Sunday, November 30, 2008

Elton on Billy Elliot Coming to Melbourne

IT may be normal to feel nervous about meeting Elton John.

He must be one of the five most famous people in the world but apart from that, his songs seem to have always been there as anthems to our lives. There was the Crocodile Rock dance, the mournful Song for Guy in adolescence and Your Song will just always be there.

The nerves are eventually calmed but it takes a while and happens in three stages.

It begins with John's partner in life, David Furnish, meeting us in the lobby of the St Regis in New York. His easy charm makes the situation all seem normal.

He takes us up to John's floor. I say floor because John doesn't just have a room, a suite or even a penthouse. He has the entire floor.

The next stage in quietening nerves is when the second set of french doors open to John's private suite and his gorgeous spaniels, Marilyn and Arthur, rush to greet me with wagging tails and glistening noses.

Everyone seems welcoming so far. Only one stage to go.

Furnish leads us past the dining room into the sitting room and rushes down the hall to tell John we have arrived.

He rushes out with effusive warmth, beautiful tailoring and elegant diamond-encrusted fingers.

He's here, he's happy, it's all fine.

It is only 90 minutes before the Broadway opening of Billy Elliot. John has not only written the score for the hit show but it is also largely and coincidentally his own story.

He is probably nervous, too, having known mostly success but also some failure on Broadway. He never thinks about whether something will be successful, he just works on his instincts.

Those instincts have created some of the prettiest songs and the two most successful musicals in Australia in recent years -- The Lion King and Billy Elliot.

It is strange luck that just as the world collapses into recession, US audiences are feeling especially connected to the Billy Elliot tale. This timeless story of a gifted and artistic boy struggling to express himself among hard-nosed miners could also not have been more timely.

"One of the reasons I fell in love with this story is that out of all the chaos that happens to the miners comes a thing of beauty in Billy," John says.

"The US has gone through a tough 10 years, which is why the emergence of someone like Barack Obama who, overnight, turned this country into a country of hope again and a thing of beauty.

"Billy is the butterfly that comes out of the incredible hardship that the miners are suffering."

Billy Elliot is set in northern England in 1984-85 when Margaret Thatcher's Government announced pit closures leading to a year of strikes, violence and police pickets.

Among the political turmoil, Billy emerges as a young working class 11-year-old who is forced to go to boxing classes but discovers ballet is held in the same community hall. He develops a fascination for it and sneaks into classes.

In many ways, Billy's story is the same as John's. He connected deeply with the film when he saw it in Cannes eight years ago.

Furnish had to escort him from the theatre then because he was sobbing and he still reacts in the same way. He cried again at the Broadway opening two weeks ago along with the hardened NYC audience where sniffling was audible, as well as spontaneous standing ovations during the show.

It's that kind of show -- a rare one. It works on so many levels because it is both tender and political.

"Of all the things I'm proudest of in my career, and there have been a lot of things I'm proud of, this is the thing I'm most proud of," he says.

"Every time I see it, it affects me in the same way. It never gets dull. The different casts bring something new to it but it's really the story that gets you. Even though it's Billy's fictional tale it's also what really happened."

In many ways it is also what happened to the man born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in 1947. Although he was close to his mother and step-father, he was never close to his father.

Stanley Dwight was in the air force when his first son was born and they never managed to connect. Young Reginald became the excuse for the friction between his parents who bickered throughout their 11-year marriage.

The pain of feeling unloved by his father hit him twice -- firstly when he was in drug rehabilitation and secondly when he saw Billy Elliot.

"Basically my mum and dad should never have married," he says.

"They married after the war, as a lot of people did, and they weren't suited to each other.

"They were always arguing about me and stayed together for 11 years of hell for my education and they made a lot of sacrifices for me, some of which I appreciated and some I didn't, but I do appreciate them now.

"Even towards the end when we reconciled and I used to take him to the Liverpool (soccer) games and have lunch with him it was nice to see him, but we were never comfortable with each other.

"He was a terrific father to the four children he had subsequently and I don't blame him for anything any more. I came to terms with it during rehabilitation. I wouldn't have been able to move on with my life unless I did."

Success is probably also a great salve. At 61, John's quick brain is as keen as ever and he is always looking towards the next project, making the next friend and discovering the next new talent.

Admitting he still battles with low self-esteem, he also knows he has never been happier. His 15-year nurturing relationship with Furnish and 18 years of sobriety have given him something he never had before - acceptance and balance.

He has learnt how to be an adult in the child-like world of rock 'n roll.

With Furnish, he recognised a maturity from the beginning and regards him as the first person in his life who he didn't have to look after. The safety helped him look at all of his relationships differently.

"My relationship with my father made me the person I am now. It made me an oddball and someone who is incredibly driven but I'm grateful to him for that.

"I didn't come from an unhappy childhood but I did have that burning desire to want to be cuddled by my dad and I never had that.

"It's good to be able to bury that resentment and understand it from his point of view rather than just my own but Billy regurgitated it all and I still weep at certain scenes where the dad holds Billy. I'm a mess, a mess. I just can't help it. It's something that touches me and I envy it so badly.

"All the tough times for me were emotional times trying to convince my father I was doing the right thing."

There have been other tough times. He counts the death of his two great friends Gianni Versace and Diana, Princess of Wales, within six weeks of each other as one of the worst periods of his life.

"When I got sober I realised life's not about highs all the time, it's about coping with the lows," he says.

"Everybody has highs and lows to cope with in their lives and I just wasn't able to cope with the lows so I put myself into the hands of drugs and drink and got into that mess.

"When Gianni Versace and Diana were killed, it was something that was really hard to deal with. Loss is the hardest thing."

It took the musical genius two weeks to write the Billy score and he is clearly more emotionally open than ever.

Staying open is one of his greatest gifts though he says it is a recent development.

"I've learned to be open because I've had to be," he says.

"I was always closed up. I always wrote very beautiful, emotional melodies in things like Funeral For a Friend, Your Song and Daniel where the melodies were very much a part of what I felt but that's different from being an emotionally open person."

Billy Elliot opens at Her Majesty's Theatre on New Year's Eve. Previews commence December 13. Bookings: 1300 555 593 or Ticketek Australia.

See Elton introducing the Search for Billy in Australia/New Zealand here: Herald Sun Video.

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