If there ever were a musical that was destined to be the very “poster child” for the maxim that a musical with a solid book but a middling score has a better chance for survival than a musical with a weak book and a terrific score, it’s Billy Elliot, which has a strong book and a perfectly poopie score. Adapted and with lyrics by Lee Hall, who also authored the original screenplay upon which the musical is based, Billy Elliot is another of those confounding evenings in which Elton John skates to a totally unearned box-office glory simply because he’s attached to a machine that makes the quality of his work (and I use both words frivolously) almost totally negligible.
In this case, the machine is an almost irresistible story. As adequately summarized in Wikipedia, with a little tweaking from me for the review context, here’s the premise: “Set in County Durham, against the backdrop of the 1984-85 coal miners' strike, [the story tells of] motherless eleven-year-old Billy (David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik or Kiril Kulish) [who] inadvertently finds his way out of his boxing practice and into a girls' ballet class run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Haydn Gwynne, who created her role in London). Sure enough, he becomes attracted to the grace of the dance and yearns to learn more. While his brother (Santino Fontana), father (Gregory Jbarra) and neighbors stand on strike and clash with riot police, Billy continues to show up at the studio, keeping it a secret from his family, who would prefer that he take on more manly, working-class pursuits.”
As eye-fillingly directed by Stephen Daldry (who also directed the film), with equally sumptuous choreography by Matthew Bourne (who likewise provided he film’s choreography)—and a lot of it—the evening cannily steers mostly clear of featuring songs that have any substantial book function (indeed, a number of dramatic beats that, to a real musical dramatist, would cry out for musicalization, are relegated to simply well-acted book scenes). He rather lets most of its numbers be celebratory or anthematic or philosophical comments that don’t have to be listened to for their points to be made, and most of the time those numbers trigger dance, which is even less dependent on words (i.e. the dance teacher’s “all ya gotta do” type number about expressing oneself in dance; the miners’ “Solidarity” number about rallying to their cause, etc. etc.) and the few times the numbers have to carry up-close, personal moments (i.e. Billy’s grandma [Carole Shelley] remembering romantic dances in her past; Billy’s deceased mom [Leah Hocking] appearing to voice words from a cherished letter, etc.), they’re lumpen of shape, treacly of content—and pale so, next to the dance numbers, that the audience simply (yet willingly!) tolerates them as harmless place markers. None of the songs reveals anything you don’t know from the libretto, and between the unschooled-but-nice-try lyrics of Mr. Hall and the hackwork, day-at-the-office, throwaway burbles of undistinguished melodoids by Mr. John (have I de-glamorized it enough, do you think?), the actors have very little to hang onto by way of musical shape and natural verbal emphasis, thus about 70% of the evening’s lyrics are, to an ear hearing them for the first time (as mine was), pretty much indecipherable. (And I must pause to add: for the task of discerning detail, even in a convoluted or obscured setting, mine are uncommonly fast, perceptive and sharp ears.) The actors might as well be singing bibbity-bobbity-boo for all the difference it makes. The score for Billy Elliot is a triumph of dog communication: tone of voice and intensity of delivery send a rudimentary message. The audience responds accordingly and on we move to the next part of the story.
And I wish I could tell you that any of this matters.
But it seems not to.
In all other departments save music, including design and performance (a number of the actors are mentioned above and they are, to a person, committed and terrific), Billy Elliot is top notch. And feels like a gigantic creative conspiracy, all the community members gathering to give their one deficient neighbor this great, wanking alibi. (And of course that's not what's happening on a conscious or even unconscious level. The creative and production team are believers, because they have to be. But the score is still inferior goods.) And once again, Elton John gets away with it. And we all know he gets away with it.
And it’s not okay. And there’s nothing that can be done about it, unless you’re into spreading your arms wide and howling at the public, like some latter-day Howard Beale (Who? you ask? Look him up!), which probably wouldn’t be my style even if I thought it would help, even if I wanted to futilely shout “Boycott!” at the top of my lungs, which, contrarily, I don’t, because I think you have to see the hits, when you care about musicals, you have to see what’s Out There and know the landscape, and Billy Elliot is part of it now, and on a global scale, at that.
Just don’t let them slip the bad stuff past you, all right?
Notice. Let yourself resent that there’s an even better show being denied you.
Somehow that awareness and passion will come in handy later.
Because it’s not okay.