I’d wanted to see the musical version of “Billy Elliot” for some time, and last night was my chance. The production was well done, the stark staging was effective, and the boy (one of five) who played Billy was endearing.
From the outside, the setting is not one that would normally interest me: the story plays out against the backdrop of labor unrest in northern England, when miners went on strike to protest Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s 1984 decision to begin closing down the coal mines. Angry men and unhappy police struggle, wages are lost, poverty calls. It’s not a pleasant scene.
In the midst of the conflict, young Billy, the son of a widowed miner, shows up late for a boxing class at the union hall, and discovers that when the boxers leave, the place is taken over by a class for would-be ballerinas. Billy ultimately discovers that he has a gift for dancing, and that he finds incredible freedom in expressing himself through dance. The remainder of the show follows his teacher’s efforts to get him into the Royal School of Ballet — something hotly opposed by his macho father and angry older brother.
The heart of the show is found in a letter Billy’s mother had written to him before she died, intending for him to read it when he turned 18. He, of course, had opened the letter and memorized it by age 12. Three lines from the letter, sung in the middle and as a reprise at the end, provide the central theme:
In everything you do,
always be yourself,
and you will always be true.
It’s not great poetry, I know — it sounds better when sung — but it’s still good advice, and it sounds familiar. Most of us will recall (without necessarily remembering the source) Polonius’ last piece of advice to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Too many children — and for that matter, too many adults — spend their lives striving to be what their parents or their community want them to be, and that makes it very difficult to be true to themselves, true to the person God created.
Not many of us want to join the ballet, as Billy did, but when we have the courage to live the truth that is within us, our hearts will dance.