Not many musicals in the history of, well, musical theatre have gotten the kind of glowing notices Billy Elliot: The Musical received upon opening in March at the Victoria Palace Theatre in the West End. To wit: “the greatest British musical I have ever seen,” raved The Daily Telegraph; “Breathtaking,” said The Daily Mail; and other exclamations such as “Brilliant!,” “Exhilarating!,” and The Evening Standard's “There is nothing more glorious on the London stage.” With reviews this exuberant, not seeing Billy Elliot would be a character flaw. You can almost hear Andrew Lloyd Webber turning green with envy.
With music by Elton John and written by Lee Hall based on his original screenplay, Billy Elliot is directed by the film's original director Stephen Daldry who oversaw a creative team that included lighting designer Rick Fisher, scenic designer Ian MacNeil, costumer Nicky Gillibrand, and sound designer Paul Arditti. Also on hand is the movie's original choreographer, Peter Darling, who trained three different young actors in the titular and grueling title role. A bigger hit than the 2000 movie, the musical version has become the must-see show in London.
TRIPPING THE LIGHT FANTASTIC
Rick Fisher's association with Billy Elliot — like that of the writer, choreographer, and director — also started with the movie version, or at least 45 seconds of it. The final scene of the film shows the adult Billy all grown up and portrayed by dancer Adam Cooper in a segment from Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, which was lit by Fisher. However, there is no grown up Billy in the stage version because “we couldn't justify hiring an Adam Cooper for 45 seconds,” Fisher states. Instead, audiences get a glimpse of what Billy could become in a “dream ballet” as Billy imagines what his missed audition could have led to.
That missed audition is also a kick off for a striking musical number to close Act I that Fisher calls the “angry dance” where Billy, outraged that his father won't let him attend the audition, begins to dance out of anger, banging the walls of a toilet in the garden, then ends up in the street among a group of riot police called in to quell the striking miners, an important element of the musical that was downplayed in the movie. To add action to the scene, Fisher relied on VARI*LITE's VL3000Q™ Spots and Washes. “We do some live shuttering of the VL3000s that work really well with the energy and anger of the dance without calling too much attention [to the lights],” he says. “It feels like Billy's doing it and not me doing it, which is the best thing for the show. We exploit the VL3000s quite well.”
Fisher classifies the songs in Billy Elliot into three categories: anthems, ballads, and the numbers. “I always felt that the ballads and anthems would be easy to do and give them strong and dramatic looks,” he explains. “But when we go into a number, that's when we needed to go into a neutral space and use much more theatrical lighting; that's when we fly in the ladders and get rid of the set, especially for the big tap number for Billy and Michael. As they dance they realize they're on to something and they conjure up footlights that flip up on the apron of the stage in their brass shells with 100W bulbs.”
Fisher adds that it was vital that the more showy scenes appear naturally, out of the characters' desires rather than just another production number. “The biggest challenge was trying to have enough Broadway/West End glitz up our sleeves, but make it look like it comes naturally. It took a lot of editing over the gestation of the design period, and indeed over the technical period, to find the right language, particularly for those numbers so that it felt organic. One of the great strengths of the show is that it does feel organic as opposed to just a desire to wow the audience and letting the talent of the performers — particularly the kids — really zing.”
Since Billy Elliot is so dance-centered, sidelight was important to the LD and luckily since Fisher had worked with scenic designer Ian MacNeil in the past; he jokes that he has “trained” the designer to keep in mind the LD's need for sidelight positions. This was not an easy task since the show's chief scenic element is a union welfare hall that is omnipresent throughout the show; it is where the miners meet and also where Billy takes his boxing and then, later, dancing classes. Even though Fisher admits his heart sank when he first saw the set design, he devised a series of ladders that raise and lower as needed when the set — or portions of it — move on and off stage. “Sometimes the ladders come in behind the set when the walls are on stage or they stay up in the air,” Fisher says. “This is an interesting prototype as to how we might continue to work with sidelight positions and set walls.” The ladders are ganged together, four per side, for budgetary reasons. “In an ideal world it would've been nice to have each ladder individually motored, but we couldn't afford that,” he adds.
Once the fixtures found a home in the rig, they had to be quiet. “I am very aware of [sound designer] Paul Arditti's ears,” Fisher says. “As he says, ‘you wouldn't rig a speaker with a 20W bulb in it that was on all the time.’ I was really working hard at trying to keep the noise down and we were fiendish about specifying and compromising on getting the quietest equipment possible. And I'm very pleased with the results. The last show I designed was Jerry Springer: The Opera, which had an unpardonably loud lighting rig and even though it was a completely noisy show, I was aware of this white noise during the quiet moments. We were a few months too soon for the lights we love using — the VL3000 and 2000 range — that have since come out with quieter versions.” Those quieter versions have found their way onto the Billy Elliot rig with 10 VL3500Q™ Spots and eight VL3000Q Washes that Fisher says are the backbone of the show. “They're great units and I love ‘em,” he admits. “They're bright, they're flexible, and have good color. Their tungsten correction is pretty good and I'm interested in a lot of tungsten-looking light to achieve the gritty look of the show.”
The show's original lighting rig had 92 automated fixtures that were eventually reduced to 72. “I'm happiest when I'm editing and refining as opposed to adding,” Fisher says. “I redeployed those 72 lights when I found out what was working and what wasn't. You make changes to help the other departments and move the good lights and cut the bad lights. We were able to do that very happily during a long preview period to reduce the amount of moving heads, which even with the quietest units is a reduction in noise.”
White Light London supplied Fisher with the needed gear. Associate LD/programmer Vic Smerdon used a Strand 550i console with a 510 for backup. The show is run on a Strand 520i. Fisher was assisted by Lizzie Powell and Paul Franklin was the production electrician.
A SCENIC DEBUT
Billy Elliot marks the musical theatre design debut of Ian MacNeil who had previously only designed the sets for plays, which is ironic since he first became a designer because of the musicals he saw in the 1970s and 80s. “Designers in England had been very slovenly about designing musicals,” he says, “then Cats changed all that because it was done by a very arty team who had previously only done plays, and then suddenly it was legitimate to design musicals.” That creative team included John Napier who did sets and costumes and lighting by David Hersey.
According to MacNeil, the dictum in much of theatre design is that a play is expected to look one way while a musical should look another. “There's not a very good reason why musicals should look glib. I don't know why discipline and rigor applies to a play but not to a musical,” he says.
MacNeil and his fellow designers do a lot of plays and it was odd for them, as a group, to choose to do a musical. That intrigued him. First off, he was determined not to have a series of sets to indicate different places every time a scene changed. “I don't like musicals where you're endlessly trundling new scenery on and off all the time. That wears people out and is depressing for an audience,” he says. “In the end, it's like a conveyor belt of scenery. Very often, I get weary in front of them because somehow, with the size of scenery that comes on stage, you know how long the scene is going to be, and that's wrong.”
MacNeil's design conundrum was that Billy Elliot is a book musical that comes back to the same location time and again — Billy's house. “You want the believability of a play. You want the people to be very ordinary in it so the extraordinary can come from somewhere,” he explains. So his design principals were to give the show a “holding form” in terms of set, as well as keeping Billy's house from trundling off because different elements of it were needed for different scenes. “It would be useful for it not to be the same object every time we went back there because there are different things you need from it,” he adds.
Also, since the show dealt with miners, MacNeil thought that it would be ideal to have the scenery come up through the deck because flown scenery can look too “theatrey,” adding that Billy Elliot is a show that when it is theatrey, it's “theatrey with bells on, but mostly it's not.” To that end, MacNeil delved into research of working class English homes during the mid-1980s. Rather than create rooms and homes to near completion on stage, he opted to go the minimalist route and have as little scenery as possible. “As an exercise — and [the design process] took a very long time — I thought it would be cool to make it with as few objects and pieces of scenery as possible and still have it satisfy and delight the audience,” he says. “Of course, it's easy to say all that; doing it was quite a different story. I like it when people say it's very simple. It is simple but simple things are exceedingly hard to do.”
Admittedly, MacNeil obsessed over the design, especially considering the irony that he was focusing on creating a room for his first musical when, in fact, he had never designed a room in his life. In doing so, he was strident about making the set as real as possible. “I fought vociferously saying, if we don't believe this room we don't have a show,” he says. “I was intrigued with those things and there was a perversity in trying to make a room believable and one you took for granted and didn't think about. I did find that unbelievably hard and it's ridiculous because another designer wouldn't kill themselves about seven doors, but that's the nature of the way I am.”
Despite the importance of realism, MacNeil says that there are abstract portions of the set but it's so subtle that the audience will likely not notice. “Realism is very hard and we all avoid it like the plague; we're all flinging pink walls around,” he explains. “I find making things look real is actually extraordinarily hard; it's not my natural impulse because I'm a flashy designer who likes a lot of attention, and I really had to take a backseat and restrain myself. Unfortunately, it's not a show about a boy who wants to design West End musicals when he grows up. I wish it were, but it's not.”
THAT 80S WARDROBE
Also making her musical theatre debut was costume designer Nicky Gillibrand, who previously had only done plays and operas. Her previous design work had included wardrobes that were extremely realistic, which made her a good fit to create clothes from the Thatcher era. “When I first heard that they were going to be doing a musical version of Billy Elliot, I thought that this would be the musical I would like to do,” she says, “and it landed right in my lap.”
Although she was familiar with the film, Gillibrand was fortunate enough to get her hands on the contact sheets of a photographer who spent a year documenting the miner's strike in Durham, UK. “I had some amazing character studies of people, very spot on,” she says. “What it brought home was how old fashioned it was up there, because I'm from the north of England as well. It was quite interesting to look at real stuff and it was a hard brief for myself, because they're real clothes and not particularly theatrical enough.”
And that became the costumer's chief challenge — making the costumes real while making them theatrical as well. “There's a fine line between reality on stage and something that will entertain the audience and reach out into the auditorium,” she explains. “So basically I had to get someone realistic looking and add a theatrical element that would project out to the audience.” Luckily she found loads of old clothes at an incredibly cheap price and that's where she started in creating the characters' day-to-day wear that MacNeil says are “heartbreakingly realistic.”
One character that challenged Gillibrand was Billy's ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, because the actress playing her (Haydn Gwynne) is “very tall and thin and she looked incredibly posh just because of her stature and the way she carries herself,” Gillibrand explains. “She doesn't look like a working class woman at all.” To research what Mrs. Wilkinson might wear, Gillibrand watched Fame (1980) and A Chorus Line (1985) to get a feel for what a dance instructor would wear in the 1980s. “The theatrical realism is always quite tricky and we managed to get that on the nail because everyone has a strong character representation on stage and they relate well to each other,” she adds.
Gillibrand was also pleased to be designing the costumes for atypical chorus members. From little girls to gruff and weary miners, the chorus of Billy Elliot is far from typical. “I design a lot of opera and it's always more interesting to do a variety of body types,” she says. “I've done very, very, very skinny actresses and it's hard to make them look good because there's nothing to work with. So having interesting bodies is always nicer. We forget that when you're on stage you're that much further away from the audience. You have to work that much harder to make someone who's ultra skinny be seen on stage. I do prefer a larger physique.”
Gillibrand also had a task in dressing the three boys who play Billy — James Lomas, George Maguire, and Liam Mower — who range from 13 to 15 and are playing an 11-year-old. “James is especially difficult because he's a young man, but I have to make sure he looks believable as an 11-year-old,” she says, adding that the reason the actors are older is due to the fact that most 11-year-olds do not have the all-around dancing, singing, and acting skills needed for such a demanding role. To make the boys look smaller, Gillibrand layered the outfits since Billy is onstage for at least 95% of the two- and-a-half-hour show, and quick changes were mandatory so she put him in track suit bottoms a lot that could be easily ditched for shorts or other costumes.
The color of the era was also appealing to Gillibrand because it was much more garish than what is typically worn today. “What we wear nowadays is far more muted than what was available then,” she says. “I really enjoyed putting a terrible sweater onstage. You look at it and you know it's dead right, no matter how awful it is.”
Realism was just as important for the sound of Billy Elliot, according to sound designer Paul Arditti, but there were also other considerations. “With Elton John involved, we were going to need something with a considerable amount of power,” he says. “But we also knew that with small children, we were going to need a degree of subtlety.”
The first thing Arditti realized was that the show was going to have a very large dynamic range. “There are large parts of the show which are spoken scenes between a few kids, but there are also big, full-on numbers and dance numbers which needed to get very loud,” he explains. “We knew that we were dealing with as much gain as we could possibly get in terms of how much level we could get out of the kids. We discussed very different types of miking, but we ended up with fairly conventional head mikes for most people, with a few specials for hats.” He added that he considered using “Madonna” mikes — the over-the-head versions with large mikes — but decided those would be too ugly and conventional invisibility for the mikes was the way to go. Arditti added that since Billy is on stage throughout most of the show, the actor is wearing at least two Sennheiser SK5012 transmitters and even puts on a third for the big tap dancing number.
Everyone on stage is miked, “right down to the last swing,” Arditti says. “All of the dialogue is quite heavily amplified. We tried to get as much reality into the quality and direction of the sound as possible. We also needed as much freedom in terms of dynamic range. We were very happy once we were finished tweaking and setting up the system with how natural it sounded. It seems to sound like it came from the right place and has all the right qualities.” The actors' mikes are a combination of Sennheiser MKE2 and DPA 4060s and 4061s.
The audio is mixed from a Cadac J-Type Live Production Console, after Arditti and his team did a lot of deliberation as to whether to use a digital console. “We plumped for quality and we got lucky,” he says of the Cadac. “It is high quality and rather large in its footprint but in determining the number of channels we needed, we would've had a bigger footprint had we gone digital because we would've needed two in the front of house based on the available digital consoles. We felt we got the best of both worlds.”
Since there are different Billys (and Michaels, Debbies, and ballet girls) at almost every performance, recall ability was also important. “Actually [the Billys'] settings are fairly similar to each other,” Aditti says, “and what's absolutely vital when everything is changing at every performance is to have as many settings at your fingertips as possible and that's what we went for and I feel we made the right decision.”
Arditti did go digital for three Yamaha DM1000 sub-mixing desks that mix sound effects and tap mikes. “We use [the DM1000s] for the convenience, size, and programmability, and the fact they can be stored underneath the desk and nobody notices is a plus,” he explains. “There's about 140 channels in all and only about 100 appear on the Cadac. In terms of processing, we decided to go with a Yamaha DME64 and to maintain quality of the signal path we used Apogee ADs and DAs. We got a high quality signal path and more or less the entire system, with the exception of fallback, goes through the DME64, including sound effects, which merge within the DME64 and don't need to go through the Cadac.”
The speaker system is a mix of Meyer and d&b audiotechnik along with a few Tannoys thrown in for good measure. “We went for a fairly powerful theatre system that was less discreet than some, but more powerful than most since it's only a 1,500-seat theatre,” Arditti explains. “We decided on using Meyer MSL2s for the band and a system based around d&b audiotechnick's Q1s for the vocals, which we discovered gave us the level we needed and a remarkable amount of gain before feedback. We achieved what we were hoping for because some of the show is very subtle. It's all quite heavily amplified, but as you watch the production there are some exciting, loud moments. But it also it gets pretty close to naturalism at some parts.”
Two MSL2s were placed on each level — two pairs in the stalls, two pairs in the circle, and two pairs in the upper circle — and Arditti says that gave him ample levels, particularly when coupled with four d&b B2 subs, “which are wonderful,” he says. “The main vocal system is d&b Q1s, which are not really line arrays as line arrays are officially designated because they are a much wider box than the vertical dispersion. In consultation with d&b, we did some tests and decided that the speakers would work very well in pairs. So in the stalls on each side of the proscenium arch there are two array pairs of Q1s that give us vertical dispersion that we needed on each of the levels.”
Arditti admits that he was not 100% confident in using the Q1s for the first time in such a big show, “but they handled it really well,” he says. “They sounded crisp and sweet and magnificent at loud levels. They go loud without any apparent extra distortion and none of the harshness some other speakers I've used for a similar purpose have given. They're really smooth and very, very consistent. I was impressed by the Q1s' very tight focus.” Arditti also specified Meyer UPM1s and d&b E0s for the second layer of delays to provide substantial surround sound for the band and special effects. He also put some sub bass in the auditorium via two Tannoy T40 loudspeakers on each level. Autograph Sound Recording supplied and installed full sound and communications systems.
Interestingly, Elton John first became attached to the project when he saw an early screening of the movie in 2000. He was so moved by the film that he wrote many songs for the show as a song cycle. Sir Elton seemed to identify with Billy who, like him, was an aspiring artist who triumphs over adversity to fulfill his dream. While many of those original tunes were used, some were cut and others were added as Billy Elliot became what it is today — London's hottest ticket.
Billy Elliot Lighting Equipment
|10||VARI*LITE VL3500Q Spot|
|6||VARI*LITE VL3000Q Wash|
|6||ETC Revolution™ (shutter/iris with scroller)|
|12||ETC Revolution (shutter/static gobos with scroller)|
|2||ETC Revolution (shutter/index gobos with scroller)|
|18||Martin MAC 600 Wash (all narrow lenses with spill rings and 5-pin DMX adaptors)|
|9||Strand Pirouette 2.5K with scroller|
|2||Strand Pirouette 2.5K|
|3||DLC with rotator and scroller|
|20||ETC Source Four® 10° (575W)|
|8||ETC Source Four 10° (750W)|
|8||Top Hats for Source Four 10°|
|63||ETC Source Four 19°/26°/36°/50° (750W)|
|36||Full Top Hats for Source Four 19°|
|12||Half hats for Source Four 19°|
|16||Half hats for ETC Source Four® PAR|
|6||ETC Source Four Burners|
|44||PAR64 Long Nose CP61/62|
|32||Spill Rings/Top Hats for PAR64|
|4||Mk1 Patt 23 with 3x contiuous color wheel and Strand adjustable wall bracket up-rated to 1000W lamp|
|2||Mk1 Patt 123 with 1x contiuous color wheel and Strand adjustable wall bracket up-rated to 1000W lamp|
|39||6" Rainbow Color Pro scroller for Source Four 19/26/36/50|
|10||8" Rainbow Color Pro scroller for PAR64|
|2||Smoke machines (DMX control Viper)|
|3||Minimist hand-held smoke machines|
|1||Spaceball smoke machine (DMX-it)|
|1||JEM DMX fan|
|1||Haze machine Unique|
Billy Elliot Sound Equipment
|1||Cadac J-Type 60-way Frame|
|2||Cadac J-Type 30-way Frame|
|2||Rackmount PC running Cadac SAM software with Séance box|
|3||Yamaha DM1000 with meter bridge|
|Processing and Playback|
|2||Apogee AD-16X Analog/Digital converter|
|4||Apogee DA-16X Digital/Analogconverter|
|2||Lexicon 300L Reverb|
|1||TC Electronic FireworX|
|1||TC Electronic Finalizer Express|
|2||BSS DPR901 MkII|
|2||Rackmount PC running McKenzie Electronics G-Type software|
|2||Mackie HDR24/96 Pro hard disk recorders|
|1||24-channel analog and 2-channel MIDI changeover box|
|1||Rackmount PC running Yamaha Studio Manager DM1000, Yamaha DME Designer, etc.|
|2||Rackmount PCs with changeover box running Stage Research SFX 5.6 software|
|2||MOTU 2408 interface|
|40||Sennheiser 1046 Receivers with EM1046 mainframes|
|40||Sennheiser SK5012 Transmitters (16dB pad) with Tx Ae|
|2||Rackmount PC running Sennheiser MCD|
|1||Reverse Radio system with battery amplifier with Sennheiser Evo Tx and Rx|
|80||DPA 4061 and 4060 microphones|
|Loudspeakers and Amplification|
|10||Meyer Sound MSL2A Loudspeakers|
|2||Meyer Sound UM-1 Loudspeakers|
|68||Meyer Sound UPM1P Loudspeakers with volume kits|
|20||Meyer Sound UPM1 Loudspeakers|
|18||d&b audiotechnik Q1 Loudspeakers|
|4||d&b audiotechnik B2 Loudspeakers|
|8||d&b audiotechnik E0 Loudspeakers|
|6||Tannoy T40 Loudspeakers|
|4||JBL Control 1 Loudspeakers|
|16||Galaxy Audio Hotspots|
|9||d&b audiotechnik D1200 Amplifiers|
|10||Amcron MA3600 Amplifiers|
|10||Amcron MA1200 Amplifiers|
|2||Amcron MA600 Amplifiers|
|10||Meyer Sound S1 Processors|
|2||Meyer Sound M1a Processors|
|9||Meyer Sound P1a Processors|
|Orchestra Pit and Chorus Booths|
|15||Aviom A-16 MKII personal mixers|
|6||AKG SE300/CK93 with A91 adaptors|