Billy Elliot is a story like no other.
One of the first musicals to actively subvert traditional masculine gender performativity, it focuses on a young boy and his passion for ballet, despite being surrounded by bigotry and homophobic prejudice in 1980s England.
With music by Sir Elton John and book by Lee Hall (who also wrote the film screenplay), the story of Billy has been loved endlessly all over the world since its West End premiere. The show has been performed to over 12 million people across 5 continents and has received over 85 awards internationally including 10 Tony Awards, 8 Helpmann Awards and 5 Olivier awards.
The show will be returning to Australia for its 10th-anniversary tour later this year, and with the adult cast announced earlier this year, there was one name that stood out more than most.
Returning to the show is Justin Smith, who originated the role of Billy’s older brother Tony, in the original Australian premiere cast.
In this upcoming production, Justin will be performing the role of Billy’s Dad. Justin has been seen across both theatre and screen, with other notable credits including Jesus Christ Superstar and The Long Forgotten Dream on stage, The Letdown and Foxtel’s Secret City on television, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales on film.
What is so special about Billy Elliot?
It’s such a family story. It’s such a great show. People tend to only spend money on one musical a year, so it’s such a good show for them all to go to. I think it also broke the mould in so far as you could do the whole show just as spoken words, like a play, and it would still hold up. But the songs are so great, and the choreography is just incredible. Plus it has such a political undercurrent, it has a lot of layers, more than some other shows we’re seeing. I think people can relate so easily to wanting the best for your kids, especially nowadays. There’s a great sense of community from the peripheral characters as well. That time in England where Thatcher was trying to disband that entire industry and people were out of work for years, they were desperate but they stuck together. I think in this growing world we’ve lost a bit of that sense of community. It’s not a kids show, but it is… it’s for everyone. And the boys playing Billy are incredible, they never leave the stage really. It’s kind of like Hamlet, except a 10 year old boy who’s doing massive choreography.
As you have worked on the show before (as Tony), what do you think will be the biggest difference for you this time around?
It’s very much set in that socio-political climate of 1985, and Tony is very much a union man, as far as everything they were trying to do back then against Thatcher. I guess the Dad does come in and try to stop Billy at first, but maybe Tony and him are just as bad as each other. Moving from him to the Dad there’s a little bit of a crossover, but the Dad goes through more of a change than others. He’s gotta be a big enough man that his other son’s got this opportunity and he’s gotta do what he can to help. Last time I also didn’t have a 12 and 10 year old like I do have now, and that’s going to be bringing a whole lot of different life experiences to the show. The audition [for this run] was kind of weird – I had to do the song at the start of act 2 that the Dad sings, it’s sort of a folk song [“Deep Into The Ground”], and I’d seen it done so many times before and always found it quite moving. But now that I’m a dad and a husband, and it talks about his dead wife… I just could not get through it without crying. I don’t think I ever did it once without sobbing, so I’ll have to work on that because I don’t think the audience needs me crying. I’ll work through my pain.
Do you have a favourite song from the show?
Well… I would always watch “Electricity” because seeing the kids do that stuff is pretty amazing. And that’s what’s so exhilarating about the show, seeing these kids do such amazing stuff. I also really like “Solidarity,” a number that’s halfway through act one. I really like the choreography, it’s kind of quirky. The choreographer Peter Darling also did Matilda, he’s not really bogged down with that ‘classic’ dance form, it’s got a real language of its own. The world of the police and miners bleeds into the dance hall, they’re all intermingling and doing this nifty dance number, their worlds mesh and it’s kind of funny. I think it’s great for non-music theatre people. It doesn’t necessarily follow the classic form of music theatre – like, in a scene where we get really emotional, there isn’t immediately a song after. The songs are almost kind of unexpected.
Why is Billy Elliot still so relevant in 2019?
I think it’s going to have more relevance now in so far as it’s about being your authentic self and allowing people to be who they truly are, rather than trying to fit into these gender roles and social norms. That relationship that Billy has with his friend Michael will have an added poignancy at this time. It’s great that it’s set in an age that we’ve come through, yet we can look back and say “Have we moved on enough? Of course, we haven’t.”
Billy Elliot the Musical opens at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre from October 2019, and will move through Adelaide (December 2019), Melbourne (Feb 2020), Perth (June 2020) and Brisbane (July 2020).
For tickets and more information please visit Billyelliotthemusical.com.au