The Tony Award-winning “Billy Elliot the Musical” is back in Philadelphia through Nov. 27 at Kimmel’s Academy of Music.
Based on the popular film of the same name and featuring music by Elton John, the stage production follows a young boy seeking to transcend his blue-collar roots and become a dancer.
“Billy Elliot” is brought to life by a cast of 45, a number of which play Billy in any given performance. Sean Kelly, the production’s openly gay resident choreographer, said Billy’s age and the strenuous nature of the role necessitate having four actors who can take on the role. That, along with the dance-oriented nature of the overall show, makes for a challenging job.
“Because I’m the resident choreographer — the original choreography was done by Peter Darling, who won the Tony for it — my primary responsibility is to take care of the integrity and the intention of the choreography,” Kelly said. “I would say that the biggest challenge is having four Billys. As talented as they are, they are all very young men between 12 and 15. It takes a great deal of time to coach them to make sure they are physically conditioned and strong enough to do the show and really understand the story they are telling. A lot of it is told through them, so I find that to be challenging. It’s very rewarding but also very time consuming.”
He added that part of what makes the show time consuming is that, as the production continues in its popularity and the actors get older, new age-appropriate actors have to be brought in for the role of Billy.
“There’s typically four that are with us at any given time and each of them will do — if things are running smoothly — two shows a week,” Kelly said. “Typically, because the boys get older, we’re often trying to get new boys and that process takes three months between training for acting, dancing, tap, classical ballet, vocals and dialect. The boys receive a great deal of training during those three months. That takes a great deal of time because there’s also the maintenance of keeping the show running on a day-to-day basis.”
Actor Patrick Wetzel plays the role of Mr. Braithwaite, a rehearsal pianist who later shows his true disco colors.
“He’s kind of a wannabe rocker,” Wetzel said of his character. “He’s holding on to the past. He has a couple of surprises up his sleeve. I don’t want to give too much away but I do take my clothes off. How’s that for a cliffhanger?”
Wetzel said while he understands the need for so many actors to play Billy, he had some reservations about working with them all.
“The reason they have some many different actors playing Billy and [his friend] Michael is because the show is incredibly challenging,” he explained. “Billy has very little time off stage and he has these huge powerhouse numbers that he has to get through. That’s why they have so many Billys, because it’s a constant performance of using their bodies to dance. I thought I was going to hate working with a different actor every performance but in the end I actually love it. It keeps the show very fresh. When you are doing eight shows a week, it can get mundane and you can fall into a trap of doing the same thing. Having a different Billy there for each performance alleviates that problem. Each of the boys brings something completely different to the role. They all have strengths and there’s a special moment with each one of them.”
From the looks of it, “Billy Elliot: The Musical” is going to be a rite of passage for scores of young actors for quite some time: Since the show debuted in 2005, it has remained popular with productions staged in numerous countries the world over. In the States, it won 10 Tonys and 10 Drama Desk awards, including Best Musical from both.
“People keep coming back to the show for some reason,” Kelly said. “I think it has something to do with the fact that the show is about family and a sense of community. One thing is the boy is, for such a young man, so talented and so skilled. He’s singing, doing classical ballet and acrobatics. I think people are hard pressed not to walk away from the show saying ‘Wow, that kid is amazing.’ On top of that, you have a really powerful story about what those miners went through in England in the 1980s. There’s political unrest and the riots that ensued because of the strike. You’ve got a meaty story and a talented child. The two combined are really powerful and very enjoyable. It’s also about the underdog: This kid’s from this lower-class community that rises above the ashes in a world where they don’t know anything about dance or the arts. We all connect with that person. I think that’s what keeps people coming back. It’s also about a community rallying around this young boy. We can all relate to needing each other, especially at this time when economically we’re in such trouble.”
“Kids are drawn to kids,” Wetzel added. “So it’s a story about children, so we have that age range. But then it’s also about family because it’s about this kid’s struggle with his family coming to terms with him wanting to be a dancer. A huge plot point is about this mining town and the struggle with the huge issue that happened in Northern England with the strike. The show touches a lot of age ranges. It’s a little bit of everything for everyone here.”
Wetzel and Kelly also said that the topic of someone who pursues his dream and lives their life despites it going against what society thinks is the norm, resonates with LGBT audiences.
“There’s a secondary plotline that touches on the gay issue,” Wetzel said. If you’re familiar with the movie, you’ll know what I’m talking about. They adapt that story to the stage in a great way. They just touch on and acknowledge that it’s there. It’s not too heavy-handed and is really touching.”
“What is quite beautiful in the story is that Billy’s best friend likes to wear dresses. And the way the story is told is there’s such a lack of judgment. Because in the community, that’s not what one would have expected in a blue-collar community during the 1980s. Billy has no issue with it and, ultimately at the end of the story, everybody is saying who cares if someone wears a dress.
“Let’s be above judgment. I think that given what I see on the news, I’m trying to let young people know that it can be a tough time during school, but ultimately it does get better. Just trust who you are and be who you are and eventually you’ll grow up and you’ll be able to enjoy and celebrate your life. In my own journey, I think you get to a point where you say it doesn’t matter what people think of me. I just have to be true to myself and there is a community that will enjoy and celebrate me.”
“Billy Elliot: The Musical” runs through Nov. 27 at Kimmel’s Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. For more information or tickets, visit www.billyelliotthemusical.com or call 215-790-5800.