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December 21, 2012

A few more thoughts on 'Billy Elliot: The Musical'

As someone who loved the 2000 movie "Billy Elliot," I had doubts that it could be turned into a stage musical.

I figured too much of the gritty mining town atmosphere of the original would be lost, for a start.

And I was suspicious that the many touchy subjects in the story -- masculinity, sexual orientation, the value of the arts, etc. -- could survive the transformation.

I feared there would be too much watering down, maybe even dumbing down.

Instead, as I was happily reminded this week ... 

seeing "Billy Elliot" again when it arrived at the Hippodrome, the result is remarkably effective.

The creative team, which included the film's screenwriter and director, preserved the original flavor, right down to the specific regional accent of the characters in this potent story and right down to their vulgar language.

(Some unsuspecting folks are startled by that vulgarity, which frequently comes out of the mouths of kids in the show. Others struggle with the accent issue, but, as an idiotic Anglophile who enjoys deciphering the lingo on "EastEnders," I guess I just assume everyone can catch on to anything.)

The music is impressively integrated into the show. Yes, I do wish Elton John had created more distinctive songs, but they do the job and, in the best cases, do so with considerable expressive weight.

Above all, the musical "Billy Elliot" is a brave musical.

I think it's important that audiences get to see the adverse effect of narrow-mindedness about the arts, how prejudices and ignorance lead to a kind of bullying that scars Billy.

I think it is valuable that audiences get to see how even preteen kids can become aware of their budding sexual identity and how at least some of them can be OK with it (the only two kisses in the show are chaste, affectionate ones between straight Billy and probably gay Michael).

And I think it will always be worthwhile making audiences confront the issues of unions, governments, solidarity, responsibility -- all the things that rip into Billy's community, leaving no one entirely unbruised (except maybe Grandma, but she's already been through plenty in her day).

I'm disappointed that actual ballet gets shortchanged in the show; the choreography is weighted to musical comedy routines. Still, I think that the big aesthetic message of "Billy Elliot" gets through -- that ballet, along with all of the arts are cool, and that kids should be encouraged to pursue any artistic impulse they have.

When you put that message together with all of the other stuff in the show about figuring out who you are -- sexually, morally, philosophically, politically -- you get a very potent theatrical fuel. And that's what makes "Billy Elliot" soar.



Posted by Tim Smith at 9:50 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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