When a favorite, long-running show is about to close up shop, any bona fide theatergoer grabs some lilies, heads to the sickbed and pays a final visit. Decked out it my most respectful digs, I recently made one such jaunt to “Billy Elliot,” which enters the mines for the last time on January 8. How has this British import held up since its grand entrance in 2008? Let’s put it this way: Days later I’m still wiping rivers of coal-tinged tears from my face.
There was a little ruckus when “Billy” posted its closing notice in October. Three years on Broadway is seriously respectable, but with its 10 Tonys, British cred and Elton John score, everyone expected it to pirouette for at least a few more seasons. (Understandably high running costs seem to have done the show in.)
But after my return visit to this emotional and incredibly directed show, I’m actually impressed that it’s stuck around as long as it has. Because for all the glitz and “Broadway” advertised in the show’s press material, “Billy” is still a pretty risky sell with thoroughly non-tourist content.
Here’s what I mean:
Firstly, the musical’s setting, a dying coal town in Northern England, makes for some pretty thick accents and wacky vocabulary. (A primer in the Playbill explains what’s meant by terms like “pasty” and “Geordie,” though no explanation for “poof” is provided—gay slurs, apparently, transcend culture.) Artistically, it makes for a fantastically specific story and group of characters, but this world couldn’t be farther removed from the whitewashed lands of “Bye Bye Birdie” and “The Music Man.” It’s undeniably “Other,” a presumed off-putter for out-of-towners who, we’re told, want something easy on the ears.
Furthermore, there’s heavy-duty profanity from just about everyone, even little girl ballerinas. For a musical that purports to be a kid’s show, its view of children, their mouths and what they see is steadfastly no-nonsense and hard-edged.
“Billy’s” politics aren’t of the heartland, either. The show worships at the altar of The Union, and a dance teacher unironically encourages her students to “march forward for Socialism.” There’s also a catchy number that proclaims, “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher/ We all celebrate the day/ Cuz it’s one day closer to your death.” Not exactly stuff that’ll pull in the Reaganites.
The story is similarly forthright in navigating sexual politics. Boys kiss and cross dress, and although one character partially tips the show into the land of camp, it’s an otherwise delicate and refreshingly agenda-free snapshot of the questions that arise from emerging sexuality.
All this “edginess” is ultimately to the show’s credit. It grounds the story’s universal themes of family and dreams in something unique and specific. By exposing particular people (who curse, speak in accents, are socialists and may be gay), we experience something universal. That’s the trick of art, isn’t it?
So, go say your last words to “Billy” before the last of the miners swaggers off. Cheer him on for his transgressiveness, for his Trojan horse-like smuggling of dangerous material into a conventional and old-fashioned art form.
You’ll be glad you did.
Just don’t forget the tissues.