Went into the city with my almost-twelve-year-old yesterday to catch a matinee performance of BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL. What a treat.
I already loved the movie. Any story about a working-class kid who has a desire to be some sort of artist against the wishes of his family, especially his father, always gets to me.
My father was a seventh-grade drop out, the son of Irish peasant immigrants. His mother worked as a maid and his father at various menial jobs until he became the first cop in our Jersey town.
My old man was a self made man, he worked for others from childhood to adulthood and then began a series of his own businesses, mostly hardware stores, ending up when I was a kid with a little home repair business I grew up working in.
In one of his most famous lines to me when he discovered some poems I had sent out for publication when I was a teenager still living at home (he thought he had the right to open my mail, because I was underage and it was his house, so he opened a rejection letter with some poems of mine that had been sent back and when I got home berated me for thinking I knew anything the world would be interested in reading about, saying I was still a boy and hadn't done anything yet, hadn't experienced enough, which I set out to remedy and thought I already was ahead of that game), he said "You can write all the poetry you want to. When you're a millionaire."
That summarized his feelings about art, which pretty much were everyone's I grew up around. It was great to play music for house parties or the extra buck, but having any pretentious about being some kind of "artist" was seen as not only getting above yourself, but almost as a betrayal to who we all were, to them essentially.
So the story of Billy Elliot hit a chord with me and moved me deeply. But what amazes me is that this story is so universal. Of course it's the basic story of transformation and fulfilment. But still, in this case, it's pretty specific. The young son of a British miner in Margaret Thatcher's England when she was determined to break whatever power the unionized miners had and privatize the coal industry there which would lead to the end of a way of life for generations of men and their families.
The boy can't help dancing, and when he discovers ballet, can't resist. His teacher sees his potential and encourages him to audition for the Royal ballet school. Oh, and his best friend in their working-class community is a boy who likes to dress up in his sister's clothes. That would seem to be a story with very limited appeal.
But the movie was a surprise hit, and the play not only has been a major success in England, but on Broadway, where it won the Tony for best musical for 2009. The place was packed, tickets are hard to get (I got mine off the internet through a broker and worried until we were in our seats that it was a scam because they were actually cheaper than what you'd pay at the box office!). There were more women than men, but still, there were a lot of men.
There was a lot of age variation too and race and style. It seems to have broad appeal. And the audience seemed to think they got their money's worth. There's four boys who play the lead role because it's so demanding physically, especially for a kid (they're mostly around 13 years old). The show we saw starred David Alvarez as Billy. Alvarez's parents are Cuban, but he grew up in Montreal, and has only been living in the states, Manhattan to be exact, for the past couple of years, mainly to work as a dancer/actor.
Most of the cast are American, though they all have perfected the appropriate working-class British accents, but to have the lead be a boy who looks Latin, playing Brit, was even more of a stretch for the audience to accept. But man did they. They gave him an extended standing ovation, one of the longest I've experienced at a Broadway play.
And maybe that's all it is, the exuberance of seeing a fellow human, especially a young one (he seemed to have some trouble with a few bits, especially the main free style tap dance in the show, so that when his obvious talent with the ballet moves occurred afterwards it was all the more unexpected and impressive) extend what we normally expect from us mere mortals.
I remember the first time I went to the ballet (and one of the only times) and opera (ditto). I was already in my thirties and was no expert on either form, but you didn't need expertise to be impressed by a fellow human hitting a note so high and so perfectly that it seemed superhuman, or balancing on the toes of one foot and spinning with such grace and geometric perfection that you wondered if it was an illusion (or in the case of Baryshnikov, leaping so high and so seemingly effortlessly you wondered if he was part deer).
That was the feeling several times yesterday at BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL. The music is by Elton John, but I think if I heard it out of context I wouldn't be as impressed as I was watching the play unfold and hearing the songs as part of the story, especially the one sung by the actor who plays Billy's father, Gregory Jbara, who had so many little bits of business that were so much fun to watch and react to, the audience fell in love with his every gesture after a while. He played the perfectly befuddled middle age man who has worked hard all his life at the only thing he knows and is bewildered and frustrated and overwhelmed by the changes occurring not only at the workplace, but in his own home and family.
Another treat was Carole Shelley as the Grandma. Delightful to watch as she played perfectly to type but embellished it with so many little flourishes of individual personality it was hard not to watch her whenever she was on stage. And the same for Thommie Retter, a big man with a big belly who halfway through a musical he's done very little musical in, he pulls off a tour de force dance number in which he displays the agility of a skinny little kid and knocks the audience out.
Ah, it was a delightful way to spend a day in the theater, and worth every penny. I laughed, I cried (I have to remember to bring one of those pocket packages of kleenex to these things) and I thought deeply about my long gone parents and grandparents and my own youthful rebellion against getting a secure job in the Post Office or on the force, or taking over the home maintenance business, to become some sort of "artist"—a poet of all things.
I've lived the life I wanted, and still do. As the audience for the musical assumes Billy will (and the movie shows him doing), and remain amazed that so many others who seem so different than me and the friends I've made over a lifetime in the arts not only understand that, but appreciate it and even honor it by, in this case, having made and continuing to make BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL a Broadway hit.