To what extent is ‘Billy Elliot the Musical’ a truly ‘global’ musical?
With productions running in Europe, North America, Australia and Asia, ‘Billy Elliot the Musical’, could legitimately be classified as a ‘global’ musical. Despite featuring regional (Geordie) British nuances of speech and idiom (in the British original), and dealing with British historical and political issues, ‘Billy Elliot’ is still popular worldwide. But what is it about ‘Billy Elliot’ that resonates with audiences to the degree that it apparently does? And, what does the show tell us about being British, about the performance of ‘Britishness’, and about the musical’s own global, mass appeal?
Eric Fellner, a co-chairman of Working Title Films, which produced the “Billy Elliot” movie and produces its stage productions, said of over-seas audience reactions to their own ‘Billy Elliot’ musicals: “They somehow totally and utterly engage in the notion of community broken by government, economic depression, recession, unions. It’s kind of extraordinary how much they identified with all of the themes that the show plays on.” Although Fellner almost certainly has a vested interest in making the musical appear to be global, he is correct to state that ‘Billy’ has translated over into shows being played around the world, including in the USA (where the production was nominated for fifteen Tony awards), Australia and South Korea. However, these nations, despite their diverse geographical locations, are all part of the ‘Western World’ (the term no longer being grounded in geographical terms, instead referring to what these nations share in common, culturally), and therefore, ‘Billy Elliot’ may not be a truly global musical as Fellner suggested, but a musical popular across the ‘Western World’.
In exploring reasons for ‘ Billy Elliot’s’ global appeal it might be helpful to focus on two particular scenes, and the songs sung during them. The first is where the song ‘Solidarity’ (original music scored by Elton John and lyrics written by Lee Hall) is performed in the first-half. This section features Mrs Wilkinson, Billy, ballet dancers as well as two opposing groups: the miners (Northerners dressed in black, miners’ gear, wearing hard hats and brandishing rolled up newspapers) and the Policemen (Southerners dressed in full, dark police uniform and brandishing batons). The critic Alan Sinfield said that ‘Solidarity is important for consolation and respect’, which, if we take what Sinfield says as being correct for the sake of argument, makes the song title here even more interesting, with the song baring lyrics that suggest anything but respect ‘We went and fucked yer missus/ All of us at once’. ‘Solidarity’ is a song that reoccurs (albeit not in its full entirety) throughout the musical, a common convention of modern musicals. Indeed, ‘Billy Elliot’ features many conventions of the modern musical, including being Diegetic, where the singer knows they are singing (such as when Billy’s Dad sings ‘Deep Into the Ground’ at the Working Men’s Club) and the performance is part of the story (such as the Ballet lessons with Mrs Wilkinson), and self-reflexive, with plots or themes which enable the display of the performer’s talents (for example, the main plot, with Billy wanting to become a professional ballet dancer), this seems to certainly be true.
The British people are not shown as a unified whole, but as two very different opposing forces clashing. The miners and the policemen have their own verses, with both groups joining in for the chorus. The song features lyrics such as the miners singing ‘You think yer smart ya cockney shite’ and ‘We’re proud to be working class’. On the other hand, the southern policeman are given lyrics by Lee Hall such as ‘Keep it up till Christmas lads/It means a lot to us/We send our kids to private school/On a private bus’. These lyrics set up the two groups, in an entertaining fashion for the audience, as two opposing factions of British people engaged in ‘ineluctable and irreconcilable economic and political dispute’, each group promoting a very different type of person, a different type of class and a different type of Britishness.
The second scene takes place straight after the interval, in the company of the tight-knit working class County Durham residents, celebrating Christmas at the Working Men’s Club. This scene gives the audience a view into what a strong sense of community the working-class characters enjoy and actively maintain. The idea of community is an intriguing one, especially in a theatrical sense, as I was unable to view the performance of ‘Billy Elliot’ live, instead watching a recording. Though I did identify with the sense of community, I could not help thinking that this would have been unquestionably more vivid in a live performance. Watching a recording does lack that special communal feel, which is usually engendered through experiencing performance live. Furthermore, I was unable to judge the reactions of a large audience, and all the varying levels of appreciation and/or dismay they might have displayed.
However, with a recording, you can enjoy multiple camera positions, and whilst this cannot reproduce the unique feel of ‘live’ performance, it does allow close-up scrutiny of the actors, which adds an extra dimension that even a theatre audience would find difficult to enjoy. Watching a recording provides further benefits, such as the ability to rewind, the enhanced sound reproduction and the luxury of an uninterrupted view.
Focusing on the scene in the Working Men’s Club now, a striking image in the show is when the enormous Maggie Thatcher puppet (designed in a very ‘Spitting image’ style) rears up over the set, with the characters singing the song ‘Merry Christmas Margaret Thatcher’. This song includes the lyrics such as ‘Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher/ We all celebrate today/ ‘Cause it’s one day closer to your death’. The lyrics, from both ‘Solidarity’ and ‘Merry Christmas Margaret Thatcher’ are crucial in establishing the image of government against unions and of the north-south divide. Indeed, the latter of those topics still proves to be a troubling issue in contemporary Britain, with (at the start of 2015) a think-tank (Centre for Cities) claiming that the ‘UK’s north-south divide had widened’ and that this divide has ‘created [a] two-tier economy’, with the South prospering as the North falters in comparison. By using the historical context of the north-south divide, and of the miners’ strike of the 1980s as its political and historical backdrop, ‘Billy Elliot’ focuses in on the impact the government has on one particular Northern working-class mining community, as well as the values some may attribute to Britishness, such as a sense of community, of local pride, of working class solidarity, of hard work, of socialism, of pride in music and culture and a love of one’s children.
Could we classify ‘Billy Elliot’ as a musical celebration of the working class identity? That it is ballet, an elitist/high-culture form of dance that gives Billy the chance to aspire to something that is portrayed as being ‘better’, would suggest that the musical is not a celebration of the working class identity. However, the musical does portray the working classes as unified and of having strong communal bonds. These are all qualities any audience member (from any part of the world) can surely resonate with. Yet, in the scene where Billy finds his friend Michael cross dressing in women’s clothing, Michael is bemoaning the restrictive austerity of the working-class community he lives in through the song ‘Expressing Yourself’, with lyrics such as ‘The world’s grey enough without making it worse/What we need is individuality.’ This shows us that even though global audiences can sympathise with issues facing the working classes, they might find homosexuality to be not as identifiable and relatable.
Finally, regarding ‘Billy Elliot’s’ global popularity and mass appeal, we will look at how the critic Raymond Williams defined the concept of the popular. Williams had four main definitions, two of which work effectively in the case of ‘Billy Elliot’. These definitions are ‘work deliberately setting out to win favour with the people’ and ‘well liked by many people’. It can be said with some validity that ‘Billy Elliot’ is clearly a musical that wants to win favour with the people, as it features a working-class, talented young man (an underdog) fighting against oppression and the odds to achieve his dreams through a lot of hard work. One has only to consider the undeniable global appeal of the musical, with the number of countries that have embraced, and continue to embrace the ‘Billy’ message, to see how the show’s popularity continues to spread.
The deep social divides within Britain are replicated in almost every other developed society, such as the USA or South Korea. These divisions may not be north and south, but of east and west, or indeed any other geographical orientation. The simple fact is that the struggle between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is itself a global struggle, as identified by philosophers like Marx and Engels. This is why Billy Elliot could be truly considered as a ‘global’ musical, because the struggle of the working classes is a truly global struggle. Billy Elliot can be said, with some validity, to be a simple metaphor for that global struggle. This musical shows that amid oppression by state controlled agencies (in this case the predominantly working class, but southern, British police) the working class can prevail by retaining the common decency and social cohesion that has been a defining characteristic of the global working classes almost since the start of the industrial revolution, which is an idea that, clearly with the musical’s continued popularity, still resonates with audiences around the world.
- Billy Elliot the Musical Live, dir. by Brett Sullivan (Universal Pictures, 2014)
- Itzkoff, Dave, ‘‘Billy Elliot’ Leaps Into South Korea’, in The New York Times’ Art Beats Blog <http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/04/billy-elliot-leaps-into-south-korea/?_r=0> [last accessed 12 March 2015]
- Pidd, Helen, ‘UK’s north-south divide has widened, says thinktank’, in The Guardian <http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jan/19/north-south-divide-widen-thinktank-data> [last accessed 12 March 2015]
- Sinfield, Alan, ‘History Workshop Journal’, No. 62 (Autumn, 2006), p. 169
- Williams, Raymond, Keywords (London: Fontana, 1983), p.87.
 Dave Itzkoff, ‘‘Billy Elliot’ Leaps Into South Korea’, in The New York Times’ Art Beats Blog <http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/04/billy-elliot-leaps-into-south-korea/?_r=0> [last accessed 12 March 2015]
 Alan Sinfield, ‘History Workshop Journal’, No. 62 (Autumn, 2006), p. 169
 Helen Pidd, ‘UK’s north-south divide has widened, says thinktank’, in The Guardian <http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jan/19/north-south-divide-widen-thinktank-data> [last accessed 12 March 2015]
 Raymond Williams, Keywords (London: Fontana, 1983), p.87.