Friday, October 7, 2011
Billy Elliot's Sky High Operating Costs Killed It
What, pray tutu, happened?
“It’s my fault entirely,” admits lead producer Eric Fellner, co-founder of London-based Working Title Films.
“We’d never made a new musical before. We believed in the vision of the show, and we decided to put on the best production we could without worrying about the [weekly] running cost. But when you’re grossing $700,000 a week, which is not bad, and losing money, there is a problem.”
Everybody on Broadway knew “Billy Elliot” was weakening at the box office, but even the sharpest spreadsheet readers believed it would run at least through next summer, possibly to the end of next year.
And so it was shocking to hear this week that the $18 million musical is closing Jan. 8.
“This show should have run five, maybe six years on Broadway,” says a veteran producer. “It was never going to be ‘Cats,’ but it should have had a longer life.”
Fellner declined to discuss the weekly break-even costs, but production sources say it’s about $800,000. “Billy Elliot” recouped its $18 million in just 14 months. Industry sources estimate the profit to be about $6 million. But despite aggressive marketing and discounting, the show lurched through the summer, sometimes barely breaking even.
The producers analyzed projected sales in January and February and concluded the show could wind up choking on a hose full of red ink.
“The picture, after the Christmas holidays, was going to be bleak,” a source says.
Fellner’s right -- no expense was spared to bring “Billy Elliot,” which opened in London in 2005, to Broadway. A giant hole was dug in the stage of the Imperial Theatre to accommodate a two-tiered set with a spiral staircase. Because of the demands of the title role -- a performer must be a classically trained dancer, as well as a strong singer and actor -- three boys were hired to play Billy Elliot at different performances. A school was even set up in the North of England to groom future Billys (back to the coal mines, boys). Two actors were hired as Billy’s sidekicks. The cast also featured a dozen or so little ballerinas, as well as several adult supporting performers.
“There are just too many kids,” says Fellner. “It’s madness.”
While the show continues to do good business in London (where costs are lower), it collapsed in Australia. And industry sources say two national tours here have been a disaster, losing more than $15 million.
(A scaled-down, bus-and-truck version of the show will be sent out again next year, with a more cost- efficient 1 1/2 actors playing Billy.)
Despite its financial woes, “Billy Elliot” remains an artistic triumph. Lee Hall’s book retains the wit, charm and pathos of his movie. The score is the best Elton John has written for the theater. And director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling have staged many moments of pure musical theater magic.
A number called “Solidarity” -- in which striking miners, baton-wielding policemen and little girls in pink tutus blend into a seamless corps de ballet -- is as thrilling as anything you’ll find in “West Side Story” and “A Chorus Line.”
Says Fellner: “If, when we first made this show about a boy from a coal-mining town who becomes a ballet dancer, you said we’d run 3 1/2 years on Broadway, I’d have said you’re insane. We’ve had a fantastic run.”
I’ve seen “Billy Elliot” three times, and I’m going back a fourth time to bid it a fond farewell.