Born to Boogie!
Finally, after years of waiting for this highly acclaimed West End show to land in our city, Billy Elliot The Musical came to Montreal in January. For those unfamiliar with the show, which is based on Stephen Daldry’s 2000 film Billy Elliot, it is about a young boy who wishes to dance and, against his father’s will, takes on ballet. The play is set in 1984 North Eastern England during the country’s drastic miners’ strike. As the mining community struggles to survive, Billy struggles to pursue his dream of dancing.
Now, most men hear this and immediately think “chick flick.” Wrong. In fact, they couldn’t be more wrong. This stage musical is appealing to a much larger audience than ballet enthusiasts because what young Billy does on stage is much more than just twirl. It’s tough work. If you have a body, you can appreciate it.
The boys cast to play the role of Billy usually range from 9 to 14 years of age, before their voices break and before they grow too tall to play an eleven year old. These boys are cast months or sometimes years in advance because a long period of intensive training is required to get the part. The role is demanding, because a child playing Billy is on the stage almost the entire three hours and needs to sing, act, and dance throughout without showing any sign of exhaustion. And it gets even more demanding. Not only do they have to be skilled ballet dancers, these young boys need to be trained in ballet, street and tap dance, as well as be able to do acrobatics. Let’s not forget singing and acting skills as well. Oh, and on top of it all, they have to master a Geordie accent, which is no easy task!
All together, these boys spend months simply training in three styles of dance, acrobatics, singing, and learning to speak and sing in a Geordie dialect before they even begin rehearsing for the show and learning their lines. They are also required to keep set workout routines to keep their muscles in shape and their stamina high. They must keep their stamina way up because they have to be able to do all the dancing required on stage and still be able to sing without huffing and puffing at the end. As a result, these boys have packed days with jogging, dance lessons, singing lessons, acrobatics practice, stage rehearsals, and finally live shows. Physically, it is the most demanding West End and Broadway show for such a young cast.
Naturally, at least three Billys are cast to play the part so that the role is shared among these boys throughout the week. Each Billy will perform an average of four shows a week, continuously rehearsing in between. On stage, they must be energetic and not miss a beat. The Billys switch between tap to ballet to boogie throughout, doing some acrobatics in between, with very little time for rest between each, yet they still manage to sing beautifully. They also need to pull off acting in some very emotional scenes as well as many funny scenes. It is a disciplined lifestyle for a child.
Watching twelve-year-old Drew Minard tap and pirouette and sing on stage in January had me in total awe. Even from the mezzanine, I could see how strong his legs were, how toned his arms and calves and core were. The boys in the role have no choice but to be fit and strong, especially for the ballet dancing, which is frequent throughout the show. Men and women in the audience were equally amazed by Drew’s performance, and everyone was sitting on the edge of their seats when he pirouetted with impressive technique at the end of the show’s big song, Electricity. It is no chick flick. It is a play with a touching plot, solid songs, and dancing that is out of this world. It is an ode to the dancer’s body.
For those still sceptical about ballet and for those who, much like Billy’s father, don’t think ballet is for boys, Billy Elliot The Musical is a must-see show. It is a testament to the physical demands of a dancer. The Billys are embodiments of pure hard work as well as passion when they dance, and it is something both aesthetically beautiful and physically impressive to experience. Dancing is no easy task, and the levels at which these boys dance is very high, putting them through endless training at such a young age. In the end, the boy in the role of Billy delivers a show everyone can appreciate because after watching him go, the majority of us most likely look at our own bodies and think, “I can’t even come close to doing any of that!”