With the 1984-'85 coal miners' strike playing a major role in its story, Billy Elliot would seem to be a quintessentially British show. But Lee Hall, who wrote both the book and lyrics for the musical and the script for its predecessor film, said he was inspired by great American musicals, notably Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! and Carousel.
"On the surface, joyous; underneath, there's grit in the oyster," Hall told the Journal-Sentinel.
"We were very consciously trying to make a British version of this familiar milieu," said Hall, connecting "Billy Elliot" to the American small-town musicals. "The loss of the parent is very important in 'Billy Elliot.' I think 'Carousel' was in our mind."
The saga of a working-class boy who wants to become an artist is a "fantasy autobiography" for Lee, who also grew up in a northern English town. His father didn't want him to become a writer, but it happened, "he became my biggest supporter, my biggest fan."
People say that a story is about someone going on a journey and changing, Hall said. But Billy Elliot doesn't change: He wants to dance, and he dances. The dad is the one he changes, the writer said.
Hall might have thought he was through with Billy when the movie came out, but Elton had other ideas.
"He felt a very real connection with the story; it was similar to his growing up," he said. "I kind of thought making it a musical was the worst idea in the world."
But Elton persuaded him, writing the music to Lee's lyrics.
"We call it the kids' 'Hamlet,' " Hall said of the musical, because Billy is onstage in nearly every scene, with several huge dance numbers. "We have to train the kids to be physically strong enough to do the show."
The U.S. touring company of Billy Elliot is at Milwaukee's Marcus Center for performances, through July 22.