Such is the anticipated durability of the West End musical Billy Elliot that a special school has been established in Leeds to train talented youngsters for the show
There have to be three boys playing Billy in rotation at any one time and, because of the demands of the role, not to mention the call of academe, they are not expected to serve more than six months at a stretch.
‘Basically we are looking for six Billies a year,’ says casting director Jessica Ronane, whose job it is to find and nurture young talent for the show, ‘although we shall be assessing how each boy is holding up and whether or not he wishes to continue in the show. We always knew that the success of Billy Elliot would depend heavily on the child playing Billy, but once it had opened it became evident that the show could not function without an amazing child at its centre.’
Currently there are 12 potential Billies aged 10 to 11 being groomed for the West End, including boys from Cardiff, Plymouth and London. Each goes to local classes after school during the week, then travels up to Leeds on Saturdays to attend special training geared to making him the next Billy Elliot. Leeds was considered to be the best focal point for what has always been a nationwide search for talent as it has a strong dance tradition, with many dance schools and teachers. The Saturday school (started off in the Civic Theatre but now at Leeds Girls’ High School) is funded by the producers of Billy Elliot. Not all the 12 boys currently attending the training in Leeds will make it into the West End, but the teachers believe that the opportunity to work with top West End choreographers, movement experts and vocal coaches makes up for any disappointment they may experience.
A former dancer herself, Jessica Ronane appreciates the demands made of these young hopefuls: ‘We teach them everything – acrobatics, tap-dancing, singing, projection, mastering a script. Of course they can feel the pressure but they have a brilliant team of people caring for them and guiding them through it. ‘I’m convinced a lot of the maturity of our first three Billies came from the contact they had with our creative team treating them as equals.
‘I talk to their parents every day, and I tell them off when they’ve stepped out of line. It is an emotional journey; you connect with them and get involved in their lives. It is very tough on all of us when you have to say goodbye to someone.’
Because of the rapturous reception the show has had in London, there is interest in Billy Elliot from American producers, but if it were to transfer to Broadway, Jessica Ronane says she has no idea whether her services would be required to work with American child stars and to set up a similar school in New York.
To find out more about the making of Billy Elliot, and when and where auditions are taking place, visit www.billyelliotthemusical.com