With three young dancers rotating through the title role, theatergoers are scrambling to buy tickets for a night with the best Billy.
As the Broadway season gets under way, most theatrically inclined eyes have been trained on the Broadway debuts of Daniel Radcliffe (and his penis) and Katie Holmes (with her clothes on).
But no theatrical season really begins until the arrival of the first big musical, and this year it’s Billy Elliot: The Musical. It may as well be called Billy Elliot: The Inevitable Musical, as the 2000 film was one of those movies that already seemed like the rough sketch of a stage musical extravaganza. The musical—which cost nearly $20 million, about four times what it cost to make the movie—includes three of the film’s chief moving shakers: screenwriter Lee Hall, choreographer Peter Darling, and director Stephen Daldry, best known in these parts for his exquisite 2002 film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. The late arrival to the team is the musical’s composer, a chap you may have heard about, name of Elton John. Billy Elliot continues in previews until its mid-November opening.
So which Billy do you want to see? Alvarez and Kulish, for the record, are the balletically trained Billys; Kowalik, who’s already done time in the role in London, is the strongest, we’re told, on tap.
Like the movie before it, the stage version of Billy Elliot, which has been one of London's major hits since it opened three years ago, chronicles the unlikely rise to ballet-dancing glory of a boy from Northeast England during the 1980s strike that pitted coal miners against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. (Guess who won?) In both text and staging, the show is so very, very, very ethnically British that one would be justified in wondering whether, amid the heavy dialect and accents (“fuck” in these parts rhymes with “book,” and “ballet” with “rally”), the enthusiasm that greeted the show in London will be repeated here in America. (You may recall that the similarly very British The Full Monty, musicalized for Broadway, was reset in Buffalo, N.Y.) But Billy Elliot may well field the same universal appeal the movie did thanks to its chief weapon: Billy the Kid. Kids, actually: David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish—none of whom has yet seen his fifteenth birthday—share the demanding title role. So which Billy do you want to see? Preopening buzz seems to play no favorites, and one hears that each of the boys is highly accomplished in his own way: Alvarez and Kulish, for the record, are the balletically trained Billys; Kowalik, who’s already done time in the role in London, is the strongest, we’re told, on tap. Moreover, the secret of which Billy plays which performances is harder to crack than the Enigma code—apparently the boys' weekly rotation rerotates every week—so you’ll have to see the show, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, not with the Billy you may want but with the Billy you’ll get. Three Billys, two little gay Michaels, and a small army of supporting singing-and-dancing-and-smiling children aside, there are grown-ups here too, most notably Haydn Gwynne, re-creating her Olivier-nominated performance as Billy's chainsmoking, combatively cynical dance teacher (the role originated in the film by Julie Walters) in one blindingly garish get-up after another. And Broadway babies will surely swoon over the casting of Carole Shelley, Tony Award winner for The Elephant Man and, for all eternity, the delicious Gwendolyn Pigeon of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, as Billy’s gran. There’s a vein of suspicion verging on hostility among theater aficionados concerning the Broadway musical stageification of movies: Well, maybe after the fizzling out of such as Saturday Night Fever, Footloose, Urban Cowboy (was there really a musical of Urban Cowboy? Am I not just making that up? Did someone think that was a good idea?), the naysayers have some reason on their side. And it's a matter of public record that Billy Elliot’s trip to Broadway has been, so far in its earliest previews, a bit of a minefield: We’ve heard reports of complicated numbers being temporarily shelved and of the show grinding to a halt repeatedly as the set works out its kinks—one performance last week was even canceled outright just minutes before curtain time. But it’s been a few years now since a big-ass stage-filling Broadway musical captured our hearts, and I'm pulling not only for Billy Elliot but for Billy Elliot: The Musical. After all, who doesn’t like a ($20 million) underdog? Billy Elliot: The Musical continues in previews at the Imperial Theatre (240 West 45th Street) until its mid-November opening.