When I heard that Stafford Arima at Theatre Calgary was directing a local production of Billy Elliot the Musical, I knew I would have to see it. Probably more than once! It is one of my favourite plays, particularly with the fabulous Elton John score. Since it was first staged in London’s West End in 2005, the play has been staged around the globe to audiences of more than 10 million and it has won many awards. That got me thinking — just why is it so popular?
Billy Elliot is set in northern England in 1984. Margaret Thatcher is the Prime Minister and the coal miner’s strike against pit closures has become bitter and divisive in the community. In the town of Durham Coalfield men work down the pits, boys learn boxing and girls learn dance in the dusty local community hall. Young Billy dreams of trading his boxing gloves for ballet slippers, but his widowed father and politically obsessed, bullying, elder brother cannot understand his passion for dance.
Only the local dance teacher recognises Billy’s innate talent. Even he resists and has to be convinced. Dancing itself is uplifting, gracefully compelling and represents a figurative escape from the harsh reality of his life. Billy says in a moment of spontaneous insight ‘Once I get going… then I like, forget everything. And… sorta disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body. And I’ve got this fire in my body. I’m just there. Flyin’ like a bird. Like electricity’.
So the play serves us the beauty of dance. And Billy’s embrace of his art holds the universal, uplifting narrative of someone successfully following their dream in the face of resistance or adversity.
Adversity resonates. Around the world we see the impacts in economically challenged communities. The sense of being left behind — high levels of unemployment, disengaged youth, the making of scapegoats, yet, beyond that, the glimmer of hope in the distance.
Discrimination resonates. In following his dream, Billy also has to confront the prevalence of gender stereotypes. Billy is told that dancing is not for ‘lads’ but for ‘poofs’. 35 years on we consider ourselves much more enlightened, but still we see very few boys in ballet classes. ‘Pink for a girl and blue for a boy’, as the song goes. The ingrained stereotyping we still see today in children’s toys and clothes perpetuates very clear gender biases.
Finally, there is the appeal of Elton John’s musical score. The quality of his composition is outstanding. No surprise that he is ranked the third most successful Billboard Hot 100 artist of all time (after the Beatles and Madonna). All the songs in Billy Elliot were inspired by rhythms and chants from traditional British working class songs. The music reflects the frustration of the people during hard times but also brings hope of a better future.
Interesting how a simple storyline resonates and engages on so many levels. No wonder the play is so popular.