Billy Elliott Review: My First Foray with Broadway

When I was in New York, one of our 'must see' stops was a performance at Broadway. We've both seen several musicals and stage plays up here in lovely Ontario, but never had the opportunity to experience a performance in the world renowned Broadway. Now, I sort of had a feeling it wouldn't be all that different from watching a musical anywhere else, but I also appreciated the fact that most Broadway theatres have a long and storied history. Plus since Broadway is known as the ultimate location for musicals in the world, you'd assume you're likely to get the best actors and performances possible. So, we both decided that watching a Broadway musical was a must, and it just came down to choosing the show.

Luckily for us, are decision was made easy by the cost of the tickets. Broadway is perceived as THE place for musicals, and clearly, the person pricing the tickets realizes that too. Even the 'cheap' tickets will do a good job of reducing the weight of your wallet. Luckily, there is a lot of web sites you can go to for discounts, but unfortunately, most of the musicals we wanted to see were super hot attractions, thus didn't have reduced rates. So, it left us with Billy Elliot, which was a play Emily was interested in seeing and I was willing to watch because I really wanted to see something at Broadway.

Billy Elliot performed at the Imperial Theatre, which is one of the classic Broadway theatres. The theatre opened way back on December 25, 1923, and was built to replace the then outdated Lyric Theatre. It was also the Broadway home to the legendary musical, Les Miserable for 13 years (1990 - 2003). Of course, prior to that it played host to several of the famous musicals including Fiddler on the Roof, Annie Get Your Gun, Dreamgirls, and Mystery of Edwin Drood (also a Dickens novel). The Imperial Theatre has the classic 20's style theatre architecutre, and inside is furnished and designed to keep a similar motif. It's also your typical downtown New York building, meaning it is very narrow and long. The actual auditorium was interesting, because the balcony seating was incredibly steep to the point many patrons remarked on it, though Emily told me that Toronto's Royal Alexandra's balcony is even steeper.

Billy Elliot is unique in that it's initial presentation was as a film. Often, people will criticize the fact that film ideas are taken from successful novels, plays or musicals. In this case, both the musical and the novel came from the original film. I haven't yet seen the film or read the novel, which may be part of the reason I didn't have any super keen interest to see the musical other than be able to say I went to a Broadway show. I had a good idea of the plot and premise, but the idea of a boy trading in his boxing gloves for ballet shoes wasn't something that caused me to squeal with excitement. I was sure I'd be able to survive a few hours of spins and pirouettes.

I didn't need to worry about having to 'survive' the performance. Billy Elliot is about far more than one boy's love for ballet. It is an edgier and grittier musical than you'd assume on something based around ballet. It's a blue collar musical with a powerful message about acceptance and open mindedness. Plus it is an incredibly fun time.

The musical is set during the 1984-1985 UK miner's strike and takes place in the fictional town of Everington. Essentially, the town is a blue collar community that is largely populated by coal miners and relying on the strike to successfully stop Primer Minister Margaret Thatcher's push for privatizing the majority of industries. Though this is an historical piece, knowledge of the time period isn't a huge necessity because they explain everything that is crucial. The main themes are universal enough and the characters are relatable even today, so knowing the real issues beforehand isn't necessary.. The focus is obviously on a young Billy Elliot who lives with his widowed father, older brother and crazy grandma (both the voice of reason and comic relief). Billy initially is enrolled in a boxing club, but the ballet class after is what he is truly talented at. A huge part of the story is about Billy's struggle of being talented at and loving something that isn't going to accepted by the rest of community or more importantly, his family. It deals with issues of being an outcast and trying to gain acceptance for who you are. Another big part of the musical focuses on Billy's amazing talent and growth in ballet juxtaposed with the long and failing strike that his family is a part of. The strikers know that coal mining is really all they can do, and the town will be hit hard if the strike ends up failing. Meanwhile, Billy has a chance of being so much more than a coal miner and has an opportunity for a future, even if it is something that isn't looked upon favourably by other community and family members. It is a theme that has been explored numerous times by other fictional works, but never with such a unique plot.

One of the great appeals of Billy Elliot is that it is a authentic look at the working class. The musical is raw and gritty, and full of foul and rough characters. I've heard it said and I've always believed, that good fiction is truthful. What that means, is that it allows the characters to behave the way they should and doesn't hold back in what is presented. It isn't afraid to go in the most honest direction, even if it risks offending. Billy Elliot is an honest portrayal of working class folks that have come on some hard times. The musical is full of profanity and the characters often act very crude. It reminded me of Brantford in some ways, which is also a town with a long working class history. I felt like I was watching real people rather than one person's take on how someone should act. It doesn't shy away from the behaviours and mannerisms of the working class, and it uses the type of language you would expect. It causes the audience to believe in these characters and the situation. Billy Elliot's greatest strength is that it doesn't shy away from being raw, dirty and crude, and allows for a much more authentic tale.

The second biggest strength of the musical is its ability to balance serious subject matter with large doses of humour. Billy Elliot touches on important and serious issues and themes, but it also a very funny musical. I am confident that every person in the theatre broke into hysterical laughter when Billy's friend Michael revealed his hobby of wearing his sister's dresses, and then breaking into a complete dance number to showcase his love (which included several dancing dresses and a poor pair of trousers that Michael continually tried to kick off the stage). Michael inclusion as a character was to demonstrate how different we really are and how important it is to be accepting, but the musical was able to present this serious message with large doses of humour. The musical is full of quirky characters, like the dance instructor and grandma, that allow for funny one liners and comic relief. When Billy Elliot is going for laughs, it was always pretty successful.

Now, it is a musical, so the show needs to also be graded on its songs. Though the songs may not be the most memorable, I did feel they did a good job of setting the various moods. When it was a tragic moment, they presented a song that would create the necessary sadness. When it was a tense and violent moment, then they played a song that added to the tension. I may not be humming these songs after watching the musical, but they did add the emotions and feelings necessary while watching the show. The music was a nice compliment to scenes, even if they weren't unforgettable compared to some classical musical songs.

The acting for the most part was solid, especially considering it was full of child actors. Though a few years back, I was blown away by the amazing child performances in the play, To Kill a Mockingbird, and I haven't been able to find children performances that have been able to compare since -- and after watching Billy Elliot, it hasn't changed. Everyone seemed to know their characters well, and I was never jarred out of the presentation and felt like I was watching someone try to act. I am not sure if it was an all UK cast, but if there was some Americans, I have to say everyone did a great job of holding their accents. Along with the acting, the dancing choreography was solid, and the actor playing Billy Elliot was talented enough to make me believe the character did have a chance to make it big. My wife was hoping for some bigger dance numbers considering what the show was about, but for the most part, everyone did a good job with what they were given.

I did really enjoy the story for the most part, but I did think there were two glaring errors. The first was that Billy's mom (who comes to him as a vision since she is dead) was underused. We were supposed to believe that Billy was using his mom as a crutch and still relying on her after she died, but she just didn't show up enough for me to feel that kind of connection. Even if they just kept her on stage watching Billy and allowing him to occasionally look at her, would have helped make the relationship seem tighter. As it was, she came off as a bit of an after thought and caused the closing moments of the musical to lose some of its impact.

The second story problem was the tension between Billy and his family that doesn't want him in ballet. At first, I thought it was conveyed really well and helped push the story along. The resolution came along far too sudden and out of nowhere, and was one of the moments that came off unrealistic. It may have been an issue of having too much to cover in the performance, and needing for a quick resolution in order to move on to the next act. I was disappointed in how the tension was resolved, and from that point, caused me to be less engaged with what was happening.

This musical is about the underdog. The coal miners fighting against the Conservative government. The boy who loves something not accepted by the community. Then the same boy trying to make it out of this working class town and try to achieve something much greater. People love rooting for the underdog, and this musical does a great job of making you care and cheer for them. The characters are authentic and real, because they are full of flaws and problems. They cuss and make mistakes, and thus are easy to relate to. It makes you want to cheer for them, and see them end up happy and successful. It is full of many people who may seem 'different' but it shows that they all belong and need to be accepted. The most powerful scene for me comes near the end of the play, when Billy and Michael interact for the last time. The scene shows that even though both may be very different, Billy does something to show he is supportive and understanding of his friend. It is a great moment and one that demonstrates what the entire musical is about.

Billy Elliot
is a far deeper musical than most would expect. Unlike most polished musicals, this is a raw and gritty affair. You won't take your whole family with you, but it does have a message worthy of everyone knowing. It is a serious but also funny show. You'll be able to be incredibly entertained, but also able to discuss it with someone over a coffee. The story has a few missteps and flaws, but in the end, it conveys its message in an entertaining way. That is the most important part, being able to keep the audience thoroughly entertained. Billy Elliot is a musical that can display some of the harsh realities of life and have a serious message everyone needs to hear, but also allows you to escape from the real world for a few hours of fun entertainment.