Toon it down, Billy lad, you’re on Broadway now!
BRITISH actress Haydn Gwynne goes into rehearsals on Monday with the Broadway company of the hit London musical Billy Elliot and the first thing she’ll hear in the rehearsal room is that the Geordie accent cast members employ in the show has been toned down. Haydn, who created the stage role of Billy’s ballet teacher Mrs Wilkinson, will be making her Broadway debut in the $18 million production.
Billy Elliot is set in the fictional mining town of Everington in the real County Durham. In the West End production the Geordie accent is thickly applied, but director Stephen Daldry and his creative tam have decided to give American ears a break when Billy Elliot begins previewing at the Imperial Theatre on October 1.
‘The accents will probably be easier to understand - so that makes it easier for American audiences to know what’s going on,’ Eric Fellner, co-chair of Working Title Films, the show’s main producer, told me. ‘They’ll still be Geordie accents - but probably not as broad,’ he added, in his best Notting Hill. No word on whether actual dialect will change. Will they keep ‘nettie’ for toilet, I wonder, or refer to it as ‘bathroom’?
Anyway, Haydn, who attends rehearsals in Manhattan on Monday - a week later than her fellow cast members, thanks to the time spent sorting out visas for herself and her family - said the American show would also seek to explain the role of Margaret Thatcher in the miners’ strike, and the mixed emotions it aroused in this country.
I had mentioned the second act number Merry Christmas Mrs Thatcher - a bitter song sung by the angry striking miners- and wondered how it would go down, because in the U.S. Lady Thatcher (it seems to me) has always been revered.
However Haydn felt that, seen in context, the audience would understand the miners’ fury. Director Stephen Daldry also plans to introduce clips of the former prime minister in old newsreel footage to set up her unpaid role, as it were, in Billy Elliot.
Before flying this weekend, Haydn - who starred in TV’s Drop the Dead Donkey and Peak Practice - has been brushing up on her dance steps because she feared she had ‘wiped the tape’ after her last performance, two years ago. Luckily she joked, it was still there ‘somewhere on the hard drive’.
But she has been doing ballet daily - and tap - because one of her new leading men is a tap dancing dynamo and Peter Darling, the show’s brilliant choreographer, has introduced more tap - including a tap dance routine with a skipping rope for Haydn. ‘I will do my best,’ she sighed, followed by laughter.
‘There’s going to be a huge culture shock, with the whole Broadway thing.’ But she added that it was an impossible offer to decline. ‘You don’t get to open on Broadway every day. I couldn’t say no, although it won’t make my life easier.’ She told me. Her two children will attend school in New York after she and her partner spent weeks sorting out complex logistical problems.
‘Broadway’s the home of the musical. It’s a bit like an American company coming to do a Shakespeare history cycle in Stratford. You’re taking something which is a quintessentially American art form and doing something incredibly British with it.’ Billy Elliot previews for six weeks and has its official opening night on November 13 - nine days after the historic U.S. presidential election on November 4.