If you’re older than 20, then you probably remember the British film “Billy Elliot.” Set in northern England, the drama follows 11-year-old Billy, an aspiring dancer, as he takes ballet classes without telling his coal-miner father, a man’s man who’s on strike from the coalmine with his fellow union members. Billy’s ballet teacher believes him to be talented enough to study at the prestigious Royal Ballet School in London. When his father finds out, he’s outraged, thinking his son will be considered a “poof.”
The Golden Globe-nominated film, which is peppered with heartache and feel-good life lessons, has since been adapted for stage as “Billy Elliot the Musical” and now boasts London, Sydney and New York productions. The North American arm of the musical opened on Broadway in 2008 and is now touring throughout the U.S.
“I grew up in the Northeast in the same time as Billy Elliot,” explains Lee Hall, the English playwright who wrote the screenplay for “Billy Elliot,” in a web interview from press material. “One day I just had this image of a little boy in a tutu in one of the mining villages that I knew well from having grown up there. And then the story all came to life.”
Playing the role of Billy Elliot on stage is grueling — especially for a young boy. Director Stephen Daldry has likened performing the role to “playing Hamlet while running a marathon,” complete with three hours of singing, acting, speaking in a Northern English accent, doing gymnastics and dancing in a variety of styles including tap, hip hop and, of course, ballet.
In fact, playing Billy is so demanding that the U.S. tour has four actors who each perform twice a week. A relative newcomer to the role is 12-year-old Drew Minard. An Iowa native who got his start dancing at the age of 3, Minard began rehearsals last November — training at “Billy Camp” — and took on the role in December.
“I had seen the show, and then the director of one of my dance competitions recommended me,” Minard says. “I auditioned when I was about 9, and they liked me and said I didn’t need to work on any of my dancing, I just needed to get taller and older. So then after three years of auditioning and being told that I’m too small, finally I found out that I got it. It’s like a dream.”
In total, the play features 45 performers, including Janet Dickinson as ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson and Rich Hebert as Billy’s burly dad, and boasts a Tony Award-winning creative team of director Stephen Daldry, choreographer Peter Darling and writer Lee Hall, along with music legend Elton John, whose score was called “show-stopping and electric” in The New York Times.
With all of the hard work and the pressure associated with live theater, Minard and the other young cast members still find time to be kids. “Yesterday was a travel day and we got here a little bit early,” Minard says of their stint in Richmond, Va. “We got to go swimming with just me and a couple of the other ‘Billys’ and the small boys [extras], and we had a bunch of fun.”
Minard says he plans to pursue anything to do with movies or Broadway. “I just love acting, singing and dancing,” he explains. But for now, he’s happily playing the lead in “Billy Elliot the Musical.” “I’m a lot like Billy in some ways. I do have a lot of support from my family, so that’s kind of different from Billy. But I did get teased at school and stuff, so that helps with the angry dance.”
“Ballet is something which you need immense physical resources for,” Hall says. “It embodies everything that the ‘macho’ culture of Northern England value — and yet there seems to be this big contradiction of people not understanding how hard and physical and tough you have to be to be a dancer.”
The writer continues, “What’s great about storytelling is, if you find the right story and you tell it in the right way, people can come from all sorts of places and find something of value for them.”