Get ready Melbourne, Billy Elliot is dancing his way right into the Regent!
Based on the film of the same name, Billy Elliot The Musical made its West End premiere in 2005. Since then, it has been well loved across the globe, including in its Original Australian Premiere in 2007. The story follows a young boy and his love for dance amidst the 1984 Miner’s Strike in England. The show is once again touring Australia in a 10th Anniversary production, and is about to open its final leg in Melbourne.
Lisa Sontag is playing the role of Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s dance teacher, and a pivotal role in the show’s plot. A graduate of WAAPA, Lisa made her professional debut in the original cast of The Boy From Oz. In 2005, she won a Green Room Award (Best Supporting Actress) for her role as Frenchy in Grease – The Arena Spectacular opposite John Farnham. Other roles include Helene in Sweet Charity (Hayes Theatre Co.,) Madame Thenardier in Les Miserables (Australian Tour), Tanya in Love (Hothouse/Matlhouse Productions), Mamma Mia!, The Producers, Respect – the Musical, Mary Poppins, The Addams Family (as Dance Captain), and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Lisa has also been part of film, video clips, and variety performances.
Has it been exciting stepping into such a brilliant role?
I’m having the time of my life, really. It’s been an amazing opportunity for me, and I am absolutely so grateful to the producers for allowing me to step up into the role. It’s such a gift of a role, I get to sing, dance, and act, showcase so much of what I do. I’m really enjoying to do all 3 of those things plus skipping with a skipping rope and tap dancing at the same time! And doing a Geordie accent! I think originally the role wasn’t as dancey, but as it’s gone along over the years it has. So, the skipping and the end of her first number [‘Shine’], she does a lot of dancing in that. It’s developed into more of a physical role than it used to be. There’s a lot to cover in there.
How has it been working with the boys?
They’re so gorgeous. They’re such beautiful kids. They’re just so fearless and disciplined, and talented, that’s a given. Every day I get something different, because I have a different Billy. Their reactions, the way they deliver something, it keeps me on my toes because I have to keep listening. It’s such a pleasure keeping it so fresh for me. And I think they’re all gorgeous, they have beautiful personalities that they bring on stage. The original Billys that did it 10 years ago here in Australia, every single one of them is in the industry now, in different capacities, but they’re all in the industry. It’s such an amazing stepping stone for them to get into the industry. And they’re such little professionals!
Often in commercial theatre the child cast is switched out from state to state – but these boys have been following the show around the country with the rest of the touring cast?
Yes, I think because the training process for the boys is so rigorous, they want the same boys to last as long as they can in the show. To train someone up for another city is just… it’s a 6 month process. They were training before we even started rehearsals, you know, doing classes and working on certain areas, accents, that sort of thing. They did actually cast the boys a little younger this time so that they could last the 12 months and not ‘grow out of the role’, so to speak.
Why do you think Billy Elliot is still so well-loved after 15 years?
I think it touches on such relevant issues. They’re on strike for 12 months, there’s poverty for that time, it’s that community banding together. We’ve seen it recently with all the bushfires, community banding together and supporting each other and getting each other through hard times. Everyone can relate to that right now. And also the gender issues within the show, Billy’s best friend Michael likes to cross-dress, and mentions that “it’s very normal, me dad does it!” So he’s quite naive about it, it’s just something that he does, and there’s no problem with it. The issues that are tackled in the show are handled with such humour and honesty, it’s a really beautiful story that’s beautifully written.
Billy Elliot is one of the more notable musicals with its score written by a pop singer – how do you think it sets itself apart from the rest?
They say that there were no hit songs in it originally, that the songs were written to serve the piece. And that’s what they do, they’re folky, they’re relevant to the era and story. They’re such beautiful melodies that you really get taken away quite emotionally with the music. I like to call Billy Elliot a play with music because it’s such an amazing story and the focus is on the story, but there are those amazing spectacles of music theatre that happen throughout the show. The music is absolutely a part of the north England folk style, what they would sing at their pubs. Elton John’s done an amazing job of recreating that. I think that’s what drew him to the piece in the first place, from what I’ve read and heard in documentaries and stuff. The Billy Elliot story really reminded him of himself because he understood coming from the working class, the father not approving of his artistic abilities or passions… he kind of related to that really well and put his hand up to write the music! Elton John came and saw the show in Sydney and did a bow with us, and it was the most beautiful thing. We didn’t know he was going to come on stage… it was just such a testament to the production that he came and bowed with us. His partner brought their kids back a few weeks later to see the show because they hadn’t seen their father’s show before, that was a really lovely moment.
And I think too that Billy Elliot is a really great example of a musical openly confronting heavy political themes.
Definitely. I remember watching the original 10 years ago, and saying to myself “I really want to do this piece.” It was the first music theatre piece I’d seen with so much grit and reality. I just really loved it. And it was the first of its kind, I felt, from what I’d seen and done. I don’t just want the song and dance where we perform, I wanted this song and dance where you’re a real character. Music theatre, in the past, has kind of glossed over big issues. That’s the era they were created in, but I think now we don’t gloss as much as we used to, and audiences are becoming much more appreciative of that. And the actors get to tell the truth! I didn’t know before I did research for the show the extent of it – I knew that Margaret Thatcher wasn’t well liked, but I didn’t really know the whole story. Doing the show has been so informative. It became this class war, and Maggie Thatcher was so well ahead of the game, storing coal for 4 years so that they’d be out-striked… she was way ahead of them, a bit conniving in a way. It’s such an interesting story.
Finally, do you have a favourite song from the show?
My favourite song in the show is ‘Grandma’s Song’, and I think it’s the full package for me. It’s the music, it’s the lyrics, it’s the way Vivien [Davies] performs it, plus the choreography with all the men in the background. It’s just so strong and heartbreaking, and I think it’s the most cleverest piece of theatre. That’s my favourite moment in the show. And when I saw the show originally, that’s the song that really stuck in my mind these 10 years later.
Billy Elliot The Musical opens at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre on Feb 20th.
Tickets and more information are available at www.billyelliotthemusical.com.au