Lyricist for 'Billy Elliot: The Musical' tells story of a community — and himself

There is a scene in the movie Billy Elliot where Billy jumps up and down on his bed to Cosmic Dancer by T. Rex. Playwright Lee Hall did the same when he was growing up in northeast England in the 1970s, except his jumping music was by Elton John.

"To be at the end of the piano some 30 years later writing songs with Elton was an amazing loop,'' Hall said, speaking from his home in London. He is the man who created Billy Elliot, the coal miner's son who wants to be a ballet dancer, first in his screenplay for the 2000 movie, then as book writer and lyricist for the musical, which has a score by John.

The national tour of Billy Elliot: The Musical, which won 10 Tony Awards, opens this week at the Straz Center in Tampa.

Many people love the movie because of its music by T. Rex and other British rock bands such as the Style Council, the Jam, the Clash and Eagle-Eye Cherry. But Hall said he and Stephen Daldry, who directed both movie and musical, wanted music more reflective of the folk culture of the mining community for the stage show. The playwright assumed John would want his longtime collaborator, Bernie Taupin, to write the lyrics.

"When we first talked to Elton, I thought he wanted to work with Bernie, but he was very singular in saying, 'No, I want you to write the lyrics, because they have to come from the story,' '' Hall said. "So the score has the sound of the Methodist hymns the miners would sing and the brass bands they used to be in. Even the pop songs that are in it are meant to mirror what they would listen to in the pub.''

The musical Billy Elliot is quite different from the movie. The movie is more about Billy's personal journey as he struggles to persuade his father to let him pursue a career as a dancer, while the musical puts more focus on the coal-mining community. The story takes place in 1984, when the National Union of Mineworkers went on strike for a year in opposition to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's move to privatize the national industry.

"Between making the movie and making the musical, the coal-mining industry in Britain collapsed,'' Hall said. "All the coal we use now we import from Ukraine and Russia. It's related to what happened during that strike. I think we felt the weight of what happened to that community much more acutely than we had when we made the film.''

Thatcher and her Conservative government, using riot police to intimidate the miners, broke the union. In the Billy Elliot playbill, a program note says that in 1984 "more than 300,000 men worked in the mining industry; today there are less than 1,000.''

Hall modeled Billy on the great opera singer Thomas Allen, born in Seaham, just down the coast from the playwright's hometown of Newcastle. But the story is his, too. "Although I can't dance, Billy Elliot is a sort of metaphor for my own experience, since I grew up in that part of the world at that time,'' said Hall, 44, whose father worked in a shipyard. "In the northeast, everybody knows somebody who was a miner. If it's not your father, it's your uncle or your grandfather. Everybody is connected to the mines in one way or another.''

Hall thinks Billy Elliot is more relevant than ever in the wake of the financial meltdown and widespread unemployment in the United States and Britain. "The story is about little people and what happens when they get squashed by these big economic things that impinge on the lives of us all,'' he said.

The opening number of the musical, The Stars Look Down, is an homage to a 1935 novel by A.J. Cronin about injustice in the English coal-mining industry.

"We deliberately wear our hearts on our sleeves politically,'' Hall said. "I hope that people find in Billy's story some hope and optimism in grim times.''

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.

.if you go

Billy Elliot

The musical has previews Wednesday and Thursday and opens Friday at the Straz Center, where it continues through Feb. 20. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. There is a special matinee at 2 p.m. Thursday. $48-$87. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.

Lyricist for 'Billy Elliot: The Musical' tells story of a community — and himself 01/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 29, 2011 3:30am]

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