“Billy Elliot”: Broadway musical meets proletarian drama

The genius of Billy Elliot the Musical and secret of its success is that this stage adaptation of the 2000 movie Billy Elliot written by Lee Hall and directed by Stephen Daldry combines two distinct theatrical esthetics. On the one hand, you have Broadway musicals, with all the glitz, razzmatazz, spectacle and foot stomping often associated with this generally commercial, crowd-pleasing form of expression, as in, say, Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. On the other hand, Elliot also incorporates the dialectic of proletarian drama, which roots the characters and plot firmly in class conflict and consciousness, as in Clifford Odets’ 1930s Waiting for Lefty.

As this is a UK-set story, Elliot also integrates elements of an offshoot of proletarian theater – the so-called “kitchen sink drama” – which prominently featured working-class “angry young men” in the lead roles: A good example is John Osborne’s aptly named, powerful 1956 play Look Back in Anger, adapted for the screen in 1959, starring a rarely better Richard Burton, Mary Ure, and Claire Bloom, directed by Tony Richardson.

Of course, there have been socially conscious musicals such as the anti-racist South Pacific and West Side Story, and even proletarian musicals, like Marc Blitzstein’s Depression-era The Cradle Will Rock.

But Elliot is a much more hybrid mode of theatrical expression. Essentially, it’s the story of a 12-year-old son of the working class who strives to become a ballet dancer, set against the backdrop of the historic coalminers’ strike in the not-so-Great Britain of the 1980s, and reactionary Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher’s brutal suppression of this year-long struggle.

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts‘ production is stellar, and especially notable because due to the lead actor’s injury during rehearsal, at the last minute Mitchell Tobin stepped in and filled Billy’s shoes – and does so admirably. Dana Solimando’s choreography, accompanied by a nine-piece orchestra wonderfully playing Elton John’s music, is spot on, as are scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s sets. Paul Rubin’s flying sequence is a show stopper that would give even Ethel Merman pause, and the mise en scène, populated by a large cast, rendered by director Brian Kite, musical director John Glaudini and Solimando, is top notch.

Billy rebels against the macho world view of Easington’s working-class men, including his Dad (well played by David Atkinson), with their ethos that boxing is for boys and ballet for girls (and “poofs”), even as the miners resist Thatcherism. Feisty dance instructor Mrs. Wilkinson (sitcom actress Vicki Lewis) takes Billy under her wing in order to help him sprout wings. The play, for which Lee Hall also wrote the book and lyrics, is very much an ode to individuality and plea for tolerance regarding gender roles.

Billy’s pal, the cross-dressing lad Michael, is engagingly, sympathetically portrayed with proletarian panache by Jake Kitchin, who seeks to fulfill his own unique form of self expression and identity. (It’s interesting to note that in keeping with the show’s commercial appeal, the play goes out of its way to inform – or relieve? – the audience that the title character is not gay.)

The play’s brilliance is that this personal saga is interwoven with the miners’ industrial action, pitting the men of the pits against Thatcher’s thugs. At this time, when police brutality is a topical issue across America, Elliot boldly depicts workers fighting the cops. Indeed, there are lines and lyrics about “solidarity forever,” “marching forward to socialism,” and the like, as the miners heroically battle against all odds. Thatcher is a figure of ridicule mocked by miners in a way that one imagines Charlie Hebdo staffers would appreciate. And what lefty could resist a play ribbing Tory Michael Heseltine?

Yet what is the real message of Elliot? Alas, the miners suffered a historic defeat in their class war against Thatcherism. In the aftermath of this and other setbacks for the British proletariat there was a cinematic cycle that eschewed notions of unity and class struggle as the means to a better life. In 1996’s Brassed Off and 1997’s The Full Monty (also transformed into a musical), nitty gritty Britty proletarians portrayed by Ewan McGregor, Pete Postlethwaite, Robert Carlyle, Tom Wilkinson, et al, posited the idea that while mass action, unions, and the like may have been noble, they are archaic and no longer viable and relevant in our Brave New World of neo-liberalism, outsourcing, downsizing, free trade treaties, automation, and the like.

No, strikers and street-fighting men need not apply: Their day is gone with the wind. Instead, the way to succeed (largely individually, as opposed to collectively) is by performing in a brass band or becoming a stripper. Do the 2000 film Billy Elliot and 2004’s Billy Elliot the Musical likewise assert that class struggle is oh so passé nowadays, and the way for (individual) workers to overcome class restrictions is by becoming ballet dancers? And if so, what of the vast majority of miners who don’t have this ability? What of their needs? Are they merely doomed to the scrap heap of capitalist history? Those poor sods: Has the fight for individuality superseded sticking together, and competition trumped cooperation during this period of ebb in the workers’ movement?

We cannot know what was in Lee Hall’s mind and what the playwright’s intent was. But I’m mindful of Marx’s dictum: “Ruling class, ruling ideas.” Nevertheless, having said that, the nearly three-hour, two-act La Mirada extravaganza is indeed great and well worth seeing. The stylized scenes where the miners battle the police is worth the price of admission alone, along with Billy’s proletarian pirouettes. I also saw this musical on Broadway, and in its current incarnation, starring stage “savior” Mitchell Tobin, it stands up well – and even flies.

Billy Elliot the Musical is being performed Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, Saturday-Sunday at 2:00 pm through Feb. 8 at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada, CA 90638. For more info: (562) 944-9801; www.lamiradatheatre.com.

Photo: Vicki Lewis as Mrs. Wilkinson and Mitchell Tobin as Billy. Photo by Michael Lamont. http://www.lamiradatheatre.com/billy_elliot.htm


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Film historian and critic Ed Rampell was named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in cinema at New York's Hunter College. After graduating, he lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, where he reported on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific movement for "20/20," Reuters, AP, Radio Australia, Newsweek, etc. He went on to co-write "The Finger" column for New Times L.A. and has written for many other publications, including Variety, Mother Jones, The Nation, Islands, L.A. Times, L.A. Daily News, Written By, The Progressive, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and AlterNet.

Rampell appears in the 2005 Australian documentary "Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise." He co-authored two books on Pacific Island politics, as well as two film histories: "Made In Paradise, Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas" and "Pearl Harbor in the Movies." Rampell is the author of "Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States." He is a co-founder of the James Agee Cinema Circle and one of L.A.'s most prolific film/theatre/opera reviewers.

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