Nowadays it is normal in musical theatre to see a musical being based on some other work already created. Just this past year's Tony Award season had that shouting right at us, as all the musicals nominated for best musical were not completely new in the sense that there was a movie or a television show about it beforehand. When asked about my favorite musicals, those that are in this category of having a first life before they were a musical, tend to not be on that list except one. That is my favorite overall musical; Billy Elliot.
If you never saw the 2000s movie, why? Furthermore, if you haven’t at least listened to the cast album of the 2005 musical, why?
For those who have no idea what this amazing story is about here is a short summary; A young boy (Billy) finds a love for dancing behind his father and brothers’ (Jackie and Tony) back while they are striking in the 1984 miners strike. Despite the stereotypes of becoming a male dancer and discouragement from his family, Billy’s ballet teacher (Mrs. Wilkinson) and best friend (Michael) encourage him to continue and pursue something that he truly loves.
Billy Elliot is such an inspiring story to hear and see portrayed because having the ability to have something that you can express yourself through is truly the greatest gift that the world can offer. The character of Billy has to go through his own self-deprecation, his families and his peers in order to find who he is.
Here is the in-depth reason as to why this show is my favorite upon favorites.
Right when the curtain comes up, you are transformed to 1984 with a radio announcement about the greatness of energy created by mining but followed by a song where the ensemble sings about standing together and standing up against the unfairness that is working in the mines. The title of the song being “The Stars Look Down”, and that line being said multiple times within the song, reminds the audience how minuscule each person is alone and that in order to create a more fair life they must stand together.
In Billy’s society, it is common for the boys to take boxing classes while the girls take ballet classes to differentiate the strength and delicacy of the two. Upon late arrival to class, Billy is instructed to stay and work later than the other boys and is told to give the keys to the ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson where he finds her to be a bit crazy but also fascinated by the dancing even if it is pretty terrible. It is clear that Mrs. Wilkinson is a washed-up dancer who is just trying to make a living off of what she knows but she also still has some spark of passion for it. After class we see Billy begin to experiment with the shapes his body can make and the things it can imitate through dancing but is soon cut off by his discovery of his grandmother going through some things he holds high value to. It is beautiful to see someone discover their love of dance and want to do it whenever they can.
We later get to meet Billy’s best friend Michael a little better through his song, as Billy catches him putting on his sister and mothers clothing and makeup. It is here we learn that Michael just really wants to be himself and show it to the world no matter the consequence and he encourages Billy to do the same. Taking you out of the show for a second, the kids who play these two roles in any production are extremely talented especially in tap and all forms of dance and it amazes me how children have been able to find a passion and love for dance and commit their time to become so amazing at it. I love the song “Expressing Yourself” as it tells the main moral of the story which is just to be yourself no matter whatever anyone else is thinking or feeling about it.
“Cos what the hell is wrong with expressing yourself for wanting to be me?”
Something that I really love about the musical more than the movie is that they give more to the relationship between Billy and his recently deceased mother. In both versions, Billy is given a letter that he is not supposed to read until his eighteenth birthday but instead reads it as soon as possible, and it is from his mother telling him that she will still be there no matter where Billy is in life. The beautiful part of this scene is that Billy has it memorized and is singing it while Mrs. Wilkinson is reading it and behind her is Billy’s mother singing along with them. It is wonderful to see Billy interact even if it is through non-verbal communication with his mother and visually see that Mrs. Wilkinson is becoming another mother figure for Billy. I personally (having dealt with a death of a parent at a young age) can relate to wanting to hold onto the memories of my loved one while also wanting to find someone who could not take their place, but fill their shoes in a way to help me not feel as though I am missing out on something. The way that the screen to stage writers interpreted this scene was simply gorgeous and because I can connect to it, I imagine many others are able to as well and find it as touching as I did.
Mrs. Wilkinson sees Billy’s love for dance and decides to give him private lessons to prevent Billy’s dad and brother from finding out about ballet. She also wants him to audition for the Royal Ballet School, to which Billy doesn’t believe he can do, but she reminds him that it is a school for a reason. She tries to teach him all that she can before the big audition day but once the day finally arrives the strike had gotten extremely intense with the miners running throughout the city and the police searching for them to try and get them to go back to work by force. Because of this Billy was unable to get to the place where Mrs. Wilkinson and he were to meet to go to the school for the audition she goes to his house where they run into Tony and Billy’s father who try and make him dance for them since he loves it so much. After being told not to by Mrs. Wilkinson by tells his dad that his mom would’ve let him dance, to which he replies “Your mams dead.” This sparks the act one closing number and by far the most challenging dance that any performer of this age ever has to perform. Although only just under four minutes of dancing, it is filled with tapping, screaming, and emotional acting that really conveys the rage that Billy is feeling toward the world at the moment. To see someone at such a young age be able to show the audience every single emotion that their character is feeling at each moment is truly miraculous. I would recommend watching the 2009 Tony Awards Billy Elliot performance to even get a grasp of what I am trying to say.
Act two opens with some comedy at a Christmas party but very quickly changes to show the soft side of Jackie (Billy’s dad) as he sings a song that reminds him of his wife. In most shows, we get to know the characters on their outer levels in act one and act two sometimes reveal some more in-depth levels and this is true of Jackie. The audience can tell that he is having a hard time trying to stay strong while he is out of work and supporting two children and his mother and just wishes to have the love of his life back.
As the Christmas party dies down, Billy is left alone in the studio where he is free to dream about what life could be like in the future as a dancer. A beautiful rendition of Swan Lake is created as a duet between himself and his hope for his future self. They dance together to remind the audience of hope for the future. Young Billy gets set up with a fly system so that the duet can leave the ground and take the duet to a new level, literally. Older Billy leads Young Billy across the stage and lets go to set him free but always brings him back to ground him. It is the most beautiful dance of the entire show because you know that eventually all will be alright and this is the moment when things are starting to go correctly for Billy finally.
Jackie goes to Mrs. Wilkinson’s house to ensure that dancing is something that Billy truly has a passion for and that he could actually do it if he and Tony just believed in him. He decides that the only way to get at least one of his sons out of the miners' hell hole would be to break the picket line and go back to work and allow some possibility of a good life for Billy. As Jackie is passing the fence, Tony sees him and tries to stop his father. They sing a beautiful song that shows that Jackie just wants one of his children to succeed in life and to allow Billy to go after his dream unlike what he and Tony did. Tony tries to remind him that they are a group with all the strikers and that if he gives in then it will just mean that others will follow. The other strikers join Tony in trying to get Jackie to continue to stand with the strike and they will find another way for Billy to get to the auditions again and have a successful life. The back and forth between Jackie and Tony is wonderful to see that Jackie has truly turned over and spoken for Billy as Tony has done most of the talking for him. But they all decide that they will find another way to get Billy to the audition which shows that Tony has begun to believe in Billy but also does not want to give up on what they have all been working towards for now over a year. The men try to pull the money together but are unable to as they are out of work and not getting money from their union, however one man comes in who heard about Billy’s story and wants to support it even though he himself has broken the line and gone back to work. Jackie tries to refuse his money but Billy convinces him otherwise because there was a reason that they all came together to try and pull enough funds. To see the change in dynamic between the town and their idea of a boy dancing ballet is quite admirable and makes you wish it still was not such a problem to be a male dancer in today's society.
Billy and Jackie head to the Royal Ballet School for his audition and while there Billy gets into a fight with another boy who has gobs of money and couldn’t care less about where Billy came from. He and his father are pulled into another room to be reminded about the code of conduct of the ballet and such forth but before they leave the room Billy is asked “What does it feel like when you’re dancing?” to which Billy responds in the song “Electricity.” His response is completely genuine and followed by a would-be improvised dance that shows the curiosity and energy that dance brought him the first time he discovered it and shows parallels to the time he was dancing and experimenting with shapes and animals as dance moves. This dance is the epitome of what it means to be a dancer and what it feels like to dance and I hope if I am ever asked this question I could produce an equally well-formed answer. This is also the first time that Jackie truly sees his son dance and it is so heartwarming his response to it which is pure joy and speechlessness.
“I can’t really explain it, I haven't got the words, it's a feeling that you can't control, I suppose it's like forgetting, losing who you are, and at the same time something makes you whole”
Once home a few days later grandma discovers Billy’s mail and they all wait to hear what the response is about his possible acceptance to the school. When Billy opens it he at first pretends to not have gotten in but then Tony steals it from him and scolds him for not telling them that he had gotten accepted. This is the time when we see Tony truly accept that Billy loves dancing and we see him want to encourage him to continue. At this same moment of joy, the news that the strike has ended and that they lost is delivered.
As Tony and Jackie prepare to return to the mines, Billy thinks of his mother again and sees her. He tells her that he has written a letter in response to hers and it is disclosed that he no longer needs her guidance but will still always have her in his heart. To have this closure with his mother is just about the most heartfelt thing in the entire production and something that was left out of the movie. It is sad to see Tony and Jackie have to go back into the mines but at the same time uplifting to see Billy have something go right in his life and allow him to move on from the wicked of life.
As the curtain comes down before the bows and big finale dance number we see Billy run into the audience and Michael wish him off and good luck.
This story of despite what anyone else says and thinks, pursuing a future in who you are and what you love is a very true one that many folks need to be reminded of every once in a while. Billy Elliot is one of the most challenging roles for any child actor because of the mear magnitude of the role but it is worth it to show the audience what they needed to see. If you ever have the chance to see a live production of this brilliant musical, please do, and if not at least it was recorded in 2014 at the Victoria Palace Theatre and it is such an amazing production of the musical and gives you the full experience as well.