Musings on “Billy Elliot”

A boy, a chair and an irrepressible need to dance (Daniel Russell as Billy Elliot, Photo by Kyle Froman)

There’s a scene near the end of the musical “Billy Elliot” — when Billy stands alone on stage holding his simple blue suitcase — that’ll always remind me of a very special night spent with my daughter Lizabeth.

In just a few months, she’ll be the one holding the suitcase, saying her goodbyes and leaving behind her hometown to follow her dreams in another city — possibly even NYC.

We saw “Billy Elliot” together Wednesday night, as her deadline to choose a college theater program loomed. It might have seemed an altogether different show any other night.

But that night, it felt full of messages meant for one particular mother and daughter who know their everyday time together is coming to an end.

For a young woman faced with multiple paths, all leading to different variations on a theme: the future. And all with no roadmap in sight.

Early in the musical, life feels pretty black and white for Billy and his family. But Billy discovers dance. His dad discovers Billy. And a community discovers a rainbow of greys.

“Billy Elliot” comes close to being one of my favorite pieces of musical theater — falling short in part because of uneven pacing and staging that feels unnecessarily complicated at times.

Lizabeth and I agree that the music is a bit hit and miss. Our favorites are those you may be most familiar with — including “Once We Were Kings,” “Solidarity” and “Electricity.” “Dear Billy,” during its second incarnation, made both of us weep.

There’s plenty of dancing for ballet and tap fans, much of it delivered by tiny packages of power and pizzazz.

Scenes that couple the dancing of a young Billy (Daniel Russell the evening we attended) with his older, future self (Maximilien A. Baud, who has danced with Ballet Arizona) are particularly poignant — and beautiful to watch.

Those who see “Billy Elliot” will promptly get their politics, puppetry and pirouette fix. All served up with a heavy dose of teen angst and midlife musings. Plus a barrel of belly laughs — and a bit of cross-dressing.

Were it not for lots of language unsuitable for young children, I’d have to put “Billy Elliot” right up there with “Annie” at the top of the list for shows most likely to make kids fall in love with not just watching musical theater, but performing it as well.

I’d have worried, when my children were less than 12 or so, about exposing them to some of the language (and one particular gesture) in this show. Lizabeth missed her first opportunity to see a touring production of “Chicago” for just that reason.

But today I’d favor a different decision. Because, as Billy discovers when sent on an errand at a local dance studio, children don’t always know they love something unless given the opportunity to see it. 

For me, the sheer joy of watching young cast members dance forgives a whole lot of “piss off” type material. I may have to see the show again just so I can spend more time watching Billy. (Lizabeth is already planning to take her dad.)

I was rather captivated, my first time around, by the tiniest pig-tailed girl in the show — Cassidy Hagel (“Ballet Girl”). And Griffin Birney (“Michael”) is beyond-belief-funny.

Still, it was another child who really tugged at my heart Wednesday night. I hope she knows how terribly proud I am of her, wherever she decides to follow her dreams.

— Lynn

Note: “Billy Elliot” is being performed at ASU Gammage in Tempe through May 8. Click here for show and ticket information.

Coming up: Jennifer’s marching orders

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6 responses to “Musings on “Billy Elliot”

  1. robert mcguigan

    Glad you enjoyed Billy Elliot. It is a very complex show with many layers and themes, and needs to be viewed several times. You will find that your daughter will enjoy the show even more the second time that she sees it. If you get a chance, see it again, and you will understand more of the reasons for the uneven pacing and appreciate that all of the songs are perfect to advance the plot. The show has been acclaimed around the world and is one of the best shows on stage anywhere inthe world today.

    • Robert: Thanks for reading the blog, and for sharing your insights. You certainly wouldn’t have to twist my arm to get me to see the show many times over again. Alas — I haven’t seen theater all over the world, so I can’t speak to its place in the pantheon of musical theater. But it is indeed a gem. — Lynn

  2. I’m a teen performer who was just linked her by the Billy Elliot fan page. This is my first time reading your blog. I mean this from the bottom of my heart: Thank you so much for being the supportive arts parent you are. So many of my friends have parents who are completely against their child’s passion. If more parents were as loving, compassionate, and understanding as you, my generation of artists would be truly blessed.

    I’m glad you enjoyed Billy Elliot. Please share more of your thoughts on the show in the future. I look forward to following your blog.

    • Hi Keaton: First, cool name! Thanks so much for reading the blog, and for sharing the heartfelt thoughts and kind words. I spent the evening with young cast members readying to open a show tomorrow night (as well as their directors, parents and other volunteers). As two girls sat in the green room doing homework, the mom of a 2nd grader shared her admiration of children/teens who do theater. Like you, I am grateful for parents who recognize that young performers are hard working, disciplined and creative. And I’ll keep spreading the word if you will too. –Lynn

  3. Awesome show – thank you for sharing your feelings about it. I want to bring my 7 year old because the dancing is so incredible but my husband does not agree. I want to see it again in NY however. Good luck with your daughter.

    • Karen: Thanks for reading the blog and for taking time to drop a note. I felt the same way when “Chicago” was touring here many years ago, but decided to go with my hubby’s wishes. Turns out my daughter had plenty of other opportunities to enjoy the show once she was older. Still, she shared with me after I told her of your comment that she thinks most of the mature words in “Billy Elliot” are likely to go right over a 7-year-old’s head, especially with all that dance to distract from them! If you have to wait, look on the bright side. Children who see the show when they are older will understand and appreciate its stories so much more. –Lynn

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