John F. Higgins does some research after seeing Billy Elliot at the Boston Opera House, Boston, MA in August 2012.
"Here are some questions one American made mental notes to ask whilst watching Billy Elliot the Musical in Boston last month. And…after some drilling down into Google and elsewhere…some answers."
Okay, why does Billy's big brother keep referring to him as a "bear"?
He doesn't...it's "bairn", a northern English term for child.
Are these actors from England, or are the strong British accents learned?
The principals in the current American production are all from the United States. Each actor with a speaking part was trained in the dialect of County Durham, a unique blend of something called Geordie and something else called pitmatic. It should be noted that even the cast of the London production would have had similar coaching…many of the pronunciations in the story’s specific locale differ noticeably from much of the rest of England.
Is it a coincidence that the solos sung by the two elders in the cast have a “waltz” time signature (6/8 in the case of We’d Go Dancing and 3/4 for Deep Into The Ground)?
Most likely not. Billy’s grandmother and father are the show’s two most direct connections to the cultural history of the British Isles. In fact each of their songs poignantly reflects on days that have long passed by but which still greatly affect the singer. While obviously the time signatures of the two songs were determined by Lee Hall’s lyrics, the style of music that Elton wrote is very much informed by the tradition of Great Britain’s folk songs, the more evocative of which, like Greensleeves for example, were in waltz time.
Is there significance to the opening instruments in the musical: the trumpets, horns and trombones in The Stars Look Down?
Yes. The song, and thus the entire show, begins with the horns of an English brass band, which the program booklet notes tell us, “originated as work bands and were sponsored by and long identified with various industrial concerns and coal mines.” Without being heavy-handed about it, the song’s primary arrangement pays a heartfelt tribute to a character that is perhaps more important to the show than Billy himself – the coal mining towns of Northern England.
What is the music during the "younger/older Billy" scene in Act II?
The pas de deux is called Dream Ballet and the music is from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Swan Lake. It is the only musical number in the show not written by Elton.
What was the final outcome of the UK miners’ strike of 1984-1985?
Regarded as one of the most pivotal events in modern British history, the strike ended in defeat for the miners and greatly strengthened the political stance of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party. As explained by Billy’s brother, Tony, the effects were felt far and wide (“from town to town to town…”), effectively shifting the area’s sense of purpose and disconnecting much of the population from not only its livelihood, but also its cultural history.
For audience members who want to learn more about the strike without logging on to the Internet during intermission, large printed displays are placed in the theater’s common areas that give an overview of history that is almost thirty years old, not to mention at least 3,000 miles away.
One of the major plot points in Billy Elliot the Musical (as well as the source film) is: can young Billy’s talents be accepted outside of his home town in the north of England? Expanding on this theme, was there any concern that Billy Elliot the Musical may not do well outside of Britain?
Yes, even though the musical was enjoying great success in London's West End, the creative team was not certain that audiences around the world would take to what is a rather regional story told and sung in a strong Northern England dialect. They took some comfort in the fact that the original film was popular in America and elsewhere, but there still were some initial discussions about changing certain aspects of the show to make it translate better internationally.
This approach was ultimately decided against (with one minor exception – a reference to British ballet dancer Wayne Sleep was changed to Rudolf Nureyev), a direction that was justified when the show launched in Australia in late 2007 and was more than well received. It went on to win Best Musical and six other Helpmann Awards (Australia’s equivalent of the Tony Awards).
In the United States, Billy Elliot came to Broadway in October 2008, and proved once again to be worthy of export: after gathering rave reviews from American theater critics it received a record-tying fifteen Tony nominations…ultimately winning ten, including Best Musical.
Certainly, audiences outside of the West End have found a great deal to relate to – all solidified by Elton’s music: class struggle (the dismay of The Stars Look Down and the pride of Solidarity and Once We Were Kings), a young boy’s attempts to follow his dream in the face of strong societal pressure (a cathartic Angry Dance), and the utter joy that comes from doing what you were born to do (Shine, Expressing Yourself, and the aptly named Born To Boogie).
So, does Billy Elliot the Musical succeed outside of its “hometown” of England?