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Report from London

A tale of two musicals: The very British Billy Elliot and the great American Guys and Dolls.

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Is Billy Elliot the greatest musical that Britain has ever produced? Since the stage adaptation of the hit film opened on the West End last month, more than one London critic, tears streaming across stiff upper lip, has made the claim. The Times’ estimable Benedict Nightingale suggested as much while “brushing the residual salt” from his eyes on opening night: “Given the uproar that greeted the final curtain . . . clearly a lot of other people felt that way too.”

The natives can debate the show’s stature vis-à-vis Oliver! and the Lloyd Webber canon as they like; it’s wonder enough that Billy Elliot works at all. The film—the story of a working-class boy who just wants to dance—triumphed precisely because it wasn’t a musical. When Billy’s dreams of ballet inspire him to dance down the streets of his drab Northern Britain town, the strangeness of the sight gave the story whimsy and emotional heft: A corps of dancers would have ruined the effect. Improbably, director Stephen Daldry, who also made the film, and librettist Lee Hall, who wrote the screenplay, find all sorts of mostly elegant ways to translate the story to the stage.

The musical, like the film, transpires during a miners’ strike in hardscrabble Durham County in 1983. Billy’s widower father and brawling brother walk the picket line; they expect boxing from the little shite, not dancing. The old canard about American and British theater, that the former basks in the personal while the latter reaches for the political, applies here. While preserving the story’s family dynamic, Daldry and Hall bring forward its social and national implications. The miners amuse each other by donning Margaret Thatcher masks and singing to her, in absentia, that it’s a happy day because it brings them “one day closer to your death.”

If this sounds like a brittle Marc Blitzstein tract, fear not: The music comes from the soft, soft hands of Elton John. His score ranges from stirring anthems of solidarity to treacly ballads. The tunes are effective if not especially memorable; the lyrics, also by Hall, mostly pedestrian. (His funny, skillful libretto is much stronger.) The show holds together as well as it does because the dancing is better than the singing, and the directing better than both.

Daldry makes dance the pulsing heart of the show and relies on it to do things speech and song cannot. As Billy twirls around with a class full of ballerinas, miners and cops taunt each other from opposite sides of the stage, then charge. The scenes don’t just overlay, they interact, and when the burly combatants and petite ballerinas pair off, the sequence creates a weirdly compelling picture of how even the most far-flung parts of a community cohere. Later, choreographer Peter Darling gives young Billy and his older self a dream ballet. Lit exquisitely by Rick Fisher, it’s a breathtaking scene.

The kids ate that bit up, which is good news for the show, because there are hordes of them around. But this isn’t necessarily tot-friendly fare; plenty of coarse, blue-collar rage lurks amid the frilly tutus. Hall’s script and lyrics are insistently profane. Somehow all the salty language makes Grandma’s ode to her dead husband more moving. (That number is much more welcome than the repeat appearances of the ghost of Billy’s mom: He sings, they hug, I gag.) The ending is happy, but only to a point; it is admirably bittersweet.

Could a show so rooted in a particular region that it requires a dictionary page in the program ever play New York? It’ll take a rewrite, certainly, but much of the material seems strong enough to survive the transplant. Erase the town’s name, cut the accents, let poor Maggie be: You could set this story in any hollowed-out burg in any Rust Belt state and it would still resonate. These days, how much convincing would an American audience need to believe that conservative economic policies could jeopardize a way of life?

Is Guys and Dolls the greatest musical that America has ever produced? The new West End revival of Frank Loesser’s masterpiece presents further reason to think this may be so. Not only because director Michael Grandage has found new brilliance in the material, but also because it reminds us that even a shaky production of this show leaves you, as the locals say, gobsmacked.

Grandage, the fast-rising artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse (which produced the show), forgoes the candy-colored flamboyance that’s often used to trick out Loesser’s score and Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’s book. The gamblers wear gray, brown, and blue suits here; the backdrop is a New York skyline rendered in white lightbulbs. This realism is vastly preferable to the cartoon approach, though it does claim some victims, as when the authentically mumbling crapshooters swallow up the entrance of Sarah Brown and her Save-a-Soul missionaries in “Follow the Fold.” More urgently, the show misses the stylized, rat-a-tat rhythm of Damon Runyon, the story’s original source. His deathless, fundamental joke is that these gamblers may be gruff, but their language is delicate. The actors here mostly sound like any old bunch of American lowlifes. Nathan Detroit (Douglas Hodge) sometimes sounds like Rocky after Apollo Creed’s through with him.


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