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Billy Elliot’ glides gracefully into stage musical adaptation

Tatiana Spragins | Wednesday, April 7, 2010

When it was released in 2000, the British film “Billy Elliot” was a box office success and earned three Oscar nominations. A few years later, it was adapted into a Broadway play that would become just as, if not more, successful than the movie. The show has graced stages in London, New York and now Chicago.

Billy Elliot is a boy who accidentally discovers a love and real talent for ballet. He is an 11-year-old whose mother has died, whose grandmother is old and losing her memory (along with her sanity) and whose father and brother are both miners in a northern England mining town.

The year is 1984 and a huge strike is taking place at the mine where Billy’s father and brother work. The atmosphere is tense and Billy’s newfound passion is kept hidden from his family, who would surely be unsupportive if they knew. Given this scenario, Billy tries to continue learning ballet and, with the support and encouragement of his teacher, ultimately decides to audition for the Royal Ballet School — which means he would have to tell his family about his secret.

As a Broadway-style show, “Billy Elliot” is an outstanding display of talent and of hard work. The musical does a wonderful job of adapting the movie and the dialogue into songs accompanied by beautiful ballet and tap dance performances. Children are a big part of the cast, not only for the character of Billy himself, but his friends and ballet classmates. A Broadway play whose main roles are executed by children is unusual and ultimately made for an all the more impressive performance.

Another interesting and unique aspect of this play is its genre. Broadway normally deals with either comedy or more “magical” and “childish” themes (such as box office successes: “The Lion King,” “Wicked,” “Mamma Mia,” “Mary Poppins,” “Avenue Q” and even the stage adaptation of “Shrek”).

The show’s creators tried to make the original film’s plot a little lighter at times and had a few (not very funny) jokes. This lighter mood would transition, somewhat roughly, to very heavy scenes. A difference from the play to the movie is also the attention given to the political aspects in the background of the story.

The miners’ strike and Margaret Thatcher’s controversial labor policies in the 1980s helped to create interesting subplots to the play and were important to setting up the background. The violent demonstrations against Thatcher’s heavily-contested decision to lessen the power of trade unions were transformed into aggressive and powerful dance performances. Thatcher is repeatedly referenced and even depicted as evil and inflicting harm to the lives of the workers. This political and social aspect has been more thoroughly developed in the stage adaptation and gives Billy’s story a more complete setting.

Broadway does not attempt to merely tell a story, but to create an entire world on stage, sort of like a “live” movie. For this reason, and due to the nature of musicals, the plays usually stick to more imaginative and funny stories. “Billy Elliot,” however, is very dramatic – but with the heavily dance-based plot, it managed to translate beautifully into a Broadway musical. “Billy Elliot” on Broadway cost over three times the original film’s budget, at a grand total of $18 million. The high production values paid off when the show won ten Tony awards.

It is interesting to note that, unlike most musicals, there were many dances with no songs and songs with no dance, a consequence of the dramatic nature of the play. This way, messages could be communicated more effectively and the technical aspects of dance were better highlighted. The progression of Billy’s dance skills is very much highlighted throughout the play: Two of the most impressive scenes are when he displays his anger when not allowed to audition, and later a dance with his “older” counterpart, showing Billy’s incredible talent and his complete transition to a gifted ballet dancer.

The only distracting factor from the “Billy Elliot” stage show was the forced accents of the American actors. The strong and sometimes incomprehensible Cockney accent in the movie is imitated in the stage adaptation and sounds odd at times.

However, in the end “Billy Elliot” is a lovely combination of different types of dance, singing and a dramatic family plot in a tense political background. While this drama makes it a little different from traditional Broadway musicals, the play is fun to watch and definitely one to consider when visiting Chicago.