Thursday, July 17, 2008

Billy Elliot The Musical

Having enjoyed the film, The Quarterback and I went on Tuesday to watch the musical at the Victoria Palace with great anticipation. Perhaps our high expectations let us down. The musical did not live up to its rave reviews. Stephen Daldry, who helmed the film, directed the musical as well. Lee Hall, the scriptwriter, wrote the book and lyrics, while Elton John wrote the music.

The songs were not particularly memorable. I don't remember any repetition or development of musical motifs in the second half, except for the sentimental duet sang by Billy and his mum. Fox Jackson-Keen, who was a new Billy, had stage presence, but was always theatrical, unlike the very natural Jonty Bowyer, who played his chunky gay pal. Jackie Clune was wonderful as the dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson, bringing a bittersweetness to the role. 

The dance numbers were well executed, but it was weird to see striking miners dancing. Also odd, though crowd-pleasing, was the Disney-like number when dresses on hangers danced with the two boys playing dress-up. In a show about ballet, there was too much tap-dancing. Jackson-Keen was a talented and committed dancer, but there are severe limits to what a child-dancer can do, limits which extended to all the pieces involving Billy. The final song was not as rousing as such a rousing story should be; during the curtain call a company dance, with the men putting on tutus, was tacked on to try to lift the show. 

The show ran for a full three hours, which felt an hour too long. The Christmas pantomime, mocking Margaret Thatcher, put up by the miners as a play-within-a-play, detracted from the main story, and could have been cut, though that was a part of the show that earned it critical kudos for being political. The problem is not with politicizing a genre not usually political; the problem is that the politics should remain background to the real story: what does it mean for a working class boy to aspire to dance when ballet is an art associated with the rich and the effeminate? 

In the film, Billy's father and older brother see themselves as emasculated by his ballet, while the miners see themselves as emasculated by their loss of jobs, and then the failure of the strike. The film probes, sympathetically but acutely, working class male anxieties. That subtlety is gone in the musical which celebrates working class solidarity unabashedly, and denounces Thatcherite politics. Its own politics gets confused when, during the Christmas pantomime, a miner mocks Thatcher by dressing up as the Iron Lady. So is cross-dressing a criticism of gender-crossing, or a celebration of it? If Thatcher is to be attacked, she should be attacked as a politician, and not as a woman. To do the latter is sexist, whether the attacker is straight or gay. 


Eshuneutics said...

"So is cross-dressing a criticism of gender-crossing, or a celebration of it? If Thatcher is to be attacked, she should be attacked as a politician, and not as a woman. To do the latter is sexist, whether the attacker is straight or gay."

Perhaps, you question is too sophisticated here. The anti-Thatcherism of the strike period was not subtle. Satirical masks of Thatcher and Regan could be easily bought in shops. In the northern heartlands, men dressing up as Thatcher at public fetes was common. Probably, the musical reflects this rather than any deep statement about sexual identity or queer politics. The dressing up was simple parody. Yes it mocked Thatcher as a woman. Yes, it was sexist. But it reflected a truth felt within the UK at the time. The first female PM disappointed Feminists by her patriarchal attitudes. By adopting an Elizabethan stance, as a woman with a man's heart, Thatcher opened herself to this kind of grotesque, political comment. Probably, what is missing from the Daldry spectacle is the fact that women played a real political role in the strike. It is focused on a sentimentalised view of the male working class. "Billy Eliot" does go in for male simplification. The man-woman stereotype historically reflected her hybrid, ridiculous right-wing social policies.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, Andrew, for providing some of the historical context. Part of my sensitivity to the sexist attacks on Thatcher may be due to the recent American political discourse surrounding Hilary Clinton's campaign for the Democratic nomination. The two women did not stand for the same things, but the sexism stemmed from the same source.