Since New York City is the center of American publishing, writers' conferences rotate there regularly. And one thing I learned several NYC conferences back is that if I’m there, I’d be crazy to miss the chance to go to a live Broadway show.
“Live” is the key. Being present in the same space, breathing the same air as the performers, makes a huge difference in one’s experience of a production.
So at the June RWA conference, my roommate and I went to see Billy Elliot on the last night of the conference. It was a fabulous experience—and I’ve been trying to figure out how to blog about it ever since.
That’s because there are several major layers, all of which are complex and way above my knowledge base. Yet because I loved the show, I'm going to attempt a once over lightly on the issues of performance, class, politics, and the north/south divide.
The Performance, Part 1:
On one level, this is the first time I’ve seen a stage show based on a movie I’d already seen, so comparing the different forms of expression was interesting. I remember the movie as very good—but the musical blew me away.
Briefly, the movie is the story of an 11 year old miner’s son in Northern England who stumbles across the girls’ ballet class when he is gloomily taking boxing lessons—and discovers a completely unexpected passion and talent for ballet dancing. His passion is inexplicable to those around him and makes people assume he’s a “poof.” (Which he isn’t, though he has a friend who is.)
Billy’s struggle to realize an impossible dream is set against the backdrop of the 1984-85 coal miners' strike, which gives a whole layer of political subtext to the story. The movie came out in 2000, not all that long ago, but oddly, I don’t really remember the political background of the movie. Whereas in the stage show, the politics are fierce and unforgettable.
When I was asking around about what might be a good show to see, I got very different reactions from two of my writer friends. One, an American, said it was terrific and entertaining. The other, Northern English by birth and Australian by immigration, said she found it very sad.
Which takes us back to the miners’ strike. The bitter strike ended with Margaret Thatcher’s government breaking the powerful miners’ union, and ultimately the whole, huge British coal mining industry. Much of that industry was in the north, which is why my Anglo-Aussie friend found the show painful. Communities, pride, and independence were broken.
The strike and its aftermath were one act of the long running drama of industrial and economic change that we’re still experiencing. Jobs vs. efficiency. Tradition vs. “progress.” Community foundation vs. maximizing profits. Change wasn’t easy during the Industrial Revolution, and it isn’t easy with the Digital Resolution.
Another northern English born friend looks on the strike as a tragedy which wasn’t a matter of one side being right, the other wrong. Both sides made mistakes. She said that if the union had been less intransigent, they might have been able to reach a better settlement.
But that didn’t happen. Coal had powered the industrial revolution and been a major employer in the north for hundreds of years. Now, I understand, the coal minining industry has gone from employing over 300,000 people to under a thousand. Almost all of the coal Britain uses is imported.
This brings me to the issue of regionalism in the UK. Northern and Southern England have very different vibes, with the well groomed south the home of stockbrokers and stiff upper lips and cute little thatched Agatha Christie cottages, while the north is grittier, more working class, friendlier, and more down to earth.
The south is probably more Anglo-Saxon, the north has more Viking and Celtic influences. (I speak as an American who lived in England for a couple of years. I learned about the differences in north and south without having the visceral understanding that a Briton would.)
On another level, the division of north and south is an expression of class—one of the great and enduring issues of British life. Accents, neckties, vocabulary all become ways of judging the class and status of others. British novelist Nancy Mitford, daughter of a lord, famously wrote an article about U (Upper class) and Non-U language. A conversation can be full of little tests by which your origins are revealed.
Class shows up in all sorts of British creative work. It’s a big issue in Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, where illegitimate Yorkshire born Richard Sharpe is always having to contend with arrogant upper class twits who haven't an iota of his military skill. Carola Dunn and Anne Perry have both written mystery series where a well-born woman marries a middle class detective, and the class differences become part of their sleuthing techniques. The list of books that have such issues as part of their warp and woof goes on and on.
Perhaps all nations have a primal, enduring issue. In the US, it’s race, and I’ve read that in Germany it’s dealing with the legacy of WWII. When I lived in (southern) England, I took satisfaction from being an American and hence outside the British class structure.
Sir Elton John was the driving force behind turning the movie into a musical. He’s not from the north, but he was raised in public housing in the London area, and I’m guessing the story of working class pride and pain spoke to him. So—the music is by Elton John. 'Nuff said. The dancing is intense—in the Broadway production, three different boys rotated in the lead role of Billy because it’s so demanding.
The plots of movie and musical are pretty much identical, I believe, but the emotionalism of the live show made the musical more powerful for me. For example, there is a scene called the “Angry Dance” which takes place when Billy finds he won’t be able to audition for the Royal Ballet.
The dance is fierce and desperate and angular. Billy hurls himself about the stage while a line of police protected by plastic riot shields smash their way forward, ignoring the boy’s rage. Bang! Bang! BANG!!!
Throughout, there’s a theme of solidarity. At the beginning, the miners are excited and ready to go out, just bursting with fellowship and confidence. By the end, they’re broken in spirit, but still together. There’s a wonderful number called “Once We Were Kings” that showcases a marvelous male chorus of powerful voices, and ends with the miners sinking into the ground on a lift with smoke swirling around them as they sing “and we’ll all go together when we go.” (The clip is a sung version without the staging—but well worth listening to.) It's a powerful metaphor for the end of an industry and a way of life.
At the end, Billy goes off alone to study in London, a stark shadow in the spotlight. He’s escaping to a broader life, but it’s separating him from everything he’s ever known.
I love the ending of the movie, which shows Billy when he’s achieved his dream, and it's implied that he has made peace with his past and present. The strike and its results aren't the center of the story--Billy's dreams are. But the strike lends haunting power to the story.
The musical won a ton of awards in London, Broadway (10 Tony awards!) and Australia, and I heartily recommend you see it if you have a chance. Because there is really something about live theater…
Mary Jo, tapping foot and clapping hands