Billy Elliot Taps a Rich Vein of Triumphant British Defeatism

It sure ain’t South Pacific! (Or Jersey Boys.) Mr. Hall’s masterstroke is to contrast the adult reality of the doomed, earthbound mining community with Billy’s vaulting dream of escape through dance. It’s captured beautifully in the fantasy Swan Lake pas de deux between Billy and his grown-up self that ends with the boy literally soaring into space.

But the gifted Mr. Hall, who wrote the very appealing movie of Billy Elliot in 2000, is a musical neophyte and sometimes it shows—for example in the glum curtain-up scene with its grainy newsreel narration introducing us to the proud history of coal mines in Britain. As mining documentaries go, it soon went. But only to be followed by Elton John’s long and righteously grim ensemble anthem on the eve of the miner’s strike, “The Stars Look Down.” (“Through the dark and through the hunger …”)

Soon enough Mr. Hall goes on to successfully break all the rules with “We’d Go Dancing”—a ballad performed by Billy’s grandma that, at first, had me fearing the worst. The number looked like one of those shamelessly sentimental lapses that only Broadway masters can get away with—“Little Lamb” from Gypsy or the equally embarrassing “More I Cannot Wish You” from Guys and Dolls. But what happens in “We’d Go Dancing” had me on the floor with delighted laughter:

Grandma—a stage granny if ever there was an adorable one—tells Billy she’ll never forget her 33-year marriage to his granddad, and he asks her innocently, “So what was he like?”

The musical intro to a sweet ballad then begins.

“He was a complete bastard,” Granny replies.

She sings about the drunken sod she was unhappily married to for all those lost years. But he could dance! And they went dancing together—

 

And it was bliss for an hour or so

But then they called time to go

And in the morning we were sober

 

Billy Elliot is directed by a British master of poetic realism, Stephen Daldry (who also directed the original film), and his experience at the helm of the left-leaning Royal Court Theatre during the ’90s energizes the show’s political conscience. The thrilling Act I closer known as “Angry Dance,” for example, during which Billy smashes himself against the riot shields of the advancing army of police, is pure agitprop theater. Or Mr. Daldry’s touch of the Brechts in the second-act opener—an unapologetic political cartoon and puppet show with the exuberant song lyric “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher/ We all celebrate today/ Cos it’s one day closer to your death …”

But if Billy Elliot were political theater alone, it wouldn’t be on Broadway. It’s a family drama (Billy’s miner dad is excellently played by Gregory Jbara) whose big, sentimental heart is the tale of Billy and his local amateur dance teacher, the chain-smoking Mrs. Wilkinson. She’s tired, and she’s tired of life, and she’s gloriously played by Haydn Gwynne (who created the role in the London production). Mrs. Wilkinson’s a hardworking class realist who alone believes in Billy’s magic. She’s the one who fights for him, and she’s the one who gives him a chance in life.

“Now hang on a minute,” she protests furiously to Billy’s disapproving brother, who’s rooted, like his dad, in the macho culture of the mines and thinks ballet is for poofs. “You don’t know anything about me, you sanctimonious little shit. What are you scared of? That he won’t grow up to race whippets or grow leeks or piss his wages up the wall? Listen, I’ve been with this boy every night for weeks now and you, and you, haven’t even noticed. So don’t lecture me on the British fucking class system, comrade.”

 

Billy Elliot Taps a Rich Vein of Triumphant British Defeatism