TORONTO — When Toronto-born producer David Furnish saw his partner, Elton John, burst into tears after watching the film Billy Elliot, he knew right then that it would make for a moving stage show.
Furnish says they first saw the 2000 drama, about a British boy at odds with his father as he takes up dancing amid the 1984-85 miners’ strike, at the Cannes Film Festival when it was titled Dancer.
“We went along not expecting anything and saw this film that, for Elton in particular, mirrored his own personal life journey so closely,” Furnish said while promoting the Toronto production, which begins preview performances on Tuesday.
“Elton was a working-class kid with sparks of musical talent and a father who didn’t appreciate or celebrate what his son had to offer. What was so profoundly moving for Elton was the fact that in this movie, Billy’s father has this epiphany and actually is able to recognize his son’s talent and potential and get behind him and encourage him and support him, and Elton never had that.
“So that’s a real void in his life and something that he, to this day, still finds very heartbreaking . . . . Elton was in floods of tears and we met the filmmakers and . . . I said, ‘The music and dance is such an integral part of the storytelling. This would actually make an even better stage musical.”’
With music from John, choreography by Peter Darling, a book and lyrics by Lee Hall and direction from Stephen Daldry (Hall and Daldry also worked on the film), Billy Elliot the Musical debuted to critical acclaim in London in 2005.
It then went on to Australia and New York, where it won 10 Tony Awards, followed by Chicago as part of a North American tour.
The Toronto production at the Canon Theatre marks the Canadian premiere, and Furnish said he’ll “absolutely” be at the official opening March 1 with John, as well as family and friends.
“It’s the most satisfying thing I’ve ever worked on in my life, without question . . . . To come back to my hometown with a show like Billy Elliot is a dream come true . . . ,” said Furnish, who has a civil partnership with John. The two also recently became parents to a baby boy, born to a surrogate mother on Christmas Day.
Cesar Corrales, Myles Erlick, Marcus Pei and J.P. Viernes will rotate in the role of 11-year-old Billy in the Toronto production, which also stars Canadian Kate Hennig as dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson — a role she also played in the Broadway show.
Corrales, 14, was born in Mexico and raised in Montreal; Erlick, 12, is a native of Burlington, Ont.; Pei, 13, is from of Iowa City, Iowa; and Viernes, 14, was raised in Half Moon Bay, Calif.
Corrales, Erlick and Pei have all studied at Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto.
“I think the kids who are coming to Toronto are fantastic,” said Daldry, who’s currently directing the film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer.
“I think the reason it keeps fresh is because of the kids . . . . It changes each performance; no one show is like the other.”
Daldry and Furnish said they wanted to bring Billy Elliot the Musical to Toronto before Broadway, because they felt the story would have a strong cultural connection here.
But several issues stood in the way, including theatrical availability, logistics and budget.
Producers also needed to develop a support system in Canada for the young leads, who go through intensive training at a “Billy facility” in New York before taking on the role.
“Those boys are so well groomed, I like to say they’re like Arabian stallions,” said Furnish. “They’re carrying a lot of show on their shoulders — and they’re little shoulders, they’re not big shoulders — and they have to be emotionally and physically encouraged, nurtured, supported, rested, balanced and focused so that they can live up to the challenges of doing the role of Billy.”