The Hot Seat: Elton John

He's not a fan of musicals. That's good news for Billy Elliot.

Illustration: Rob Kelly

In the stage version of Billy Elliot, the story of striking miners is as important as the unlikely tale of the boy who falls in love with ballet (to the horror of his father). Appropriately for a show with politics at the forefront, the splendid music by Elton John is the antithesis of schmaltz—one song, "Electricity," even became a top-five hit in the U.K. "Their careers are finished, their community is finished," John says, "and then there's this little butterfly called Billy going to London to become something different." Growing up, John had a similar experience—his father didn't want his son to have anything to do with the music business. And like Billy, he flew away to a place where he could be himself.

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Time Out New York: Are you a fan of many musicals?
Elton John: Uh. Mmmm. [Laughs] No. No. I like what I write. West Side Story, for me, is the greatest musical ever written, and that's something I aspire to—to write something in the same ballpark. South Pacific is great. But no, I'm not a great fan of musicals.

TONY: You wrote the music to Billy Elliot in two weeks. What is that process like?
Elton John: I don't write very often. I write in spasms. It goes back to all the early albums: [Goodbye] Yellow Brick Road. People say, "Elton, you shouldn't mention that because people will take you less seriously," but it's the way I write, and I only write that quickly because I'm enjoying the process so much.

TONY: Has anyone ever pitched a musical using just your music that already existed?
Elton John: No. I've always resisted it. People have tried to do Yellow Brick Road, and actually I wanted to do the Captain Fantastic musical with Stephen Daldry. That's the first time I met him, but he didn't have the time. If I'm going to write a musical, I want to write something from scratch.

TONY: You have said that you love people with balls. Who has balls today?
Elton John: Um. Oh God. It's hard to say who has balls. That's the thing: Not many people do. Sarah Palin has big balls. It's not my cup of tea. Obama's got balls in a way because he handled this campaign in a very dignified way. He couldn't come out swinging because people would have said, "Listen [to the] angry black man." Balls? Who's got balls? God almighty. Not enough musicians have balls. We live in a kind of mediocre society—people are too afraid to say what they feel.

TONY: I know you have a bunch of godchildren. What makes a good godfather?
Elton John: Making sure you spend time with them and you take an interest in what they do. I had dinner with two of my godchildren last Sunday in Los Angeles. I took my godchildren to see Kung Fu Panda. It was hilarious because they were hilarious. I haven't been a good godparent to a lot of my kids because in the '80s, when I became a godparent, I was such a loose cannon and so self-obsessed. I lost one of my godchildren this year, four years old, who died of cancer of the brain. That was just awful. I played at his funeral.

TONY: What did you sing? "Skyline Pigeon." There is a danger
Elton John: of me becoming a funeral entertainer. I wanted to sing for him because he loved music, but it was so bleak and horrible. I became a godfather on a whim. "Oh, yes, I'll be godfather!" I didn't take it seriously enough, but now I do.

TONY: You're going on tour again with Billy Joel. Doesn't Rod Stewart call you Sharon and you call him Phyllis? Do you have a name for Billy?
Elton John: No. Mrs. Joel. [Laughs wickedly] I love Billy. I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully he won't collapse at the piano and cancel his tour again. He's in a much better frame of mind these days.

TONY: Toward the end of the movie and the musical, Billy Elliot is asked what it feels like when he's dancing. What does it feel like when you play music?
Elton John: I just love to play live. The older I get the more I enjoy it. My records don't sell like they did anymore. I made 48 albums. The world doesn't really need another Elton John album.

TONY: My father would disagree.
Elton John: [Laughs] But I'm realistic enough to know that. I just disappear, really, like Billy does when he dances. It's the most incredible thing and some nights, you feel like shit and you think, I can't go on tonight. I'm so tired. And you go on and it's so brilliant. Some nights you're feeling really perky and you can't wait and it's crap. That's the joy of live performing. It's always to a certain standard, but some nights you just fly away.

Billy Elliot is now playing at the Imperial Theatre. Elton John's The Red Piano is now available at Best Buy ($24.99).

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