Stephen Daldry, Jamie Bell and Elton John – all names which have become closely associated with the phenomenon that is Billy Elliot. But the man who has perhaps the closest – and certainly the longest – association with the piece, as both a film and now a stage musical, is its writer Lee Hall (pictured), who based the story of the boy drawn to dance during the miners’ strike on his own experiences growing up with literary aspirations in the Northeast.
Hall makes his musical debut with Billy Elliot, for which he’s penned the lyrics to Elton John’s score, as well as the book based on his own original screenplay for the award-winning 2000 film. On the musical, he’s reunited with Daldry, the film’s director, as well as its choreographer Peter Darling.
Though new to musicals, Hall is no newcomer to theatre, having had previous acclaim for Cooking With Elvis and Spoonface Steinberg (based on his award-winning radio play of the same name), as well as adaptations of The Good Hope, Pinocchio, Mother Courage, A Servant to Two Masters, Leonce and Lena and Mr Puntila and His Man Matti. In the late 1990s, he was also writer-in-residence for, successively, Newcastle’s Live Theatre, the National Theatre Studio and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In addition to Billy Elliot, Hall’s screenwriting credits include Pride and Prejudice, Molly Moon’s Book of Hypnotism, Yosemite, Many and the Few, Tulip Fever, Yuri Gagarin, Life and Times of Peter Sellars, Solomon Grundy and I Luv You Jimmy Spud.
The last was based on another of his award-winning plays for radio, a medium for which his other credits include Matti’s Story / Child of the Rain, Gristle, The Sorrows of Sandra Saint, The Love Letters of Ragie Patel, Blood Sugar and a six-part adaptation of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.
Billy Elliot - The Musical - in which three boys alternate in the title role – is now in previews at the West End’s Victoria Palace, where it will have its world premiere on 11 May 2005.
Date & place of birth
Born in 1966 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Lives now in…
Camden, north London.
My degree was in English (at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge). I’ve always been interested in the theatre. I was introduced to it at Newcastle through the youth theatres, which was a big, important movement when I was a teen. I always thought I’d be involved somehow, though in what capacity I wasn’t sure. I also had some very enlightened English teachers. We did a school play about the cholera epidemic of 1842. It was a Victorian music hall version à la Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop. I remember being amazed that you could tackle a serious subject in a comic way. That really inspired me. It felt quite natural that I gravitated towards theatre for work. I had a job at the Crucible in Sheffield as a student, working on a musical of Gregory’s Girl, and odd jobs later at the Gate Theatre in London. The first proper things I wrote were radio plays, thanks to radio producer Kate Rowland.
First big break
That would be my first radio play, I Luv You Jimmy Spud. I had adapted things before, but that was the first piece of writing I invented myself. It was very well received, and I won a Writers’ Guild award. From that job, I did several more radio plays and was also asked to write some films. I’d never thought about screenwriting before – I got in through the back door.
Career highlights to date
When Spoonface Steinberg was broadcast on radio, I was very surprised to find it reported in The Times. My little radio play had caused ructions on the motorways because drivers listening to it stopped their cars! The response to Billy Elliot was also very surprising and delightful.
What do awards mean to you?
Awards are only important if you win them. I got into the arts because I hated the competition of sport, so awards really are the antithesis to lots of the things I believe in. But, though I still do find them faintly ridiculous, they are nice to win.
At the Live Theatre in Newcastle, I’ve worked a lot with a group of actors who I grew up with, including Trevor Fox, Joe Caffrey and Charlie Hardwick. Two of them – Trevor and Joe – are now in Billy Elliot. I have a very special relationship with those people. Kathryn Hunter also has a special place in my heart. I think she’s a fabulous actor and creative being.
Stephen Daldry is probably my favourite. I’ve known him for getting on 20 years as a friend. We have a very collaborative relationship. We finish each other’s sentences.
Favourite playwrights/musical writers
I have hugely catholic tastes. There are several friends whose work I admire very much, such as Patrick Marber. Of the older generation, I’m a huge fan of Harold Pinter. And my top three dead playwrights are Shakespeare, Chekhov and Aristophanes. They cover the bases of what theatre can be. I’ve also done an awful lot of reading and work on Bertolt Brecht, translating and adapting. I’m not sure he’s a favourite, but he’s been a constant source of forcing me to think about what I’m doing. I plunder a lot of what he’s done, even if I don’t love it. A lot of musical writers are hit and miss because it’s a very hard medium to get right. Musicals only really work if you get them really right. I’m a huge fan of Kander and Ebb. With their best work, they always have one idea central to their writing process, an idea central to all the songs and scenes.
You’ve worked regularly across screen, stage and radio. What are the different challenges of each?
I find writing straight plays the hardest thing to do. In film or TV or radio, you don’t have to worry about the form of your writing. With just a cut, you can be in Bangalore or wherever. If you want an actor to age, they go in make-up for 24 hours and come back totally different. On stage, you’re responsible not only for the story you’re telling, but the very means of telling that story. You have to have thought through all these invisible jobs because they’re not invisible when you’re in the theatre watching. So it’s very hard. I’m drawn to screenwriting more than anything else now. Musicals are the nearest equivalent in terms of being very collaborative. You’re marshalling all sorts of resources to this common end. If you’re writing a play, you’re individually responsible for much much more yourself.
How difficult have you found making the transition now to musical theatre?
I didn’t find it difficult. I’ve always used music in my writing. I had Elvis Presley in Cooking with Elvis, Maria Callas in Spoonface Steinberg. When I wrote the screenplay for Billy Elliot, I started with the songs of Marc Bolan, which were central to what I was making up. Music is very important. It allows you to have an instant relationship with your audience and their emotions – because a song, a melody, an arrangement tells you so much. If you cut the songs out, you have to work a lot harder. Of course, I’ve never done a musical like this before, and I’ve never worked with a composer in this way, never mind a composer who happens to be Elton John. That was slightly intimidating, but we’ve both found working together remarkably easy. And he’s an absolute delight, so encouraging and with such blind faith that I could pull off, I couldn't help being inspired. Writing the lyrics was easy because I’d written the story and worked on the film for so long, so I was already very much inside the characters’ heads and I knew how they spoke. Musical songs aren’t like other songs. They’re really speeches, and you have to incorporate character and dialogue within the lyrics. A line is only credible if it’s something the character would actually say.
What’s the last thing that you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
Complicite’s A Minute Too Late at the National. I’d seen it before and it was good to see it was still how I remembered it. I love the company’s way of treating something very serious with a great deal of humour. That’s a very effective method to illuminate our common humanity.
What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
Theatre will always have a very troubled relationship with the state. To be relevant, it’s got to have a somewhat awkward relationship to people with money and authority. Theatre will always attract people who have trouble with authority. If it doesn’t create trouble, it would become a dead medium. So I don’t really care about the state – fuck ‘em. I’m less concerned with paternalism than the right to create noise. Expressing discontent, illicit pleasures and the contradictions of the world in which we live – these things are far more important than maintaining the status quo in order to get a grant to do it. You can do theatre in your spare time with no money. Just planks and passion. The notion that it has to be professional deforms what theatre is. More of my plays are performed by am-dram groups doing theatre as a hobby than they are by professionals. That’s great. Theatre and drama is not just about those people who call themselves actors and directors and get paid. It’s about youth clubs and OAPs. Theatre is for everybody, to both watch and to participate in. We mustn’t constrict what theatre is. Of course the theatre is an important educational, cultural and economic tool. Of course it deserves to get the support and subsidy the government gives to other industries far more destructive to the human spirit. But the "professional theatre" is still statistically a middle class preserve whereas the majority of theatre practitioners are amateurs from all classes - in schools or village halls and it's here that we will secure the future of British theatre. Other forms of performance manage it - look at the music industry. We don't have an automatic right to be an artist, we have to earn it, and until society is changed to allow a fairer distribution of privilege and wealth, I don't see it as an entirely bad thing. The theatre needs to justify itself by its work being essential to people's lives rather than special pleading.
Favourite after-show haunts
My most fun nights have been at the Live Theatre in Newcastle when we all have a sing-song after the show.
What’s your personal relationship with the story of Billy Elliot?
Billy Elliot is a fantasy version of my own childhood, a sort of ugly duckling fairy tale retold in County Durham. I didn’t have all of Billy’s personal problems but it was the same environment. I grew up roughly at the same time in the Northeast, and my aspiration to be a writer is akin to Billy’s to dance, in that nobody I knew was a writer and it wasn’t particularly understood what being a writer really meant. If you loved poetry, you were a bit of a poof. The miners’ strike also had a huge impact on me, as did growing up under Margaret Thatcher in general. They were bleak times. In Billy’s story, I wanted to explore that feeling of being under siege that we felt then. The Northeast bore the brunt of a lot of Thatcher’s worst excesses.
How did it feel re-approaching the story after the film?
It’s been a bit of a continuum. I worked on the film right up until it was shown in Cannes in 2000. By the end of that year, I was flying over with Stephen to meet Elton, who’d seen it and was keen to work on a musical. In total, I’ve been working with Billy Elliot for eight years now. I first had the idea in 1995 and started writing the script in 1997. I wrote a draft for Tiger Aspect and the BBC and gave it to Stephen as a friend to get his advice. He and I met in Sheffield not long after the miners’ strike; we had a shared understanding of that world and what it meant emotionally. Stephen really liked the script and wanted to direct it himself. It was all very fortuitous. I couldn’t have found a more sympathetic partner to go on this journey with. Of course, neither of us ever thought we’d be doing a musical with Elton John.
How much does the musical version differ from the film?
It’s exactly the same only there’s more of it. What you can do on stage - especially in a musical – is tell a story very quickly. We have more opportunity for dance and music, which allows us to tell the story of the wider community as well as the story of Billy. Where the film concentrated more on the individual, the musical is about the values that Billy shares with others as much as the values that make him different. You get the landscape as well as the close-up. It’s much more compelling. A lot of the small things we had to cut out of film have made their way back in. There’s more about the community’s response to the strike - a scab becomes an important character. And so many of the songs are sung by the community. Each song has a very specific voice that comes from the traditions, such as the strong male choral tradition, of that place and that time.
What’s your favourite number from Billy Elliot?
”Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher”. I think that one will cause a bit of trouble. It’s not very kind to our ex-prime minister. Will she be at the opening? Well, she won’t be getting an invitation from me, but she’s most welcome to turn up.
How involved have you been in rehearsals? With three Billys, the rehearsals & previews schedule must be complex!
I haven’t been in every single day but I have stayed very involved. A musical needs constant changing and rearranging. It’s a team game for sure. We’ll be rewriting scenes right until we open. That’s just part of the process of doing a new musical. It’s absolutely insane. None of us realised quite how complicated rehearsing was going to be with three different Billys (James Lomas, 15; George Maguire, 14; and Liam Mower, 12). The greatest minds of mathematics were drawn in to solve the problem. It’s been such a mad schedule. The creative team have been putting in 14-hour days working around the boys. And the impact on the kids has been huge. The adult equivalent of the part of Billy is Hamlet - but with five songs and four huge dance numbers. These kids are on stage almost every minute for two-and-a-half hours. Though they’re incredibly able, and can do much more than we thought they’d be able to, in terms of stamina, they’re still very young. So the show has only been able to move forward as fast as the children. It’s hard but also fantastically exciting. These are the most talented kids in the country, and they really are being pushed to the limit creatively. But then, that’s the whole spirit of thing. This is not like doing any other show. Billy Elliot is not just a character, it’s the story of these boys, it’s their real life.
What’s the most notable thing that’s happened in rehearsals/previews to date?
The look on each of the boy’s faces when they discover they can do something they didn’t think they could do. That’s priceless and so moving. The boys did a number with Elton at the Royal Variety Performance. The song was “Electricity” and they did a little dance. I was sat next to this big policeman during the rehearsal. At the end of the number, he got up and left. I thought he didn’t like it. But then I found him in the corridor crying his eyes out.
What are your plans for the future?
I’ve got a million things on my desk as ever. I would very much like to do some more musicals. I’ve been talking to Roger Waters (from Pink Floyd) and (director) Adrian Noble about a stage version of The Wall so hopefully that’s going to work out (See The Goss, 11 Mar 2005). I’ve also been talking to Elton about some other ideas we’re going to knock about later in the year, including a film musical, a sort of Fellini-esque version of Fantasia about Elton’s early years. For the stage, I’m writing a new play set in a nudist colony which should premiere at the Live Theatre in Newcastle next year, after the theatre is redeveloped. And I’ve got screenplays at various stages of development, including a new version of Pride and Prejudice, which is out later in the year.
- Lee Hall was speaking to Terri Paddock
Billy Elliot - The Musical opens on 11 May 2005 (following previews from 31 March) at the West End’s Victoria Palace, where it’s initially booking until 24 September.