Billy Elliot the Musical (BETM) is currently in its 11th year in London’s West End and will close there on 9-Apr-2016 after 4600 shows. The show has played all over the world and future productions that have been announced via the recent licensing agreement with Music Theatre International (MTI) will introduce a still wider audience to BETM around the planet.
Despite the almost cult-like following of the 2000 movie Billy Elliot on which the musical is based, and many stage productions of the show, as more and more people are exposed to the live production of the musical, it continues to amaze me how many times I read comments from people going to the show for the first time that they don’t understand the very basics of the plot line and story or they don’t understand the relevance of a scene or musical number in the show.
So I’ve decided to write a synopsis of the show, both for those who will be attending BETM for the first time and for those who recently viewed it and have questions about some aspect of the show.
Director: Stephen Daldry (who also directed the movie)
Script/Lyrics: Lee Hall (who also wrote the screenplay for the movie)
Music: Sir Elton John
Choreography: Peter Darling (who also did the choreography in the movie)
The town of Easington, in the north of England, in the 1980’s.
Billy: the title character who is 11/12 years old.
Dad: Billy’s dad, Jackie Elliot, who is a coal miner
Tony: Billy’s brother who is in his late teens or early 20’s and who is also a coal miner
Grandma: Billy’s grandmother who lives in his household and is, at times, rather eccentric
Mrs. Wilkinson (Mrs. W): teacher of local dance classes who encourages Billy to develop his raw dance talent.
Mr. Braithwaite: piano accompanist and overall “right hand man” to Mrs. W at the dance school.
Michael: Billy’s best friend and also about the same age as Billy.
Debbie Wilkinson: Mrs. W’s daughter who attends the dance classes and who has a crush on Billy.
Dead Mum: Billy’s mum, who died two years previously and who appears to him in a dream-like setting three times during the show.
George: A miner who is also the town’s boxing coach and the MC at the Christmas party
The large ensemble consists of children and adults who play a variety of roles. Children’s roles include children of the townspeople and ballet girls in Mrs. W’s class. The adults play everything from miners, to policemen, to other townspeople and more.
There are two main storylines:
1) The community, in which the vast majority of adult males work in the coal industry, is suffering through a major work stoppage (strike) to protest Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s attempts to break the then powerful coal miners’ union (a good short synopsis of the strike can be found here. ) In this photo from the Broadway production, the ensemble portrays the mining community in the Miners Welfare Hall.
Credit: Photo by David Scheinmann
Billy Elliot’s family (consisting of father Jackie, older brother Tony and Grandma) are severely affected by the strike as both Jackie and Tony are miners who are on strike.
So one storyline is about the strike and the tensions within the community between the miners and the authorities (represented by the police, who have been brought in from London to keep order.) In a scene from the London production, below, Colin Bates as Billy is confronted by the police.
2) The second storyline is about 11-year-old Billy himself. His dad (and indeed the society in which he lives) basically maintains that boys should be macho. So being tough and being able to defend one’s self is basic. Billy, like his father and brother before him, is therefore enrolled in boxing classes at the Miners Welfare Hall – a community meeting place that also houses the dance classes of Mrs. Wilkinson. Billy really doesn’t like the boxing classes.
One day, at the end of the boxing session, George asks Billy to pass on the keys to the hall to Mrs. W, who will be conducting her dance class. Soon thereafter, Mrs. W and her girls arrive, and Billy gets drawn into the lesson as he keeps trying to give Mrs. W the keys as instructed. He sort of likes what he finds himself doing and gradually gets taken in by dance – especially after Mrs. W recognizes his raw talent and begins encouraging him. So instead of going to boxing, Billy begins to secretly use the weekly boxing fee, provided by his dad, to enroll in the dance classes.
After a time, Billy’s dad discovers what he’s doing, angrily barges into the dance class, declares no son of his is going to be a “poof”, and pulls him out of the class.
Mrs. W, seeing the potential that Billy has as a dancer, works it out with Billy that she’ll secretly give him lessons, with the goal that he’ll eventually try out for the Royal Ballet School (RBS).
In the end, Mrs. W convinces Billy’s dad of his awesome talent and he agrees to take Billy to audition for the RBS. Later, after being accepted to the school, the story becomes very emotional as Billy leaves the community that has become very supportive of him to attend the RBS. The RBS will provide him with a way to break out of the depressing mode of trying to earn a living in a community supported by an industry on the decline (much like the auto industry of the last decade in the United States). In this scene, Billy (Trent Kowalik and the original Broadway cast) says goodbye to the miners.
Credit: Photo by David Scheinmann
A subplot involves Billy and his best friend, Michael, who realizes he is gay. He also enjoys dressing up in his sister’s clothes. In this production number called “Expressing Yourself“, from the Broadway production of the show, Tony Award nominee David Bologna is Michael and Tony Award winner David Alvarez is Billy.
Credit: Video by rickyweygint
The empathy between Billy and Michael is a very important part of the show. Both boys are living in a society that stresses stereotypes of what a male ought to be. And what he ought to be doesn’t include being gay or being a ballet dancer.
Billy, who is not gay, is nonetheless drawn to Michael as he, too, strives to be different from what society expects.
Is that a Scottish, Welsh, Irish Accent?
The accent the actors speak and sing with is actually none of the above. It’s a northern English accent called Geordie. Cast members of the show spend many hours with dialect coaches learning the accent, which is thought by many to give BETM an authentic air. It can be hard for some people to understand, however, and the accent has been toned down for audiences of the American productions.
Scenes Which May Require an Additional Explanation
There are three scenes in the show in which Billy imagines visits from his “Dead Mum” – whom he misses tremendously and who he feels would be supportive of his desire to dance. This scene is called “The Letter” from the Broadway production:
At the end of Act I, there is a production number called “Angry Dance“. In it, all of the pent up anger, hopelessness and frustration that Billy feels, caused both by how his family and community are being affected by the miners strike and by his family’s lack of support of his desire to dance, comes out in a torrent. He expresses his feelings in the only way he knows how — by dancing. In an extraordinary exhibition of tap and modern dance skills, this high energy, sometimes violent scene ends the first act while often leaving audiences in awe of what they’ve just seen. Below, from the Broadway production, Tony Award winner Trent Kowalik (a world Irish Step Dancing Champion who performed Angry Dance at the 2009 Tony Awards Show at Radio City Musical Hall) is flanked by police in riot gear as he dances.
Credit: Photo by Andrew H. Walker
There is another scene in the show that can be confusing to first time audiences. Called “Dream Ballet”, it is a ballet duet danced to Swan Lake in which Billy dances with his “older self”. For whatever reason, some people don’t grasp that this is Billy dreaming of what his future in dance could be and that the older guy he’s dancing with is also Billy when he’s grown up. The dance contrasts what he is now to what he hopes to attain one day after his dance training. The photo, below, is from the Chicago production.
Audiences should be advised that at the conclusion of the show, as Billy is leaving to go off to the RBS, he physically leaves the stage and, as he walks up one of the aisles of the theater, the curtain on stage comes down on Michael who has been saying goodbye to his friend. At this point the show isn’t over. What follows is a very intricately choreographed production number called “Company Celebration” that serves as the curtain call for the show. Billy and the entire cast participate in this elaborate number. Don’t plan on leaving early to beat the traffic. You won’t want to miss this great Finale to the show. Pictured below is Michael Dameski and the Broadway cast in the Finale.
Credit: Photo by Catherine Pappas
The graphic, below, contains all the major musical numbers from the show. It’s actually a reproduction from the Playbill program from the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.
Note that perhaps the most known of the musical numbers in the show (as it has been featured on TV and in many videos) is “Electricity” in Act II. That number represents Billy’s audition at the RBS. As the number begins, his initial tryout hasn’t gone all that well and a disappointed Billy and his dad are about to leave the audition hall. But one of the members of the audition panel seems to sense there’s something more to this kid and asks him “What do you feel like when you dance?” “Electricity” is Billy’s answer to that question. From the London production, this picture captures Billy (as played by Brad Wilson with Joe Caffrey as Dad) as he finishes “Electricity“. It is a show stopping number which frequently earns the Billys standing ovations from appreciative audiences.
Has the Show Won Any Awards?
Yes. The show has won awards, including Best Musical, in every country where it’s opened. These include:
Olivier Awards (Society of London Theatre) (2006)
- Best New Musical
- Best Actor in a Musical (James Lomas, George Maguire, Liam Mower)
- Best Theatre Choreographer (Peter Darling)
- Best Sound Design (Paul Arditti)
Helpmann Awards (Australian Entertainment Industry Association) (2008)
- Best Musical
- Best Male Actor in a Musical (Lochlan Denholm, Nick Twiney, Rarmian Newton, & Rhys Kosakowski)
- Best Female Actor in a Musical (Genevieve Lemon)
- Best Lighting Design (Rick Fisher)
- Best Music Direction (Stephen Amos)
- Best Choreography in a Musical (Peter Darling)
- Best Direction of a Musical (Stephen Daldry/Julian Webber)
Tony Awards (American Theatre Wing) (2009)
- Best Musical
- Best Book of a Musical (Lee Hall)
- Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish)
- Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Gregory Jbara)
- Best Direction of a Musical (Stephen Daldry)
- Best Choreography (Peter Darling)
- Best Orchestrations (Martin Koch)
- Best Scenic Design in a Musical (Ian MacNeil)
- Best Lighting Design of a Musical (Rick Fisher)
- Best Sound Design of a Musical (Paul Arditti)
Note that there are four boys who alternate the role of Billy in a rotation necessary because of the physical demands of the show. They are onstage for the entire 2 hrs and 50 minutes except for two scenes and they are constantly dancing. Director Stephen Daldry is quoted as saying that no role in the history of modern theater has demanded so much from such a young performer. He likens it to asking them to run a marathon while performing Hamlet.
So How Do I Know Which Billy I’ll See?
You won’t — until you get to the theatre. Then there’s a Cast Board in the theatre lobby which lists who will be appearing in the roles that have alternating actors who play them, including who will be playing Billy for that performance.
For most productions of the show, there will also be an insert in your program. The actors receive a weekly schedule, but it is not to be shared with the public. The main reason for that is that things can change at the very last minute. Someone calls in sick or, worse, someone is injured in warmups or is sick just before the show (which has happened several times). Because the character of Billy is so intregal to the show, the show cannot go on without a Billy. So, there is a standby Billy who is scheduled (and is physically present in the theatre) for every show. There have also been times when a Billy cannot continue mid show and has to be replaced for the rest of the show by the standby.
But the good news is no matter which Billy you get, you are guaranteed a wonderful theatrical experience. Every Billy, in every production of the show, has been carefully selected, from among thousands of boys who have auditioned, based on their talent and each has undergone months of training and rehearsals before they make their stage debuts. Will there be differences in how they portray the character? Yes. Will each boy bring different strengths to the role? Yes. But they are universally excellent. For more information on how Billys are selected and the training they undergo for the role, see the article on this website entitled: Where Do All the Billys Come From?
For further detailed resumes of the boys who play Billy, there are several articles on this website featuring profiles of the Billys.
I hope this synopsis helps you get a basic understanding of the show. One thing is certain and that is you’ll be blown away by the choreography of the show and the talent of the Billys (and the other youthful and adult cast as well).
For more information on Billy Elliot the Musical, see all the articles on this site.