When I hear “musical,” my mind jumps to bright colors, show tunes, dance lines, and laughter. This may be appropriate, considering the roots of musical theatre: travelling minstrels and small troupes performed music combined with slapstick comedy as entertainment during the Middle Ages (when everyone needed a good laugh). As these troupes became more common, theatre producers contracted them to insert short numbers between the acts of more serious dramas, allowing some comic relief. These interludes were expanded; eventually, writers began setting farces to music, emphasizing how music can complement dialogue, action, and plot. Fast forward a few hundred years, and you’ve got modern musicals, right?
Not quite. Musical theatre’s path has taken twists and turns, and, though occasionally pertinent, the images that my mind creates can be misleading.
For instance, musicals aren’t exclusively comedies (dramatic, romantic, or otherwise). It may seem obvious, but my preconceptions don’t address this fact. Take, for example, Les Miserables. The title itself hints that the musical probably won’t be a joyous affair. The Phantom of the Opera doesn’t sound very uplifting either: when was the last time ghosts were humorous (aside from Ghostbusters)? Clearly, somewhere along the line, the purpose of “the musical” changed course, splintering from comedy and adapting the more dramatic undercurrents of opera.
What, then, is a musical? Clearly, it isn’t just about comedy, or drama, or action, or even the music. A musical represents the place where music, lyrics, dialogue, plot, and dance intersect. One aspect isn’t more important than any other; each facet relies upon the other to enhance the overall effect. The focus is on emotion, and the different modes of expressing it.
“Emotion? It’s singing and dancing. It all seems pretty happy to me. The only other mood I can express through dance is ‘seductive,’ and let me tell you, it isn’t pretty.”
Indeed, it seems difficult to convey complex emotion through music and movement. I would provide an example of my interpretive dances, but the effect would only be humorous, whether that was the intention or not. Instead, I’ll let Billy Elliot convince you and your Panrimo coordinator, who’ll accompany you and happily witness your enlightenment.
Based on the eponymous film, Billy Elliot the Musical details the quest of Billy Elliot, an 11-year old boy inspired by the emotion and passion of dance, to pursue his dream of enrolling in the Royal Ballet School in London. His family, however, staunchly opposes his aspirations: boys, let alone men, don’t dance; they box. Billy’s struggle to pursue his forbidden love resonates through his dancing, which reflects both the electricity he feels while moving and the intensity of the pressure applied by his family.
Billy Elliot also boasts an impressive score composed by Sir Elton John, a shining British example of the power of music. The production has been awarded numerous accolades, including four Laurence Olivier awards (England’s prestigious award for musical theatre productions) and ten Tony awards, both of which included Best New Musical. Clearly, the power of dance isn’t exaggerated.
Of course, the impacts are lost in translation. Seeing James Lomas, George Maguire, or Liam Mower (all winners of the Olivier Award for Best Actor) glide, stomp, and whirl across stage will transfer their emotions along to you. If you didn’t think it was possible that dance could convey the complexities of life in London, reconsider. The joy, pain, despair, love, anger, resentment, and triumph are palpable.
Billy Elliot shines as a testament to the emotional potential of dance, especially in a genre that tends to emphasize its more positive aspects. Billy Elliot doesn’t try to downplay negative emotions; instead, it actively addresses them and introduces a new outlet for release. Rather than escape from stress by masking it with laughter, glitter, and pizzazz, Billy Elliot confronts negative emotion, embraces it, and then sends it whirling away.
While comedies have their benefits (and distractions), this musical finds its strengths where comedies fall short: in harnessing the power of negative emotion and reconstituting it to create something beautiful. You might not laugh your way through the production, but Billy Elliot will have you smiling even wider as you leave.