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Billy Elliot the Musical: A

Synopsis

Billy Elliot the Musical (BETM), the original London West


End production of the show, closed there on 9-Apr-2016
after 4600 performances. The show has played all over
the world and future productions that have been
announced via the recent licensing agreement with Music
Theatre International (MTI) has introduced a still wider
audience to BETM around the planet.

Despite the almost cult-like following of the 2000 movie


Billy Elliot on which the musical is based, and many stage
productions of the show, as more and more people are
exposed to the live production of the musical, it continues
to amaze me how many times I read comments from people
going to the show for the first time that they donʼt
understand the very basics of the plot line and story or they
donʼt understand the relevance of a scene or musical
number in the show.

So Iʼve decided to write a synopsis of the show, both for


those who will be attending BETM for the first time and for
those who recently viewed it and have questions about
some aspect of the show.

Creative Team

Director: Stephen Daldry (who also directed the movie)

Script/Lyrics: Lee Hall (who also wrote the


screenplay for the movie)

Music: Sir Elton John

Choreography: Peter Darling (who also did the


choreography in the movie)

Setting
The town of Easington, in the north of England, in the
1980ʼs.

Main Characters

Billy: the title character who is 11/12 years old.


Dad: Billyʼs dad, Jackie Elliot, who is a coal miner
Tony: Billyʼs brother who is in his late teens or early 20ʼs
and who is also a coal miner
Grandma: Billyʼs grandmother who lives in his household
and is, at times, rather eccentric
Mrs. Wilkinson (Mrs. W): teacher of local dance classes
who encourages Billy to develop his raw dance talent.
Mr. Braithwaite: piano accompanist and overall “right
hand man” to Mrs. W at the dance school.
Michael: Billyʼs best friend and also about the same age as
Billy.
Debbie Wilkinson: Mrs. Wʼs daughter who attends the
dance classes and who has a crush on Billy.
Dead Mum: Billyʼs mum, who died two years previously
and who appears to him in a dream-like setting three
times during the show.
George: A miner who is also the townʼs boxing coach and
the MC at the Christmas party

The large ensemble consists of children and adults who


play a variety of roles. Childrenʼs roles include children of
the townspeople and ballet girls in Mrs. Wʼs class. The
adults play everything from miners, to policemen, to other
townspeople and more.
Storylines

There are two main storylines:

1) The community, in which the vast majority of adult males


work in the coal industry, is suffering through a major work
stoppage (strike) to protest Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcherʼs attempts to break the then powerful coal minersʼ
union (a good short synopsis of the strike can be found
here. ) In this photo from the Broadway production, the
ensemble portrays the mining community in the Miners
Welfare Hall.

Credit: Photo by David Scheinmann

Billy Elliotʼs family (consisting of father Jackie, older brother


Tony and Grandma) are severely affected by the strike as
both Jackie and Tony are miners who are on strike.

So one storyline is about the strike and the tensions within


the community between the miners and the authorities
(represented by the police, who have been brought in from
London to keep order.) In a scene from the London
production, below, Colin Bates as Billy is confronted by the
police.

2) The second storyline is about 11-year-old Billy himself.


His dad (and indeed the society in which he lives) basically
maintains that boys should be macho. So being tough and
being able to defend oneʼs self is basic. Billy, like his father
and brother before him, is therefore enrolled in boxing
classes at the Miners Welfare Hall – a community meeting
place that also houses the dance classes of Mrs. Wilkinson.
Billy really doesnʼt like the boxing classes.

One day, at the end of


the boxing session,
George asks Billy to
pass on the keys to the
hall to Mrs. W, who will
be conducting her
dance class. Soon
thereafter, Mrs. W and
her girls arrive, and Billy
gets drawn into the
lesson as he keeps
trying to give Mrs. W
the keys as instructed.
He sort of likes what he
finds himself doing and
gradually gets taken in
by dance – especially
after Mrs. W recognizes his raw talent and begins
encouraging him. So instead of going to boxing, Billy begins
to secretly use the weekly boxing fee, provided by his dad,
to enroll in the dance classes.

After a time, Billyʼs dad discovers what heʼs doing, angrily


barges into the dance class, declares no son of his is going
to be a “poof”, and pulls him out of the class.

Mrs. W, seeing the potential that Billy has as a dancer,


works it out with Billy that sheʼll secretly give him lessons,
with the goal that heʼll eventually try out for the Royal Ballet
School (RBS).

In the end, Mrs. W convinces Billyʼs dad of his awesome


talent and he agrees to take Billy to audition for the RBS.
Later, after being accepted to the school, the story
becomes very emotional as Billy leaves the community that
has become very supportive of him to attend the RBS. The
RBS will provide him with a way to break out of the
depressing mode of trying to earn a living in a community
supported by an industry on the decline (much like the auto
industry of the last decade in the United States). In this
scene, Billy (Trent Kowalik and the original Broadway
cast) says goodbye to the miners.

Credit: Photo by David Scheinmann


A subplot involves Billy and his best friend, Michael, who
realizes he is gay. He also enjoys dressing up in his sisterʼs
clothes. In this production number called “Expressing
Yourself“, from the Broadway production of the show, Tony
Award nominee David Bologna is Michael and Tony Award
winner David Alvarez is Billy.

Credit: Video by rickyweygint

The empathy between Billy and Michael is a very important


part of the show. Both boys are living in a society that
stresses stereotypes of what a male ought to be. And what
he ought to be doesnʼt include being gay or being a ballet
dancer.

Billy, who is not gay, is nonetheless drawn to Michael as he,


too, strives to be different from what society expects.

Is that a Scottish, Welsh, Irish Accent?

The accent the actors speak and sing with is actually none
of the above. Itʼs a northern English accent called Geordie.
Cast members of the show spend many hours with dialect
coaches learning the accent, which is thought by many to
give BETM an authentic air. It can be hard for some people
to understand, however, and the accent has been toned
down for audiences of the American productions.
Scenes Which May Require an Additional Explanation

There are three scenes in the show in which Billy imagines


visits from his “Dead Mum” – whom he misses
tremendously and who he feels would be supportive of his
desire to dance. This scene is called “The Letter” from the
Broadway production:

At the end of Act I, there is a production number called


“Angry Dance“. In it, all of the pent up anger,
hopelessness and frustration that Billy feels, caused both
by how his family and community are being affected by the
miners strike and by his familyʼs lack of support of his
desire to dance, comes out in a torrent. He expresses his
feelings in the only way he knows how — by dancing. In an
extraordinary exhibition of tap and modern dance skills, this
high energy, sometimes violent scene ends the first act
while often leaving audiences in awe of what theyʼve just
seen. Below, from the Broadway production, Tony Award
winner Trent Kowalik (a world Irish Step Dancing Champion
who performed Angry Dance at the 2009 Tony Awards
Show at Radio City Musical Hall) is flanked by police in riot
gear as he dances.
Credit: Photo by Andrew H. Walker

There is another scene in the show that can be confusing to


first time audiences. Called “Dream Ballet”, it is a ballet
duet danced to Swan Lake in which Billy dances with his
“older self”. For whatever reason, some people donʼt grasp
that this is Billy dreaming of what his future in dance could
be and that the older guy heʼs dancing with is also Billy
when heʼs grown up. The dance contrasts what he is now to
what he hopes to attain one day after his dance training.
The photo, below, is from the Chicago production.
Audiences should be advised that at the conclusion of the
show, as Billy is leaving to go off to the RBS, he physically
leaves the stage and, as he walks up one of the aisles of the
theater, the curtain on stage comes down on Michael who
has been saying goodbye to his friend. At this point the
show isnʼt over. What follows is a very intricately
choreographed production number called “Company
Celebration” that serves as the curtain call for the show.
Billy and the entire cast participate in this elaborate
number. Donʼt plan on leaving early to beat the traffic. You
wonʼt want to miss this great Finale to the show. Pictured
below is Michael Dameski and the Broadway cast in the
Finale.
Credit: Photo by Catherine Pappas

Musical Numbers

The graphic, below, contains all the major musical numbers


from the show. Itʼs actually a reproduction from the Playbill
program from the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.
Note that perhaps the most known of the musical numbers
in the show (as it has been featured on TV and in many
videos) is “Electricity” in Act II. That number represents
Billyʼs audition at the RBS. As the number begins, his initial
tryout hasnʼt gone all that well and a disappointed Billy and
his dad are about to leave the audition hall. But one of the
members of the audition panel seems to sense thereʼs
something more to this kid and asks him “What do you feel
like when you dance?” “Electricity” is Billyʼs answer to that
question. From the London production, this picture
captures Billy (as played by Brad Wilson with Joe Caffrey
as Dad) as he finishes “Electricity“. It is a show stopping
number which frequently earns the Billys standing ovations
from appreciative audiences.

Has the Show Won Any Awards?

Yes. The show has won awards, including Best Musical, in


every country where itʼs opened. These include:
UK

Olivier Awards (Society of London Theatre) (2006)

Best New Musical


Best Actor in a Musical (James Lomas, George
Maguire, Liam Mower)
Best Theatre Choreographer (Peter Darling)
Best Sound Design (Paul Arditti)

Australia

Helpmann Awards (Australian Entertainment Industry


Association) (2008)

Best Musical
Best Male Actor in a Musical (Lochlan Denholm, Nick
Twiney, Rarmian Newton, & Rhys Kosakowski)
Best Female Actor in a Musical (Genevieve Lemon)
Best Lighting Design (Rick Fisher)
Best Music Direction (Stephen Amos)
Best Choreography in a Musical (Peter Darling)
Best Direction of a Musical (Stephen Daldry/Julian
Webber)

USA

Tony Awards (American Theatre Wing) (2009)

Best Musical
Best Book of a Musical (Lee Hall)
Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical
(David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish)
Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical
(Gregory Jbara)
Best Direction of a Musical (Stephen Daldry)
Best Choreography (Peter Darling)
Best Orchestrations (Martin Koch)
Best Scenic Design in a Musical (Ian MacNeil)
Best Lighting Design of a Musical (Rick Fisher)
Best Sound Design of a Musical (Paul Arditti)

The Billys

Note that there are four boys who alternate the role of
Billy in a rotation necessary because of the physical
demands of the show. They are onstage for the entire 2 hrs
and 50 minutes except for two scenes and they are
constantly dancing. Director Stephen Daldry is quoted as
saying that no role in the history of modern theater has
demanded so much from such a young performer. He likens
it to asking them to run a marathon while performing
Hamlet.

So How Do I Know Which Billy Iʼll See?

You wonʼt — until you get to the theatre. Then thereʼs a


Cast Board in the theatre lobby which lists who will
be appearing in the roles that have alternating actors
who play them, including who will be playing Billy for that
performance.
For most productions of the show, there will also be an
insert in your program. The actors receive a weekly
schedule, but it is not to be shared with the public. The
main reason for that is that things can change at the very
last minute. Someone calls in sick or, worse, someone is
injured in warmups or is sick just before the show (which
has happened several times). Because the character of
Billy is so intregal to the show, the show cannot go on
without a Billy. So, there is a standby Billy who is scheduled
(and is physically present in the theatre) for every show.
There have also been times when a Billy cannot continue
mid show and has to be replaced for the rest of the show by
the standby.

But the good news is no matter which Billy you get,


you are guaranteed a wonderful theatrical
experience. Every Billy, in every production of the show,
has been carefully selected, from among thousands of boys
who have auditioned, based on their talent and each has
undergone months of training and rehearsals before they
make their stage debuts. Will there be differences in how
they portray the character? Yes. Will each boy bring
different strengths to the role? Yes. But they are universally
excellent. For more information on how Billys are selected
and the training they undergo for the role, see the article on
this website entitled: Where Do All the Billys Come From?

For further detailed resumes of the boys who play Billy,


there are several articles on this website featuring profiles
of the Billys.

Conclusions

I hope this synopsis helps you get a basic understanding of


the show. One thing is certain and that is youʼll be blown
away by the choreography of the show and the talent of the
Billys (and the other youthful and adult cast as well).

For more information on Billy Elliot the Musical, see all the
articles on this site.