Today’s guest post is featuring a new blogger to our space! Please welcome Serena Grant as she lends her expert lens on this history of British Musical Theater. It’s so important to understand the historical factors that surround the arts so that we can authentically integrate them throughout our content areas. Welcome Serena!
The musical version of Billy Elliot can be viewed as an important part of the recent history of British musical theatre, as well as a take on the broader tensions surrounding the miners’ strike of 1984-1985 in County Durham. The musical, written by Lee Hall from his screenplay for the 2000 film version of the same story, had its music produced by Elton John. Billy Elliot premiered at the Victoria Palace Theatre in 2005, with the production costing approximately £5.5 million. Since 2005 Billy Elliot has gone on to tour the world, and has received the Laurence Olivier award for best musical production. As a look at dance and the miners’ strike, Billy Elliot showcases the history of the North of England as it experienced a decline in the 1980s.
Billy Elliot deals with a young boy who discovers a talent for ballet dancing. This comes into conflict, since he resides in a depressed mining town facing a strike. Along with, the disapproval of his traditional father. The musical opens with ‘The Stars Look Down,’. A song that sets the miners’ impending strike into context. A montage establishes how the nationalization of the mining industry after the war created considerable power for unions. Leading to clashes with the privatization driven Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Billy’s growing talent for ballet sets against tensions in his small County Durham town. With his father and older brother involved in violent clashes and riots. With songs like ‘Expressing Yourself’ combining fights with his father, the musical goes on to stage a play within a play directly criticizing the strike breaking policies of the Conservatives through the song ‘Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher’. Billy’s talent is eventually recognized, and with his father crossing the picket line to support the family, he wins a place at the Royal Ballet School. The musical ends with Billy leaving his family, and a lament for the end of the miners’ strike with the song ‘Once We Were Kings’.
Billy Elliot’s main strengths come through the ways in which it combines the anger and loss of community, and particularly traditional male roles, of the closure of the mines, and Billy’s struggle with his talent. The playbill for the musical highlights how the miners’ strike affected thousands of families. Leading to a state of economic depression and unemployment in the North of England those still suffer today. Billy Elliot is also significant for the ways it confronts issues of sexuality and gender, as well as the meaning of the traditional family and working life.
The Meaning of Its Success
The success of the musical around the world has demonstrated how British musical theatre can both entertain, and tackle difficult subject matter. Other recent successes have included London Road, an experimental musical that deals with a spate of serial killings in the capital. Similar success has also been enjoyed by the tabloid culture criticism Jerry Springer: The Opera, Madness and Suggs’s exploration of working class London life in Our House, and a revival of the 19th century German musical Spring Awakening.
About the Author
Serena studied AS Drama and A-Level Musical Theatre, achieving a distinction in the latter. She is an avid theatre lover, using her knowledge to be a full time writer for a number of online publications, currently promoting UK Theatre Tickets as the number one seller of discount theatre tickets online.
Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of EducationCloset.com. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, Common Core State Standards, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education.
Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter.