You remember Billy Elliot, the coal miner’s son who stumbles into a ballet class and winds up at the Royal Ballet School. The screenwriter Lee Hall first told Billy’s story in a dramedy that brought the newcomer Jamie Bell the BAFTA Award for best actor (over nominees including Tom Hanks and Russell Crowe). Hall told the story again in the book and lyrics for a long-running musical smash in the West End and on Broadway, scored by Elton John. Stephen Daldry, who directed in both media, likened the rigors of doing Billy to playing Hamlet and running a marathon at the same time—at the age of 12.
That might have been an understatement. Hamlet has 1,500 lines to learn, give or take, plus swordplay. Billy is onstage virtually nonstop for nearly three hours, acting his heart out in a North-of-England, working-class accent unlikely to be his own. No, the language isn’t Shakespeare. Yes, Hamlet has all those greatest-hit monologues, but where are his show tunes, his ballads, his climactic solo “Electricity”? Plus, Billy’s dance card runs not just to ballet but also to tap, step, acrobatics, and flying on wires. After all that, Billy leads the curtain calls—an extra 11 o’clock number in its own right.
On September 28, 2014—nine years into the 11-year run of the original London production (and two years after the three-and-a-half-year run on Broadway had closed)—Billy Elliot The Musical Live beamed out to movie houses from London’s Victoria Palace Theatre. The original transmission topped the U.K. and Irish box offices, ahead of Denzel Washington in The Equalizer. On video, the show remains a classic.
Over the years and around the world, in Korean, Spanish, Estonian, etc., as well as the original “Geordie,” there have been dozens of Billys, recruited and trained like potential Olympians. The star of the performance documented for the ages was the black-haired, non-cherubic Elliott Hanna, of Liverpool, just 10 years old when cast as the 34th and the youngest of London’s Billys, and 11 at the time of filming. He has a latchkey kid’s tousled bangs matched to a cut-cameo profile, yet he doesn’t preen. His face and voice and body language register the hurt and anger and stubbornness and confusion written into Billy’s part without ado, likewise Billy’s guarded need for love and his gift (that’s guarded too) for sharing it. In nostalgic songs, Hanna’s unbroken soprano touches chords of heartache. But at throwaway comic moments, there’s an impish gleam on his face that’s all his.
As a dancer, Hanna checks lots of boxes, delivering the explosive flash Peter Darling’s razzmatazz numbers demand, as well as the limpid, expansive line that makes academic ballet figures sing. And he couldn’t be luckier in his co-stars: Ruthie Henshel as the crusty ballet teacher who discovers a diamond-in-the-rough; Deka Walmsley as Billy’s proud but beaten father, headed for the dustbin of history; Claudia Bradley as Billy’s late mother, whose parting letter the boy has by heart; Ann Emery as his sad, dotty, dancing granny; and Zach Atkinson as his schoolmate Michael, a baby Harvey Fierstein who loves him and will lose him. Oh, and let’s not forget Billy’s classmates, a squealing gaggle of little swan queens in waiting.
P.S.: Don’t skip the knockout bows with tutus for all—and when those are over, stick around for a second bonus ginned up just for the live broadcast: a free-for-all of Billys current and past (the oldest in their 20s), exploding in handsprings, backflips, and grands jetés.
Billy Elliot: The Musical is available for streaming on the Broadway HD Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii