You wrote the film Billy Elliot, which is set during the miners’ strike of 1984-5. The film was very much about an individual’s escape from the working class. How is the musical different?
The movie ended up focusing on the individual story of the Billy character, rather than the collective journey of the mining community. But in the original script, before we edited it, the story was much more balanced between what was happening to the miners and what was happening to Billy Elliot.
Because of problems with filming, rather than any ideological view, a lot of the material about the miners’ strike, about the struggle, was taken out of the movie.
So we were all really determined that the politics of the strike, of that working class community at the time, should be central to the musical.
There is so much to be celebrated about working class life that is rarely seen in mainstream culture.
We saw the musical as a chance to celebrate working class culture, but also lament its passing. I think it has been eclipsed in the mainstream because of what has happened politically.
A lot of the songs we wrote are based on popular working class traditions. We use hymns, folk songs and socialist anthems in a male voice choir tradition.
We wanted to say that there was an indigenous culture that was political, that talks about ordinary working class people. Although we didn’t advertise it along the way—we wanted to sneak it through.
This kind of theatre has been lost. It’s seen as old fashioned or dangerous or obscure, and I think it’s clearly none of those things.
For most people a West End musical is more tourist fare than an attempt to say something. Did you worry that people would dismiss it as a mainstream show with little artistic value?
Theatre is a broad church and there should be room to experiment. I don’t see why we should leave the West End to reactionary productions, which seem to have hijacked it for years.
I think you can make a difference. If you can make something that reflects people’s experience then they’ll respond.
I grew up in a generation that was influenced by the German Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, and the Joan Littlewood Unity Theatre versions of his work. There’s a song in the musical called “Solidarity”, which is about the solidarity of the striking miners.
But it’s a song between the miners and the police. The police are goading the miners, saying they support the strike because they get extra overtime and can take holidays in Majorca and pay for extensions on their houses.
But the song links up the fact that these are two groups of working class people who have been pitted against each other. The solidarity is ironic in one sense, as well as being a celebration of the miners’ struggle. Musicals allow you to get across huge amounts of information in entertaining, palatable ways.
You wouldn’t really expect Elton John to be writing the melody to a song about looking forward to the death of Maggie Thatcher. How did he respond to the lyrics?
He did it with great glee. I didn’t have a clue what he’d make of the lyrics. We had talked about making the play more political. But I didn’t know how he would take it when he got the thing.
But he absolutely loved it. I think he was really pleased to be given something with a bit of passion. He linked up these traditions with popular song.
He thought very carefully about where the roots, musically, of this thing were coming from. It’s a brave thing for him to do, because it’s not what people would expect him to do.
What response do you hope to get from the audience?
I hope that because people are emotionally open to it, this will allow them to be intellectually open to it. Everybody seeing this show, whatever their politics, is pro-miner and pro-struggle in that moment.
The empathy that the audience shows is a chink of light. We’re not talking about a very radical audience in the West End, but I’m endlessly hopeful that the working class tradition I grew up with can be renewed.
I despair that people don’t know their history. I’d like to get those little kids who go to the show to understand what the miners’ strike was. And maybe later on, when they are a bit more conscious, they might investigate it further.
I think it’s important that we remind people of our history — it’s a thing which is very easily lost.
So I’m trying to talk about all those issues in the show, not necessarily overtly so. But I’m hopeful that people can respond to a piece like this.
What do you think about what is on offer today culturally?
I think that people today are as educated as they’ve ever been, but are not given access to a range of things.
The independent film movement in the US is a very good example — it shows that there is a hunger to say something.
It’s a bit like fast food — you have to give people the chance to eat something else. Then they will forgo their burgers. I don’t think that people have lost their hunger for something intelligent, something that speaks to them about their own lives and speaks to them politically.
People want serious fun as well as this dross we have now. And that’s what I’ve always been interested in — serious fun.