make up the kind of dream sequence that could very quickly fill your nightmares.
If anyone has seen way too much of these choreographed mega-costumes, it would be Stephen Daldry, the British director behind both the popular movie and the hit musical that’s finally made its way to Broadway.
For three years and more than 1,400 performances, Daldry’s staged version about a boy who has to dance no matter what his family thinks has been playing to full auditoriums in London. A year ago, he took the musical (with book and lyrics by the film’s screenwriter, Lee Hall, and music by Elton John) to Sydney. On Nov. 13, “Billy Elliot: The Musical” opened in New York’s Imperial Theater, and one more staging is scheduled to debut in Melbourne later this year.
As Daldry watched a rehearsal of the fantasy dress sequence a few days ahead of his Broadway opening, it was clear he still hadn’t reached his limit. “Looks great,” he told his dancers, before huddling with his creative team. The show is essentially the same version that is playing in England, with some minor tweaks. As in the film, the musical’s backdrop is the British miners’ strike of 1984, prompted by the threatened denationalization of coal production by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
“The perception of Margaret Thatcher here is that she was a friend of Ronald Reagan,” Daldry said of many Americans’ limited understanding of how anti-union Thatcher and her Conservative government were. “Whereas the perception of her is very different in the United Kingdom. Everybody I know thinks of her as a big bad wolf.”
So Daldry and his team added an extra minute of documentary-style film at the musical’s opening, and inserted a one-page history of the strike into the show’s Playbill. Said Eric Fellner, whose Working Title Films is a producer of both the movie and the musical: “It’s more information, a way for the audience to get in.”
Ticket sales for “Billy Elliot: The Musical” have been strong, but opening night reviews were mixed. Times critic Charles McNulty said, “The cast never coalesces into a believable North England family.” reviewsreviewsAmerican moviegoers were more broadly favorable when Daldry’s debut movie arrived in 2000.
Starring the dancer-turned-actor Jamie Bell as the titular 11-year-old, “Billy Elliot” came to theaters with little buildup and sporting an R rating, a potential killer for a movie about kids and their dreams. No matter. Supported by robust reviews, Daldry and Hall’s movie (known in the U.K. as “Dancer”) was nominated for three Academy Awards -- including Daldry for directing -- and grossed a respectable $22 million domestically.
After seeing the film at its premiere in the Cannes Film Festival, John approached “Billy Elliot’s” makers about turning the movie into a musical. That transition would take five years, but Daldry’s career transformation was far more rapid.
Daldry had served as the artistic director of London’s Royal Court Theatre from 1992 to 1998. “Billy Elliot” proved that the 47-year-old Daldry, like fellow British stage directors Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) and the late Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient”), could shift from theater to movie set without a misstep, bringing to filmmaking a distinct naturalism and actor-driven storytelling agenda.
Working with playwright David Hare, Daldry in 2002 adapted Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours,” winning Nicole Kidman a best actress Oscar for her role in the multigenerational drama anchored by Virginia Woolf. He attempted to make a movie about the tragically failed 1996 attempt to climb Mt. Everest that was chronicled by Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.” While Daldry’s planned movie, which was not directly adapted from Krakauer’s book, never was made, he did conduct film tests, at one point trying to build the mountain’s critical Hillary Step in the peaks of Utah during the Sundance Film Festival.
“I couldn’t decide,” Daldry said of his Everest movie, “if it was a story of hubris or heroism.”
Around the same time, he was pursuing Bernhard Schlink’s “The Reader,” having opened “Billy Elliot: The Musical.” But Minghella had the film rights to the novel about the Holocaust’s lasting moral repercussions. When Minghella realized he wouldn’t be able to make “The Reader” for years, he turned it over to Daldry.
Things soon grew complicated. Daldry cast Kidman as the film’s lead actress, but then had to wait two months for her to finish Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia.” After Kidman became pregnant at the end of Luhrmann’s film, Daldry recast the part with Kate Winslet.
Then Daldry had to wait for one of “Reader’s” costars, the German actor David Kross, to turn 18. “There’s quite a lot of sex in the film,” he explained.
While his movie actor neared legal age, Daldry began his musical rehearsals in May, casting three young actors to rotate in the title role, and two other boys to play Billy’s best friend, Michael, whose fondness for women’s clothes prompts the fantasy dance sequence.
Daldry edited “The Reader” after rehearsing his actors, and then briefly dropped the musical after Kross turned 18. A day after he wrapped “The Reader” in July, Daldry left Germany for New York, where he restarted “Billy Elliot: The Musical” rehearsals the next day. “It was a rather wonderful culture shock,” he said.
Soon thereafter, Daldry was caught in a feud between “Reader” producers Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein over the film’s release date. Working Title also wanted to ensure that Daldry spent his time on the musical, not in the editing room.
So Daldry would cut the film from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., rehearse the musical from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m., grab a couple more editing hours before his 8 p.m. curtain, and then do the same thing all over again the next day.
If Daldry is exhausted, he doesn’t look it. And although it took a while to bring the musical to Broadway -- the production waited for the Imperial to be available, feeling its intimate seating would help a show populated with young performers -- Daldry believes the wait may have been worth it.
Just as the musical laments the demise of organized labor and a nationalized work force, it’s not a big leap in Daldry’s mind to what’s happening in Detroit. “We’re moving toward a situation where a manufacturing base will be shut down, the work outsourced,” he said. “The idea of an American car -- it’s a fantasy.”