Friday, December 31, 2010

Billy Elliot: The Musical--A Warning

I expected to love Billy Elliot: The Musical.  I mean--a musical about dancing and the importance of the arts!  Okay, so I was a bit concerned when I remembered that the music was by Elton John, who is just so darned. . .Elton John-y.  But some of his tunes were catchy, and the soundtrack to The Road to El Dorado isn't the least bit annoying.

And dancing.  Theater and dancing. And such great reviews and its been running in London literally since the coal strike of 1984 and it won every single Tony Award since it opened on Broadway, including Best Musical, Best Non-Musical, and Best Use of Natural Materials and the President's Trophy from the Rose Bowl Parade.

And as a bonus, I hadn't seen the movie, so it wasn't like I already knew everything about the story.  Sure, I knew the outline: coal strike in the north of England, young boy who discovers he loves to dance, conflict with his father who equates dance with homosexuality.  No wonder Elton John was drawn to this story, right?

So the four of us from Chez Evil joined another family for dinner and a show.  Lovely family, lovely dinner, lovely conversation, lovely theater.

Bad bad bad play.

First of all, the sound was heavily over amplified and badly mixed.  Not the fault of the play or the actors, and probably the fault of local sound engineers and thus locally contained.  But who let Nigel Tufnel onto the sound board?  As a result, everything was loud and flat, hard to listen to and inspiring an instinctive desire to duck behind the seats in self protection.  If there was any charm to the music, there was no way to hear it because it was delivered with all the subtlety of a brick aimed at your face.

Okay, so maybe I just should have put my earmuffs back on and listened that way.  There was still the dancing, right?  Again--hard to tell, due to being presented with the same level of nuance and delicacy as the sound.  It was so fast, so frenetic, flailing arms and scurrying, as if the dancing had been choreographed at 33 1/3 RPMs  but performed at 45.  (Yes,  I'm that old.  Let's try for a simile from the digital age)  It was as if the whole show had been filmed, and then digitally compressed to fit a shorter running time.

By the third scene, I was seriously worried that once again, it was my cold dead heart making it impossible for me to experience something transcendent.  I decided I was going to be seriously miserable if I didn't find a way to enjoy this play.  So during the "Expressing Yourself" number, I just gave up.

Let me sketch that number for you, in case you haven't seen the play--at least my pain can be used to prevent yours.  Billy, wee bairn that he is, is taking some heat about liking to dance and words like "pouf" and "poncing" are being thrown his way.  Because everybody knows that no heterosexual male would want to spend time surrounded by scads of girls wearing leotards--honestly, I do not understand men sometimes.

Anyway, Billy, being eleven, is being forced to defend what is probably a still unemerged sexual identity.  Now his dance teacher has told him that he's talented enough to try to get in to the Royal Ballet School, and he doesn't know what to do so he goes to visit his best friend to get some advice.  And he walks in to find his friend wearing a frilly skirt and shaking what we in America here call "his booty."  And Billy is appalled.  So Michael makes Billy dress up as well, leading to this bit of enlightened dialogue:

Michael:  Here, put on my mam's dress.
Billy: But we'll get into trouble!
Michael: Nah!  Me dad does it all the time.

Yes, folks, in 2010, Elton John has brought us a vision of sexual identity that is as sophisticated as an episode of "Three's Company."  I was deeply embarrassed and uncomfortable with a show that actually instructs us that while ballet dancing doesn't equal homosexuality, cross dressing and show tunes do.  Get your stereotypes right!

And so the rest of the night fell into every predictable plot device: Billy misses the chance to audition, because his father and brother find out about it and forbid him from dancing.  Billy dances an angry dance (not as good as this one) and. . .intermission!

Act Two opens a year later, and Billy has given up dance.  Except that a few minutes in, he's alone in the community room where he took lessons, and he dances again--even better than in Act One, because nothing hones a dancer's techinque like a year of not dancing and then not even warming up before launching into a personal version of "Swan Lake."  Actually, this was the one bit I liked, as Billy danced with an adult doppelganger, engaging with his dreams of who he could be.  And, yes, I'll go out on a limb and state for the record that Tchaikovsky is a better composer than Elton John.

Of course, his dad sees this, is deeply moved, and so changes his mind, but now Billy has to go all the way to London (which in actual geographic terms is like going from Boston to New York) which is a problem because everybody has been on strike from the coal mines and fighting with policemen and harassing the scabs, which means they don't have money for bus fare.  But then everybody pitches in their widow's mite, and. . .there's still not enough.  But somehow, one of the scabs has magically heard about this impromptu donation campaign--okay, that's pure hokum and not even remotely explainable except by "Musical physics" and the Theory of Narrative Causality--and donates some obscene amount of cash.  So Billy goes, has some "funny" adventures where dad meets a danseur in tights!  Oh!  The visual humor!

(Rudolph Nureyev is not a joke)

Add in a Glasgow accent, and that's Comedy Gold(TM)!  Get it?!?  He's a poncey dancer and dad's uncomfortable with the costume and the evident maleness, but he's got a working class accent and dad's expectations are confounded!  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. . .okay, it's not funny at all and rather insulting actually.

Blah blah blah audition blah blah blah wait for the letter, pretend you didn't get in because this is exactly how real people act around their heart's desire and the union caved and the strike is lost and Billy goes off to London and then we have a final number that is the curtain call as well The End.

When a play is this painful, you have two choices: either you leave, or you find something to think about.  Leaving was not an option--the kidlets were really enjoying it.  So I found myself admiring the enthusiastic dedication of every last person on stage.  I began to wonder if they all learned their lines phonetically in order to approximate a Northern English accent.  And I began to wonder about the miners.

Coal mining is not a job I have any connection with--I have never lived in mining areas, don't know anyone who has ever been a miner.  It strikes me as a horrible job--you get up in the morning to go down into the dark, you do mind-numbing and dangerous physical labor for hours on end, then you come back up into the night.  It's not a life I can imagine, and not one I'd necessarily want for my kids even if I did it.  Add into the mix that the strikers are actually coming to blows with the police, and I don't know why Dad Elliot doesn't take any chance to get his kid out of there.  Really--even if the strike succeeds, wouldn't he be better off somewhere else?

Which of course lead me to wonder about what happened to those mines in the intervening 26 years?  Do those communities still exist?  What do they do now?

According to the Durham Mining Museum, there is still coal mining going on in the Easington colliery, the one at issue in the play.  There was an uptick in employment 1980-85, (the strike happened 1984-85) but generally employment has trended down after 1930.  It was this Wikipedia page that really made me think.

Prior to 1984, coal mining was both nationally owned and heavily subsidized.  Margaret Thatcher, whatever you think of her politics or techniques, was not crazy for thinking that it was a waste of taxpayer's money to keep coal mines open when it was cheaper to actually import coal than it was to mine it in Britain.  Her goal in 1984 was to actually close the mines.  So what brain trust was in charge of the coal miners' union that thought that the proper protest against closing the mines was to go on strike and effectively close the mines?

Maggie Thatcher: Close the mines!
Coal Miners' Union: Don't close the mines!
Maggie Thatcher: Don't close the mines!
Coal Miners' Union: Close the mines!  Fire!

Remind you of anything?


Add to that fundamental stupidity the fact that since the previous successful strike of 1970, most of the UK has switched to gas and heating oil, diesel and electricity to run homes, power plants and railroads.  Coal was just not the foundation of the economy any more.  Then Thatcher's government had foreseen the chance of strikes--how could they not--so the industries that required coal had already stockpiled in order to survive a strike.  Not to mention that they could have apparently continued to import coal from Australia more cheaply than buying it locally.

To pile onto the doomed nature of this strike--apparently, the union never actually took a vote on the strike, meaning the strike itself was illegal.  As a result, according to the wiki page:
Many miners were forced into debt as the union did not make strike payments to its members, only paying money to strikers on picket. The problem was compounded as the union's failure to hold an official ballot meant that the strike was illegal and social security rules prevented benefits being paid to participants of illegal strikes. Further, the rules meant that any benefits paid to partners or dependents of striking miners were calculated as if strike pay was being received.

So, who were the venal and corrupt idiots at the union?  Frankly, this reads to me like something out of stereotypical Chicago politics, where the union leaders were embezzling from their members and selling out for their own benefit.  Which is not to excuse the brutality of the government using police against their own citizens, nor the designation of them as "the enemy within."  I'm sure there are many ways the whole situation could have been handled better from all sides.

But hey!  It's all worth it if we got a Broadway play out of it, right?



Anonymous said...

It fascinates me how the same thong cam seen so different to two different individuals. That's what makes life interesting.

I love Billy Elliot the Musical! Have travelled to London, New York, Chicago, Sydney and Melbourne to see the show. Seen it performed over 150 times and still love it!

I love Expressing Yourself, The Letter ,angry Dance and Electricity.

I not alone by any means in traveling the world to see the show! By it's success more think like me I suspect!

I rate BETM the greatest musical I have ever seen and I have seen most!

Anonymous said...

The show is very British in its outlook about the miners' strike, and the political part of the show is about a subject deeply important to modern British culture, which obviously doesn't resonate with some non-British people, you being one.

Billy's personal story, however, is one that most people can relate to regardless of culture. But again, I guess it failed you there as well.

Even with that said, I find it amazing that you found nothing to appreciate about the remarkable young person you saw as Billy (and since you didn't even take the time to note his name, I take it that his sheer talent made no impression on you whatsoever). That is the saddest part about your review. You indicate that you have "kidlets," and they actually enjoyed the show. I expect that's because, unlike you, they were able to recognize extraordinary talent and admire it when they saw it among their peers. I say "good for them!"

Cate Ross said...

Oh, I totally agree with both Anonymouses--I clearly have a cold dead heart and my failure to enjoy this is completely my own fault.

Well, except for the fact that the sound mixing was a disaster, and the conducting was done entirely too fast, and the director should have done something to tone down the hamminess of some of the actors, and how in gods' names could Elton John be so tone deaf about cross dressing boys equalling homosexual?

I know I don't have the emotional resonance for the miners' strike and I have no reason to hate Maggie Thatcher because I was too busy hating Ronald Reagan at the time. And in retrospect, I have sympathy for the miners protrayed in Billy Elliot because they were frankly screwed by the government AND their own union.

That said, I have some residual suspicion about a story like this, where the one kid gets out, therefore Every Thing Is OK because Billy isn't a miner. But what about his friend Michael? What about the entire system of police turned on the strikers has been resolved or prevented in the future? It's hard to accept the musical message of Happy Ending when everything that was effed-up remains effed-up and there's an entire town that just goes back to being powerless pawns--only now they are impoverished and broken as well.

Well, but hey! Don't worry, be happy, because ONE kid got to go dance! (Even if he has to dance to crappy Elton John music for the most part.)

Oh, and while I will accept the need for a mea culpa on not posting the name of the boy who played Billy--he was one of about 5 boys who played the role, and I have no basis to praise him as better or worse than any of the other boys in the role.

Perhaps it's the fact that it was a touring production, but there was such a sense of frenetic hurry to the whole production, as if they were going to have to scurry out of town with the proceeds before they got caught. . .something about this specific production was just off and failed to convey the emotions that I suspect you both got from the versions you saw.

Marcos Marchesoni said...

I loved the musical and the movie. Well, I think you have the right to dislike the show. If it didnt get you, it didnt, as simple as that. I remember being in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum and I didnt get goosebumps or cried or even thought it was beautiful....but it's a master piece... I'm bored of people calling me ignorant because of that.

I cant deny the talent of the Billies in the play. I am not a fan of Elton's music. I saw that Lion King, I loved the story but the music was boring. Again, it's my taste.

On regards of the boy making it to ballet school, well, at the end of the day it is the story of Billy Elliot, so we should be happy for him. If you are going to question what happened to his gay friend (you should see the movie for that part!!) or the miners, then I guess you should also question if Cinderella divorced the prince or not...or what happened to her sisters...You can't cover everything in the story.

All stories have a side, and in this case it was a totally anti-Thatcher one. If you became rich with her policies you would disagree, if you became unemployed you would agree with the show.

Loved all the comments. And the review was funny.

Anonymous said...

Well it does not surprise me that some Americans don't get the Miners back storyof BE .What suprises me from its success in NY is that so many seem to. But I don't really care two hoots. Apart from the close relationship between Londoners and New Yorkers ( which is about those cities not their countries - and I have visited NY many times) there is little in common between Britain and the US these days which the coincidence of the use of English serves to mask- there is no "Special relationship" period and its time we here threw the burgers into the Thames) . In may ways I feel more alien there than in France Italy etc . I didn't get the Adams Family musical myself when we saw it this May although the audience clearly did and I watched some American actors struggling with Oscar Wilde;s Importance....

So what?