cyphomandra: (balcony)
[personal profile] cyphomandra
This is the opening production at the new Waterfront Theatre, Auckland Theatre Company’s purpose-built venue, and it is indeed very nice; spacious, comfortable, excellent acoustics and a fantastic stage. It also had surprisingly cheap parking, but I’m not sure how long that will last.

Anyway. This is the musical of the film about a miner’s son in NE England who discovers his talent for dance against the background of the 1984/5 miners’ strike; the book and lyrics are written by the film’s scriptwriter, the music by Elton John. It was enthusiastic and enjoyable, and the performances (many of which are by children) are all solid, although the accents are a bit wobbly; however, I still end up with some of the same misgivings I had when seeing the movie, and maybe a few more.

I do like that the strike itself is much more in the foreground than in the movie; the film starts with Billy dancing to a T.Rex record of his brother’s he’s playing, an illicit moment of joy, but the musical begins with miners ascending from the pit, their headlamps the only visible light as they begin singing “The Stars Look Down” (nod to AJ Cronin apparently deliberate). There’s a brilliant set-piece with the song “Solidarity”, where the striking miners on the picket line clash with the riot police, trading insults, and at the same time Mrs Wilkinson’s girls ballet class is taking place between and around them, with Billy drawn in despite himself. It’s amazingly well-done and extremely effective. And the second half starts with the miners’ Christmas party, with people wearing Margaret Thatcher masks and singing “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher/ We'll all celebrate today/ 'cause it's one day closer to your death.”

Billy’s progression as a dancer also works better for me in the musical (I remember getting grumpy in the film about how we only see him learning ballet but whenever he has a big dramatic dance it’s tap – the musical has the class doing tap as well occasionally and more of a mix of dances generally), and the other scene I really liked is where he dances with his older self in the empty hall, both initially dancing with chairs and then each other. And Rima Te Wiata, playing Billy’s grandma, gets a great number about dancing and regrets (although she’s 52! Someone cast her in something where she gets to be the lead and isn’t either dementing, looking back on her past life as if nothing else will ever happen to her, or being killed off, as opposed to the three plays and one film I’ve seen her in this year).

Where my misgivings are, are first with Michael, Billy’s friend, who cross-dresses and sings a big song about Individuality while being chased by giant faceless ballgowns (possibly not intended to be horrific) and seems to me to act as a way of comfortably displacing any concerns about gender or sexuality that the audience might otherwise have about Billy himself. He has a father who sends him boxing but there’s no other evidence of tension there, no big reveal, and unlike in the film we don’t see how he makes his way into adulthood; he’s a static presence, and his friendship with Billy doesn’t feel particularly convincing because no real stress is put on it, and all of this means that Michael himself doesn’t feel real as a character. I think, also, events have moved on – cross-dressing would now be seen primarily as experimenting with gender identity, but the film sees it as a way of signalling that Michael is gay; the musical seems to be stuck somewhere in-between. Michael does kiss Billy as he does in the film, and Billy replies by saying he’s not gay, but it doesn’t actually feel like a particularly strong moment.

The other problem is the fact that it might be a feel-good musical, but only one character actually gets a happy ending; the strike is broken, the miners lose, and the whole community is going to fall apart. The musical ends with Billy leaving for the Royal School of Ballet on his own, with everyone else left behind him on the metaphorical scrapheap. Which gives the rather uncomfortable message that if you’re special enough, everyone else will compromise their ideals for you so you can leave them all behind. I think some of this is unavoidable due to history. But the rest – Billy’s father decides to cross the picket line (and does so in the musical; I think he gets dragged off in the film by his older son before he can) because Billy has talent, and this is shown as the right thing to do even though it forces him into conflict with his other (untalented son) because Billy does get in. What if he doesn’t? Billy himself is told to “be true to himself”, but why does this mean other people have to be forced not to be? It’s an oddly capitalist triumph.

I also find the idea that there has to be a complete separation a bit odd. At the ballet school interview Billy’s dad meets an older male dancer who says Billy will need his family behind him, but at the end it’s all “there’s no future for you here”. What happens in the school holidays – does he return? Does he go back to the ballet teacher (who drops out of the ending as well)? What about his relationship with his brother, which is pretty minimal anyway? To jump media for a moment, Lorna Hill wrote a lot of children’s ballet books and books about the north-east of England, where Billy Elliot is set, and managed to combine the two without giving up on either. A friend I went with preferred the musical's end to the film's because it didn't jump forward and show that everything would work out, which is valid.

I did like the songs, and the performances, and I’d recommend it with caveats (not least of which being that it’s three hours long!). In contrast with other similar movies (at least one also turned musical) about artistic efforts in depressed British small towns with failing industries - The Full Monty and Brassed Off, though, I think it loses something by focussing solely on the individual, however talented.


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