Arlington’s Signature Theatre in the heart of the Shirlington district is now performing “Billy Elliot the Musical” through January 6. In my life as a devotee of the musical theatre, I rank this show as my Number One. I’ve seen it multiple times in New York, the Kennedy Center and now in Arlington and wrote a chapter about it in my book, “Extraordinary Hearts.”
In his own words, Sir Elton John has described the impact that seeing the charming low-budget British film, “Billy Elliot,” had on him when he showed up for its initial screening at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2000, when it was initially titled “Dancer.” He said it so connected to his own upbringing and challenges in a working class British village that he was almost in tears, and within an hour of seeing it, he verbalized the idea of someday producing a stage musical version of it.
He said the parallels between the young lad in “Billy Elliot” having to overcome tremendous obstacles to follow his intuitive calling to become a ballet dancer and his own challenges, including with his father, to follow his musical inspiration cut him to the quick right away.
He wound up teaming up with the author of the film’s screenplay, Lee Hall, who wrote the lyrics while he wrote the music for the stage musical, which first opened in London in 2005. John’s husband, David Furnish, was an executive producer and it was originally directed by Stephen Daltry. It was an instant sensation vastly exceeding, John said, his wildest expectations.
It wound up being nominated for nine Laurence Olivier Awards and won four, including for Best New Musical and ran for 11 years to 2016. A Broadway version that opened in 2008 won 10 Tony Awards including for Best Musical. In short, it has been a smash hit in all of its subsequent iterations, including all the cities in which it has been performed from Asia to Europe and two tours across North America that brought it for a stint at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 2011.
The biggest single challenge facing the production was a truly daunting one, to find an 11-12 year old boy who could perform live on stage the incredibly demanding ballet, voice and acting skills to pull off the lead character’s role.
The BBC produced a documentary entitled, “Finding Billy Elliot” (available on YouTube) that chronicled the effort, and wound up blowing away John and the others with the amazing skills that issued forth from a nationwide series of auditions of literally thousands of boys. The final group of 15 was subjected to intense training and trials, and it became a highly emotional task to limit that number down to three who would share the role in the original London opening.
The history of “Billys” has itself become an amazing story, with scores of them having taken the live stage in scores of productions worldwide in the dozen years since the curtain rose on the first show in 2005. A reunion of “Billys” first took the stage for a special in 2010 and another time in 2014 win in conjunction with an international live telecast of the show.
The two “Billys” in the Signature Theatre production are products of that system, both extraordinary in their skills and execution — Liam Redford and Owen Tabaka. I’ve seen one in person and video of the other so far.
The other major theme of the show is its backdrop, the British coal miner strike of 1984-1985, with Billy’s dad and older brother being miners and he expected eventually to join them for the rest of his life in the mines.
As I wrote in my book, “Encouragement from a teacher steeled Billy’s resolve to challenge his family’s resistance, and he eventually prevailed, buoyed by his grandma and especially a letter from his deceased, loving mother that encouraged him: ‘In everything you do, always be yourself.’”
His efforts succeeded to “bring the best out in others, including Billy’s family and the community.” and “the eventual support by all for pursuing his potential brought Billy, in the musical, to dance with his own future — a stunning duet when Billy at eleven dances with Billy as an adult to the music of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.”
The Signature Theater’s current production of “Billy Elliot the Musical” does it justice because the music, the storyline and the dancing are all just too compelling. They all, 80 involved in total, do a darned good job.