Just got back from London for a quick trip with my friend Celia. While we were there, I decided to take in the British smash hit musical, “Billy Elliot” which is based on the critically acclaimed movie of the same name. It was my second time seeing the Elton John/Lee Hall musical, and I was equally impressed upon a second viewing. The brilliance of the book and score, which intermingles the tragic plight of poor mineworkers in a Northern England town with the artistic awakening of a young boy, makes for a very exciting and moving theatrical experience.
But what makes the experience even more fascinating is the unique casting process for the main character. For there is not just one “Billy Elliot” playing the role at any given time, but rather five different boys. So depending on what night you see the show, you might be seeing a slightly different performance. Because while each “Billy” is equally talented, his choreography and individual dance numbers are catered to that particular boy’s strengths, giving the audience a rare glimpse into the life of that particular boy. It also makes each performance unique and exciting, as the rest of the ensemble always has a new interpretation of the character to play off.
On the night I saw it, a black actor was playing Billy. There have also been Asian “Billys” and perhaps even Hispanic, but it matters not. The essence of Billy is in everyone, and by casting talent over authenticity, the producers are wisely capitalizing on the mass appeal this character has.
I believe the training process for the character is pretty long and fairly extensive as well. Potential “Billys” must go through a year or more of dance, vocal and acting lessons before they can even attempt to do the role. (Or some such rigorous timeframe.) And once you see the show, you can understand why. The role is demanding, both physically and emotionally, and the show would not succeed if the performer did not have incredibly strong acting, singing and dancing chops. And for someone so young to be able to perform such a feat is truly amazing. By the end of the show, you have fallen in love with Billy, his family, his dancing coach, and indeed the town itself, and you also leave the theater feeling energized by hope. The juxtaposition of this long-suffering town of mineworkers with Billy’s emergence as a naturally-gifted talent is an incredible piece of theater to experience, and there are moments in the play that will simply take your breath away.
So with that being said, I am both anxious and nervous for “Billy Elliot” to make its debut on Broadway this Fall. I have heard they may change it to appease the American sensibility, perhaps even moving the local from a British town to one in Pennsylvania. To me, this would be a mistake. The charm of the show is that we are viewing a way of life that is foreign to many of us anyway, and by Americanizing it, I think they change the story. I would hope that American theatergoers are not so superficial as to require major rewrites or different accents to make the show more accessible. It is what it is, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
So here’s hoping the Broadway Bound “Billy Elliot” brings as much joy to American audiences as it has to the London theater crowd for over two years now. It is simply Brilliant!
But that’s just me. What did you think of London’s “Billy Elliot”?