Thursday, July 11, 2013

Letters From London: Stuart Munro on Billy Elliot and Once

Tade Biesinger (Billy Elliot) photo by Alastair Muir

Letters from London #1
by Stuart Munro

Hello friends! It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in England for three weeks now and that the holiday part of my working holiday has come to an end. To sum things up – I came over at the end of June for a friend’s wedding and have been sightseeing between London and Paris since then. Now I’m off on a train to one of the country’s most historic cathedrals to begin two weeks of research work with a professor from York University in Toronto. With a little luck, this will seem like a vacation too!

Despite how quickly the time has flown by, I have managed to see three shows so far in London (Billy Elliot, Once, and Le Gateau Chocolat), with at least six more planned for the weeks to come. I’ll write about the last show a little later on. For now, I want to talk a little about Billy and Once, and how remarkably similar and different they are.

Both shows are based on films of the same name, and both enjoyed considerable success in their initial releases. 2000’s Billy Elliot made the leap to the West End in 2005 and has been playing to near-full houses there for the last eight years. Sadly, this longevity was not duplicated in New York or Toronto in recent years (despite ten Tony awards and strong productions in both cities). Once, released in cinemas in 2007, made the transition to Broadway last year (where it won eight Tonys) and opened in London this past spring. Billy Elliot the film has long been a favourite of mine – growing up as a young male dancer, I had a certain amount of empathy with the title character, though my experience with dance was never so hostile as that. Once on screen, however, left me a bit flat. The film was sombre and maudlin, and I didn’t really see the point in watching a story about two desperately sad people who, at the end of it all, were still desperately sad.

These stories are utterly transformed for their new medium with compassion and care

The remarkable thing about both shows is that they manage, without question, to improve upon their source material, all while maintaining the integrity and spirit of the original and without simply copying and pasting what was on screen to what is now on stage. These stories are utterly transformed for their new medium with compassion and care, and both shows become much more than the simple sum of their parts.

On stage, Billy Elliot becomes a story about a mining community struggling not only with Margaret Thatcher and her government, but also with itself. This sense of community is heightened by the fact that almost the entire show takes place within one set – a miner’s welfare, the beating heart of the community, where people gather for news about the strike, boxing and ballet classes, Christmas parties, and soup kitchens. The only time this set disappears is when Billy and his father leave, for their first time ever, their small village to travel to London – it is only fitting that as they do the set leaves as well and is replaced by something which the characters themselves comment on as foreign and new.

In much the same way, Once is set entirely within the walls of a Dublin pub which becomes anywhere and everywhere. The actors almost always remain on stage, even when they’re not part of the scene, and the story of two people is, again, transformed into the story of a small community of people, all of whom we learn have hopes and dreams for themselves and their loved ones.

In both shows, it becomes clear that the storytelling will be less than straightforward early on in Act I. In Billy, the key moment is during the song “Solidarity.” Over this ten-minute number which spans somewhere between one and two months of time, we not only see the conflict between Billy and his father, but between him and his ballet teacher (Mrs. Wilkinson), between his family and the police, between Mrs. Wilkinson and the police, between Billy’s father and brother, and, perhaps most importantly, we watch as Billy learns how to dance. What makes this number so remarkable is that almost all of it happens without words – we see the story unfold in a very real yet abstract way. As Billy’s worlds begin to collide together, so too does the action on stage, and before long the girls of his ballet class are dancing with the miners and police officers involved in the strike conflict. Billy is unable to separate the disparate aspects of his life, and so we watch as everything in his life becomes an elaborate dance simultaneously full of confusion and meaning. It is one of the great moments in musical theatre, and is a large part of why I don’t hesitate to say that Billy Elliot is the best thing I have ever seen on stage.

For Once, the visual storytelling is perhaps more subtle, but no less powerful. At two points in the story, our leading man (known only as Guy) is pushed by our leading lady (known only as Girl) into performing his music in front of people, despite his intense reluctance. The first time is for a loan manager while the duo seek a loan to record an album. As he sings, we see in the background other bank employees slowly moving in unison at their desks as they become engrossed in Guy’s song. The loan manager takes more time to be won over, but when he suddenly lifts his arms in unison with the bankers in the background, we understand completely that he’s on board, swept away by the song along with his coworkers and the audience. It’s the simplest of actions but conveys the clearest of meanings, and it gave me chills. A little later on, Guy has once again been pushed into performing by Girl at an open mic night at the pub. At first, the audience on stage don’t seem too keen about the song, but one by one they begin to become engaged with it. We don’t see this by the expressions on their faces (indeed, at this point they have their backs to us). Instead, each person in turn picks up their own instrument and joins in with the song, supporting Guy’s music by adding to it with their own. It’s a symbolic act – we’re not meant to think this audience actually joined in this way – that, nonetheless, imparts a clear meaning.

Anyone who knew these productions well (like me) would have noticed a handful of musical differences between them and the London cast album.

What surprised me most about seeing Billy Elliot in London was how different it was from its North American counterpart. I’d known that certain changes to the book had been made in order to help explain some aspects of British political history as well as removing some specific British slang that would be incomprehensible to a North American audience. What I hadn’t expected were the structural changes to the show; not only was there a slightly different opening sequence, but there were differences in choreography, and even additional scenes not present in New York and Toronto. Anyone who knew these productions well (like me) would have noticed a handful of musical differences between them and the London cast album. But what’s preserved on the album is what is still being performed in London today. Most of these are minor and don’t affect the show very much. But there is one key moment in Act II which is quite different, and I find myself a bit surprised that this change made for New York wasn’t introduced into London, as I feel it tightens the show and heightens the emotion of the situation. Nonetheless, Billy Elliot remains a remarkably powerful experience and I was still weeping by the time the curtain came down at the end of the nearly three hours.

Calling Once a new musical is, in a way, a bit misleading – there are no real production numbers, the bulk of the story is told in the book, and the songs in the show are actual songs sung by the characters. In a lot of ways, Once feels more like a play with music or, as one of my friends who saw it with me that evening put it, “A play that’s been orchestrated.” The whole things flows with grace and beauty and ease. But, most importantly, Once on stage has a vibrancy and life and sense of humour that was missing from the film. There are no plot changes – both Guy and Girl end up as they did in the film – but now our leads go on an emotional journey that makes sense and that is every bit as painful and honest as the filmmakers had hoped it would be in 2007.

Both Billy Elliot and Once succeed on stage so brilliantly because, rather than resting on the laurels of their cinematic successes, they reinvent themselves for the theatre, becoming something entirely new while retaining everything crucial to the heart of their stories. They are musicals that are the very best of the form.

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