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Billy Elliot, the Musical

Yesterday I went to Billy Elliot, the musical of the movie.

Billy Elliot

Which I have to say was very enjoyable, in an emotionally manipulative kind of way. The little kid with a poignant letter from his dead mother, who wants to be a ballet dancer despite coming from a northern town in the process of being torn apart by the miners’ strike, the gruff miners with hearts of gold – no heartstring was left untugged. Tunes by Elton John, who’s also not afraid to lay the emotion on with a trowel.

But sometimes that’s quite nice. And it was leavened by lots of high-energy dancing and plenty of good jokes.

I’m obviously just too literal minded for my own good, though, because I never entirely stopped finding it ever so slightly odd that the actor playing Billy was a different race to his parents. He was very good, mind you, particularly at the tap dancing. They actually have five actors playing Billy in rotation to prevent them burning out, one of whom – Matthew Koone – is Asian. It wasn’t enough to spoil my enjoyment of the show or anything, but I was always slightly aware of it somehow.

But then the whole business of ‘believing’ what we see on the stage, and what we mean by that, is peculiar and subtle. It wasn’t like the show was unremittingly realist – we’re talking about chorus lines of picketing miners here – so why one detail niggles and another doesn’t… I think I might be overanalysing at this point.

5 replies on “Billy Elliot, the Musical”

The interesting thing about colourblind casting is that it works best when there’s an established culture of colourblindness. I don’t mean in the society necessarily — it can work well when a theatre community adopts the policy of colourblind casting and then auditions people solely on their ability to play a particular part, not by their ethnicity. It’s a difficult line to walk, though; I think it would be more difficult, though not impossible, to get away with casting, say, A Raisin in the Sun in a colourblind way, when being African American is fundamental to the conflict.

But I speak as one who used to live and work at an international school, where the student body of 200 hailed from 83 different countries. It was impossible to cast traditionally. And so we did a production of The Crucible with actors from Canada, Japan, Turkey, Jamaica, and India; a production of Sweeney Todd with a cast made up of people from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, the Philippines, the Slovak Republic, Zimbabwe, Canada, Scandinavia, the Caribbean and others. In that climate, colourblindness kicks in and doesn’t bother you.

On the other hand, if the person playing Billy Elliot was the only person of a different race/ethnicity in a cast of determinedly Northern miners, then I could see it as a problem — perhaps less of your literal-mindedness than you might think.

He was indeed the only non-white actor. And the whole aesthetic of the production is tightly tied into a particular time and place – Geordie accents all round. Including the actor playing Billy, who geordied away very creditably for a Mancunian (as far as I can tell as a mere southerner).

It’d be interesting to know whether they bother with the accents when it moves to Broadway.

I love “Billy Elliot”, the movie. The boy who wants to dance: why, that is me! A musical version, on the other hand, sounds too much like camp, Chinese boy notwithstanding. Now I will go off and analyze my aversion to camp…

Jee Leong

Actually, it largely avoids being camp, by musical standards. I think the director was probably well aware of the danger. The dancing is largely muscular and energetic rather than, I don’t know, dance-y. And despite the plot it manages to give the impression of being resolutely unsentimental.

The music is instantly forgettable, but in a way I don’t think that’s a bad thing – it feels more like incidental music in a film and doesn’t distract from the action so much.

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