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Billy Elliot the Musical

Profiles of the young actors who play the title role in Billy Elliot the Musical as well as other BETM related articles.

Home » Billy Elliot the Musical, Other Billy Related Articles, Theatre

Billy Elliot the Musical: A Synopsis

Billy-Elliot-Dean Charles Chapman LogoBilly Elliot the Musical (BETM) is currently in its 9th year in London’s West End.   Future productions of BETM have been announced for Belgium and Holland and regionally in the United States this summer.

Despite the almost cult-like following of the 2000 movie Billy Elliot on which the musical is based, and six 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 don’t understand the very basics of the plotline and story or they don't understand the relevance of a scene or musical number in the show.

So I’ve 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)

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Script & Lyrics: Lee Hall (who also wrote the screenplay for the movie)

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Music: Sir Elton John

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Choreography: Peter Darling (who also did the choreography in the movie)

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Setting

The town of Easington, in the north of England, in the 1980’s.

Main Characters

Billy: the title character who is 11/12 years old.
Dad: Billy’s dad, Jackie Elliot, who is a coal miner
Tony: Billy’s brother who is in his late teens or early 20’s and who is also a coal miner
Grandma: Billy’s 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: Billy’s best friend and also about the same age as Billy.
Debbie Wilkinson: Mrs. W’s daughter who attends the dance classes and who has a crush on Billy.
Dead Mum: Billy’s 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 town’s boxing coach and the MC at the Christmas party

The large ensemble consists of children and adults who play a variety of roles. Children’s roles include children of the townspeople and ballet girls in Mrs. W's 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 Thatcher’s attempts to break the then powerful coal miners’ 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 Elliot’s 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 one's 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 doesn’t 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, Billy’s dad discovers what he’s 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 she’ll secretly give him lessons, with the goal that he'll eventually try out for the Royal Ballet School (RBS).

In the end, Mrs. W convinces Billy’s 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 sister’s 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 doesn’t 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.  It's 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 family's 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 they've 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 don’t grasp that this is Billy dreaming of what his future in dance could be and that the older guy he’s dancing with is also Billy when he’s 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 isn't 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.  Don't plan on leaving early to beat the traffic.  You won't 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. It’s 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 Billy’s audition at the RBS. As the number begins, his initial tryout hasn’t 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 there’s something more to this kid and asks him “What do you feel like when you dance?” “Electricity” is Billy’s 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 it's 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 I'll See?

You won't -- until you get to the theatre. Then there's 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 you’ll 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, go to the show's official website:  London

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10 Comments »

  • John Gibson says:

    Hi everyone at SkyKids. It seem a while since I posted on this site. Needless to say I’ve visited the Victoria Palace a few times since the last time.
    Unfortunately we’ve now lost, in my opinion, the best ever Billy – Harrison Dowzell. Harrison didn’t act,sing, tap dance, ballet dance, street dance,express his emotions playing Billy – he turned himself into Billy – It was Billy Elliot on stage not Harrison Dowzell playing him. Keep your eyes open for him in the future – I’m sure we’ll hear of him again.
    I would also like to praise his superb family who were very friendly towards all the regulars.I hope you don’y mind but I would just like to let you know how kind the Dowzell family are : I watched Harrison perform in the 1st half of the show and as usual went outside at the interva to have a cigarette and bumped into Sara Dowzell – also having a cigarette – she said she’d see me after the show, as Harrison was having 5 days off and she was taking him home to Nottingham straight after the show ( A 2 hour drive). I was talking to Sara when Harrison came out of the Stage Door (About 10.30pm)and we chatted for a few minutes and then walked round to the front of the theatre and “Bumped” into about 70 USA residents !! I am surer every single one of them wanted Harrisons autograph and a picture taken with him. Sara and Harrison left the theatre at 11.45pm to drive home – It was much appreciated by the group.

  • Porschesrule says:

    I'm glad you enjoyed the article and are able to gleen useful information from it. It's interesting you've mentioned Julie Walters. On the two forums which I'm a member of, Friends of Billy Elliot and Billy Elliot the Forum, reviewers frequently compare and contrast the stage versions of Mrs. Wilkinson to Julie. I, too, enjoyed Julie's portrayal and it was the film that first began my own love of Billy Elliot.

    Thanks again, Richard, for taking the time to write a comment. You can imagine how wonderful it is for authors, on this site and others, to know their work is being read and is appreciated.

  • grctshowtime Richard says:

    Your article can serve as a primer for one's first visit to the theatre. Very comprehensive piece of writing. I have not seen Billy Elliot the Musical but will keep your article in mind. A guide for my first visit to see this marvelous production.
    As I side bar, I would like to make one comment about the film. Julie Walters as Mrs. Wilkinson. A joy to see this lady on film. I remember her performance in Educating Rita. One of my favorites. Thanks for writing this article. Look forward to future pieces.

  • Porschesrule says:

    Thanks for you comments, Jonas. They are very much appreciated!

  • Well done to you porschesrule09! Complete article, well written, easy reading. All it takes to have a must read. Nice to give a little description of each character in the show. Helps a lot for people who are not familiar with either the movie or the show. And yeah, it is Geordi and I still have difficulties to understand everything. Some words or sentences I just don't get. Anyway, keep up the good work.

  • skykid says:

    We share the same favorite Billy Shane. Seeing Billy Elliot showed me how much beauty one can find in the ballet. I have seen it on TV and did not like it much – ballet that is – but seeing it live the dancers , the movements , the emotions they express with their body – its really a life changing experience. Now in addition of wanting to see Billy Elliot the Musical again I also want to see a full play of ballet .

  • Shane Foxx says:

    I actually went to see the musical in London last year, as I always wanted to!
    This is my favorite musical for years, and Billy Elliot the movie [and the book by Melvin Burgess] inspired me since I'm a little boy. I always wanted to be a Billy, I always wanted to dance. Unfortunately I have no skills at all… haha.

    So of course I'm always impressed by the Billys!! My favorite was Liam Mower. =]
    This is so inspirational and fantastic, I love its message to express and “be yourself”. That every dream is possible, and that we can become anyone we want to be. I hope also it'll educate people thinking that dancing or being on stage is for homosexuals.

    But, all of that to tell you that your article is very complete and so well done, I guess you have spent days writing it !! For anyone who wants to relive the show, he can come here and read !

  • Porschesrule says:

    Thank you skykid and Sasha for your kind words. Writing about Billy Elliot the Musical, as I've said before, is truly a labor of love. It is a unique show in that so much of the “weight” of the show falls on the shoulders of one young performer. No other show, not Annie or Oliver or any other I'm aware of, places such a burden for the success of a show on one young performer than does BETM. That's what captured my interest in the show, and that's what sustains it. I was, and am, continually in awe of the talent and the dedication every one of the more than 40 Billys have brought to the role. I've enjoyed watching their growth over their time in the show. I'm happy to make these small contributions to promote their efforts and am very pleased that my articles have been so well received.

  • Sasha says:

    I think that the author of all these articles for Billy Elliot here at theskykid.com should be honored somehow for all this hard work and dedication. I can't help admiring everything he does to promote the musical and inform people around the world for all of the latest details.

    I have seen the musical twice in London and I must say that it’s a tough for me to finish reading the entire article. The more I read, the stronger desire I feel to go and see it again.

  • skykid says:

    Another great article about Billy Elliot the Musical. I won`t be wrong in saying that thanks to your articles theskykid.com is just about the most informative site on the internet about the Internet . I have seen BETM once in London and hope that this October I will be able to go and see it again there – I can not find words to describe what a great experience is to see this musical. Its so inspiring and touching that its a must see for each parent and child .

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