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WOS TV: Billy Celebrations in London & at Tonys

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As the Broadway production of Billy Elliot the Musical celebrates its ten Tony Award wins in New York (See Today’s Other News) – the most ever received by a British musical - we catch up with goings-on at the original West End production of the screen-to-stage hit, which recently celebrated its fourth birthday at the Victoria Palace Theatre and welcomed two more new young stars to the Billy family (See News, 6 May 2009).

Twelve-year-old Oliver Gardner from Bath is the 32nd boy worldwide to play the title role made famous by Jamie Bell in the original 2000 film. He’s joined by Jake Pratt, also 12 and originally from Scarborough, who alternates in the role of Billy’s best friend Michael.

Whatsonstage.com TV editor Ian Miller talked to them and fellow principal Joe Caffrey, who previously played Billy’s brother Tony and has returned to the company as Billy’s father, about the daily rigours of rehearsals, life in the Billy household and how the show’s Broadway success has affected the London production.

Set against the North-eastern mining strikes of the 1980s, the musical recounts the tale of a motherless boy whose father wants him to learn to box but who instead discovers a love for ballet that leads him from secret lessons to a place at the Royal Ballet School.

Billy Elliot has played to over 3.3 million people worldwide since it had its world premiere on 12 May 2005 at the Victoria Palace. The musical – which scooped Best Musical prizes in the Laurence Olivier, Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle and Whatsonstage.com Awards in the UK - opened last year in Australia and, in November, on Broadway, where it last night won ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The stage production reunites the creative team behind the 2000 film: director Stephen Daldry, writer Lee Hall and choreographer Peter Darling. It features an original score by pop singer-songwriter Elton John, with lyrics by Lee Hall.

On Broadway, Oliver Gardner’s counterparts – David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik (who has also performed in the show in London) and Kiril Kulish – made their own Tony history, by jointly winning Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, the first time that the prize has been shared by three actors (though it does follow the sharing of the same prize by the original London Billys at the Whatsonstage.com and Laurence Olivier Awards).

The Broadway boys, overcome with emotion, received a standing ovation as they struggled to remember who to thank from the company and their various families and mentors. But Kulish concluded appropriately by summing up the main message of Billy Elliot: “And we’d like to say, to all the kids out there who might want to dance, never give up.”

In addition to frequent trips to the podium collecting trophies, Billy Elliot had plenty of presence onstage – and onscreen as the ceremony was broadcast live to millions of Americans on CBS network television – at last night’s Tony Awards. Elton John introduced the show’s solo performance excerpt and, in the massive multi-show opening number, launched by Billy Elliot was in the spotlight playing piano accompaniment.

The Billy Elliot slot was followed in the opening sequence by performance extracts from fellow Broadway musicals West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Rock of Ages (featuring Poison), Next to Normal, Pal Joey (featuring Stockard Channing), Shrek, 9 to 5 (with creator Dolly Parton appearing with show stars including Alison Janney) and Hair, as well as a solo offering from Liza Minnelli, who’s show Liza’s at the Palace won this year’s Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event.


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