Stage Dad: A Memorable Debut
10 years ago today, Ben played the title role in Billy Elliot for the first time
Ten years ago today, in what seems like a lifetime in many respects, our son Ben made his debut as the title character on the national tour of “Billy Elliot: The Musical.” The 4½-year journey to this point included numerous twists, turns and contortions for our entire family, and inspired this ongoing “Stage Dad” series.
Earlier this week, I went back and looked at the essay written the night after the performance. Writing continues to be my way to process major — and minor — events in life. Derecho aside, this definitely qualified as a major event, the culmination of an adventure that shaped much of our life as a family.
For this week’s “Stage Dad,” here is that essay. With the exception of a couple of minor tweaks and the postscript, it is just as I wrote it.
I still get nervous when I see my children perform. It’s almost a reflex, a parent’s prayer to a higher being that they will enjoy it, that they will do their best, that nothing will go wrong and, if it does, that they’ll get out of it unscathed.
Over the past several years, I’ve seen my four kids perform in school plays, dance recitals, in college concerts, at venues across the country, and on Broadway. The same reflex kicks in every time.
But on June 30, 2012, after a tumultuous night that included sitting on the runway while a derecho passed through Washington, D.C., a flight to Louisville, Ky., and four hours of sleep, I was almost too numb to be nervous.
Ben was finally going to be Billy Elliot.
My wife, Jill, and son, Nicholas, were sitting with me in the center orchestra section in The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. Ben’s manager, Linda Townsend, and her companion were on the same row. Also in the theatre were Ben’s road guardian, Ginno Murphy, his tutors, several cast members’ parents, and a number of Billy “super fans” who traveled long distances to see the show.
The night before, Jill and I sat terrified on the runway in a small plane at Reagan National Airport. A derecho — described as “one of the deadliest and most destructive fast moving severe thunderstorm complexes in North American history — whipped through the greater Washington, D.C. area, leaving 22 people dead, 1.2 million people in the area without power, and forcing the cancellation of Emma’s dance recital scheduled for that weekend.
Only planes that were already on the runway during the storm were allowed to take off. Everything else was cancelled. We sat on the small USAir plane on the runway for two hours, through the storm and its aftermath, and did not arrive in Kentucky until almost 2 a.m.
As we caught a cab to the hotel, my phone rang. It was Ben. He could not sleep. He was nervous. Could I stop in his room when I got there?
I dropped off Jill, who had just finished an 80-hour work week and was at the end of a 20-hour day, in our room and knocked on his door. There was my little boy, now 14 and about to embark on a journey few have dreamed. He wanted to talk – something he shares with his dad – and he wanted me to rub his back like I had done thousands of times before when he could not sleep. I happily obliged.
Ben asked which number I was looking forward to the most. I said the finale when Billy leads the cast in a fabulous tap curtain call. He asked why and I told him simply, “because then you’ll be done.”
After 15 minutes or so, I left and saw Nicholas, Ben’s older half-brother who was his guardian during the final two weeks of tech rehearsals. Nicholas had done a great job taking care of his younger brother. The two discovered a deep bond during that two-week period, developing a new-found appreciation for each other.
Flash forward 11 hours. Bleary eyed, we’re sitting in the audience, the resident director has introduced Ben and our family, and the curtain comes up.
Almost three years before, Jill and I sat in the Neil Simon Theater in New York, with tears in our eyes as the curtain came up in “Ragtime.” Ben was the understudy to Little Boy, a principal character who opens and closes the show, and was performing on the first Saturday night of the Tony-nominated (though much too short-lived) revival.
We held on to each other through every scene, and I don’t think I exhaled until the cast took its final bow. There have been lots of curtain calls since, a few disappointments, and some trying times for our family as we juggle parenting, jobs, and the dreams, hopes, and setbacks of our children.
While he was training, Jill said she would not believe Ben was Billy until she saw it with her own eyes. Now, there he was on stage, finally playing a role that original director Stephen Daldry described as a pubescent boy “performing Hamlet while running a marathon.”
Because the show is so physically taxing, each of the Billys did two shows a week and served as the standby for two others. On Broadway and the tour, two boys also shared the role of Michael, Billy’s best friend. Billys and, to a lesser extent, Michaels take classes in cardio, ballet, tap, and acrobatics in addition to spending 15 to 20 hours a week in school.
For the Billy character, the first act is relentless. He has some role in every number – “The Stars Look Down,” “Shine,” “Grandma’s Song,” “Solidarity,” “Expressing Yourself,” “The Letter,” “Born to Boogie,” and “Angry Dance.” Act II has fewer numbers but is no less strenuous for Billy, with the “Swan Lake” ballet sequence and the show’s finale, “Electricity.”
I teared up twice. The first time was at the end of “Solidarity,” when the audience sees Billy discovering his talent for dance. After a full day of school and a performance in the “Billy” Broadway company, where he played Tall Boy and understudied Michael, Ben performed the turns endless times in the middle of the night in our New York apartment. Despite our orders to go to bed, he kept pushing himself, working on the perfect turn.
The second was during “Electricity,” the show stopping number at the end of Act II. It was the first song Ben learned from the show and one he practiced relentlessly. He had failed with the song and he had succeeded, and there he was performing it on stage.
In January, when the show closed on Broadway, I stood in the balcony and watched as the four Billys performed the number. At some point, I looked to my left and there stood Stephen Daldry, the show’s original director, a person I met twice. He patted me on the shoulder and winked before leaving. I wondered if he had something in his eye.
As a parent, there is no prouder moment than seeing your child work toward something and succeed. At the end of “Electricity,” Ben received a standing ovation, an amazing show of support from the crowd. We had come full circle.
It was time for the finale, an appropriate end to a perfect beginning. And I wasn’t nervous any more.
Ben performed in “Billy Elliot” through May 2013, playing the title role on stage 71 times over 11 months. Over three years, he was in more than 640 performances of the show on Broadway and the national tour. During the 19 months he was on tour, the show traveled to 45 cities in 25 states and Canada.
Most of Ben’s performances were as Tall Boy/Posh Boy, a member of the ensemble who was on eight times a week, but he also played Michael 61 times.
With one notable exception — Kylend Hetherington (one of Ben’s best friends) who was Tall Boy, then Michael for a short time, then Billy for two years — our son is the only one in North America who played all three boy roles for a substantial period.
It was a remarkable accomplishment, and a remarkable time.