“I’ve trained about 14 Billies ,” the interviewee says, and the number alone hints at the singularity of Billy Elliot the Musical which opens at the Orpheum Theater Nov. 27.
So does Steven Minning’s title: supervising resident creative director. All shows have directors and many have traveling resident directors, but few require someone back in New York City while the company tours.
Right now, he’s training two more Billies to move into the four-boy rotation on tour. But before going into the reasons for so many performers and Elliotts-in-waiting, it helps to know what this film and stage hit is all about.
The musical started in London, where it still runs after seven years, then spread to Broadway and Australia. An early Billy, Tanner Pflueger of Norfolk, Nebraska, played the role in London at age 13 and then did the title character on Broadway.
Billy is the motherless son of a striking coal miner in a region of northern England where a dialect called “Geordie” is spoken. His father wants him to be a boxer, and angrily forbids it when Billy stumbles on a ballet class and displays talent for dance.
When planning began for the American production, 2,000 boys ages 12 to 14 auditioned and 15 were brought to New York for a nine-day workshop. They had to be actors who could do ballet, tap, hip-hop and street dance.
That’s a start in understanding why the musical requires a four-boy rotation, while Minning works five weeks with two more in the wings. “Billy is on stage 95 percent of the time,” he explains, “carrying the show on his back.
“The role is very demanding, including three incredibly intense dances. It would be hard for a dancer of any age, but especially ones that young. The boys are very wiped out.”
So they rotate: one performs, a second has the day off, a third is in rehearsal, a fourth on standby. Size doesn’t matter, Minning says, noting that one boy he’s now training is a bit smaller, “but he’ll grow.” In earlier casting, directors feared that two well-qualified boys would grow too fast for later Broadway appearances, so they were hurried into the London rotation before they outgrew the role.
Each Billy “is always accompanied by a guardian,” he adds, who takes him to the dresser, up to the stage, and so on. “He’s always in the presence of an adult.”
They also work with a dialect coach to keep the “Geordie” accent authentic. And that’s only one facet of the role that goes beyond dancing.
Minning works in NYC, but joins the show on the road at intervals to monitor the performances of the title character. He also emphasizes “authenticity,” noting “It’s not like tracing over an old pattern. It’s not just saying lines, and doing dance steps, but understanding the role. They need to understand the situation Billy lives in, and how high the stakes are for the men—his father and brother—on strike for an entire year.”
He’s not on hand for the day-to-day nurturing of the boys, but others make sure they’re well-hydrated and eat the proper food. “After a Billy joins us, his muscles become very toned and sculpted. He gets six-packs.”
All the current boys are Americans rather than Brits, and Minning didn’t hail from the UK. His web site boasts that his Missouri River hometown of Washington, Missouri, though now on the fringes of St. Louis, remains famed as the “corn cob pipe capitol of the world.”
He also started out as a dancer, and appeared in the chorus of several Broadway shows. He later worked on The Lion King with famed director Julie Taymer. But it doesn’t take a dancer to identify with Billy’s aspirations.
The story’s told that Elton John, who created the music, saw the Billy Elliot movie at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival and was helped from the theater sobbing. “It touched me so much,” Sir Elton said, given its similarity to his experience in seeking parental approval while breaking free from “what parents want you to do.”
John convinced director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Lee Hall, who didn’t initially share his enthusiasm, to develop his vision for the stage musical. Daldry saw the opportunity to do more than the movie by delving fully into the miners’ strike, including working-class anthems of struggle and loss as they battled Margaret Thatcher in the mid-1980s.
Nine Tonys, including best musical, and a total of 81 awards later, it’s an inspiration to aspiring young talents. Rough language, it is suggested, makes it unsuitable for some youngsters.
Billy Elliot the Musical runs Nov. 27-Dec. 2, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and new times of 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday, presented by Omaha Performing Arts Broadway series at the Orpheum Theater on 16th Street in downtown Omaha. Tickets starting at $25 are available at 402.345.0606, TicketOmaha.com and at the Holland Center.