BOTTOM LINE: Many will enjoy this big Broadway Musical, but I'm not sure it is worth the money.
In many ways, and for many reasons, Billy Elliot is a very good Broadway musical. Many people will enjoy themselves, and I am betting it will be one of the “shows to see” this season. From what I understand, it has a lot of advance sales; this translates into no readily available discounts, and no student rush or lottery. It certainly won’t appear on TKTS anytime soon. If you want a decent (not amazing, but merely decent) seat for this show, you are looking at spending either $81.50 (for partial view) or $126.50 ($136.50 for Saturday evenings). So, is it worth it?
For those who haven’t seen the movie, Billy Elliot is the story of Billy, a boy who lives in a coal-mining town in Northern England. While the Mineworkers’ Union goes on strike, Billy discovers ballet. Ultimately, this is a story about the power (and limits) of community support- while the strike is ultimately broken by the Thatcher Administration, the town’s support enables Billy to travel to London to audition for the Royal Ballet School. For those who have seen the movie, the musical is a mostly faithful adaptation, with some minor changes (more focus is given to the community on strike, and the ending is a bit different). But both movie and musical have the same director (Stephen Daldry) and choreographer (Peter Darling). And both were written by the same person- Lee Hall (who does both book and lyrics here).
Daldry’s direction is, for me, one of the highlights of Billy Elliot the Musical. Daldry moves the action along through a variety of locales: the walls and chairs that make up the set, along with the central revolve that is Billy’s bedroom, allow Daldry to easily switch from one room to the next. Sometimes the set is two rooms at once- in the song “Solidarity” (probably my favorite piece of staging) the action simultaneously takes place in the union hall and the ballet school. So with Daldry’s staging, and terrific set and costume design (both really communicate the working-class aspect of this community), Billy Elliot certainly looks good.
Darling’s choreography, while not at all innovative, is at the very least sufficient. Certainly, he combines ballet with “musical theatre” dance effectively. I’m not convinced it should win any awards- Darling certainly isn’t the second coming of Jerome Robbins (another musical theatre choreographer who drew heavily from ballet). And I suspect the dance was more exciting because it was danced by a young boy, rather than anything specific to the choreography itself. But, the dancing is still exciting, and Billy’s big dance numbers receive some of the biggest applause in the show.
And the cast is quite good. Three boys alternate as Billy (I saw David Alvarez). There is no set schedule (or at least, no published schedule) about who goes on at any particular performance, although that hasn’t stopped some fans from returning repeatedly to try and see all three Billys. For most people, I don’t think this kind of repeat-viewing will be necessary- each Billy will be different, but I’ve heard good things about all of them. Billy’s friend Michael (the “proto-gay” kid who enjoys wearing tutus) is played by two boys (I saw David Bologna). Michael and Billy have a fun number in Act 1 called “Expressing Yourself”- one of the many times in which Billy Elliot really takes advantage of the fact that it is a BROADWAY musical.
Mrs. Wilkinson (Billy’s ballet teacher) is played by Haydn Gwynne, who originated the role in London. Gwynne is quite good, although I think my favorite performance was that of Gregory Jbara, who plays Billy’s father. Jbara was last seen in NY in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; he plays an entirely different character here (and looks entirely different as well), and has some great moments in Act 2. I should also add that the chorus is well-cast- the mining men look like miners, not musical theater actors. And the girls in Billy’s ballet class, who are all sizes and shapes, look like ballet students in a working-class town, rather than girls who have been groomed for Broadway.
However, as good as these elements (cast, direction, design) are, the heart of a musical for me always lies in the score. Unfortunately, this is Billy Elliot’s downfall. This might seem surprising- after all, Elton John wrote the music. But the score for Billy Elliot never drew me into the world of the musical. In fact, there were many times when it actively prevented me from investing emotionally in this story. To put it bluntly, the score is boring. It never allows the actors to really sing; as much as it pains me to admit, even the score for A Tale of Two Cities allows for this. Whereas in most musicals, you look forward to the next song, in this show I looked forward to the next scene, or to the next set change. John has said that he wrote the score rather quickly- in two weeks. I wish he had spent more time.
There are four “big moments” in this show- two in each act. In each of these numbers, the score dutifully builds, reminding the audience that this is one of those exciting moments- one of the highlights of the show, which they should applaud profusely and should then remark to each other “wow that was great." The score reminds people to applaud- not because it is good, but simply because it gets bigger. Ultimately, the main reason I saw for applauding was the dance- especially the Angry Dance that ends Act 1, and a ballet in Act 2 between Billy and his older self (danced by Stephen Hanna). It is telling that this ballet in Act 2, which uses classical music (not by Elton John), is probably the best number in the show.
The score is not helped by an awful sound design. While I heard some other people in the audience complain that they couldn’t understand the lyrics, I didn’t have this problem. I just didn’t like that everything was so obviously amplified, almost as if I was hearing it from the back of an enormous ampitheatre (I was in the fifth row). Microphones are basically mandatory on Broadway now, especially in large musicals. But ideally, you don’t really notice them. This was not the case in Billy Elliot.
So while it may seem a strange label for a character-driven piece dealing with ballet and a mining strike, I left Billy Elliot with the sense that I had just seen a spectacle. Not a mindless spectacle- indeed, a spectacle that is well-directed. But a spectacle all the same- I was left emotionally cold, and really only remember what the musical looked like, not what it felt like. It didn't move me at all. And this is what I mean when I say that Billy Elliot is a good Broadway musical- it is all show, and little substance. For some, this will be enough. But it isn’t a great musical- not even close- and at $126.50 (and almost three hours), I expect greatness. Or at the very least, I expect something interesting- a story told in a way that I can’t get somewhere else.
If money is no object, definitely go see Billy Elliot. But I think there are many Broadway musicals around that are better written and have cheaper tickets available. Whatever you're looking for, there is another musical that does it better. The only thing Billy Elliot has (that other musicals don’t) is its story. But there is a movie with the same story- without a good score, Billy Elliot the Musical has nothing that the movie doesn’t have. And this is the problem with Billy Elliot the Musical- it is based on a movie that is far superior- one that is written, directed and choreographed by the same people. So rent the movie instead- it is cheaper, shorter, and ultimately, more satisfying.
(Billy Elliot the Musical plays at the Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St. Opening Night is Thursday November 13th. The general performance schedule is Tue at 7 PM, Wed-Sat at 8 PM (with 2 PM matinees on Wed and Sat), and Sun at 3 PM. The performance schedule varies greatly during the 2008 holiday season- check www.billyelliotbroadway.com for more details. Running time is approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Tickets are $126.50 ($136.50 on Saturday evenings), $81.50 (partial view), and $41.50 (rear mezzanine). As of now, no discounts are available.)