By Lucy Komisar
The new Elton John smash musical in London is a stirring political work built around the Yorkshire miners‘ strike of 1984-5. It‘s a very British play, with workers mocking a giant puppet Maggie Thatcher and singing odes to labor solidarity. It tells also a universal truth that political struggle must defend personal freedom.
The play is based on the 2000 movie, “Billy Elliot,” written by Lee Hall and directed by Stephen Daldry, who repeat those roles for the stage. Elton John‘s music is new.
The demand for freedom is asserted by a 12-year-old boy who takes the money his miner father gives him for boxing lessons and secretly uses it to learn ballet. He challenges the machismo of his world to become a dancer. His father and the other workers don‘t like it.
The politics moves along to John’s foot-tapping sound and lively, jazzy choreography by Peter Darling. Young Billy is played by three actors. I saw James Lomas, who gives forth sparks, energy, and youthful charm. Co-starring is Haydn Gwynne, who gives a strong performance as the tough, cynical dance instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson, who sees Billy’s promise and forces him to work to achieve it.
The social politics is much more likely to be found in Europe than this side of The Pond. When is the last time Broadway heard lyrics such as:
“And though our hands are bruised and bleeding
And our lungs are filled with dust
And our hearts are near to breaking
We will never forgo the trust.
We will flight through pain and hunger
Every arrow, every knife.
And we will never give the hope up
Of a proud and honest life.”
There‘s strong feminism here, too. Billy is being raised by his grandma (Ann Emery), who has contempt for the drunken men of her society, especially her late husband. She sings:
“I hated the sod”for thirty-three year.
We should never have married, of that I‘m quite clear.
He spent the housekeeping money on whisky and beer
And never lifted a finger.”
Her lesson is:
“If I went through my time again, Oh, I‘d do it without the help of men….
If I‘d only known then what I know now, I‘d have given them all the finger!”
One of Billy‘s friends likes to dress up in satin and lace, earrings, mascara, and high heels. Maybe there‘s a bit of Elton John in here. The message to Britain’s workers is that freedom is indivisible.
Hall has penned a realistic reprise of the miners‘ struggle against Thatcher‘s decision to destroy their livelihoods. With songs, slogans and solidarity, they demand, Save our community; save our pit.” Video clips to add to the verisimilitude. The workers confront the organized violence of the police. The lyrics are bitter, and they could easily apply to American workers who are victims of restructuring by the global corporations that dominate our society:
“They‘ve come to raid your stockings
And to steal your Xmas pud.
But don‘t be too downhearted.
It‘s all for your own good.
The economic infrastructure
Must be swept away
To make way for business parks
And lower rates of pay.”
This is a musical play with real and rousing substance, and a stunning entertainment. Only occasionally does it teeter on the edge of schmaltz, especially in Billy’s scenes with his dead mother (Stephanie Putson). But Peter Darling’s choreography keeps the musical spirit on track, especially in pulsating numbers featuring joyous youths in “We were born to boogie” and the confrontation between strikers and cops.
In the end, the miners lose. But their message is that it’s only a setback. They sing:
“We saw a land where wealth was shared
Each pain relieved, each hunger fed.
Each man revered, each tyrant killed
Each should redeemed, each life fulfilled.
From each man‘s means to each his need
We saw a time man would be freed.
We fought for all the things we saw.
The battle‘s lost but not the war.”
Elton John says he wants to take the show to Broadway. Imagine a giant puppet of Ronald Reagan breaking the air traffic controllers’ strike. Just the thing for W’s corporate America.
“Billy Elliot, The Musical,” Book and lyrics by Lee Hall. Music by Elton John. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Choreography by Peter Darling. Starring Haydn Gwynne, Tim Healey, James Lomas, George Maguire, Liam Mower, Joe Caffrey, Ann Emery, Trevor Fox, Steve Elias, Stephanie Putson, Isaac James.
Victoria Palace Theatre, Victoria Street, London. Rail & tube stations: Victoria. Mon-Sat 7:30 pm, Thurs & Sat 2:30 pm. London box office: Mon-Sat 10 am-8:30 pm. £17.50 ($31.50) – £50 ($90). Tickets online at http://www.victoriapalacetheatre.co.uk.
Photos by David Scheinmann.