Most of us wouldn’t trust an 11-year-old boy to run a lemonade stand. But Nora Brennan has to find the male preteens she can entrust with the fortunes of a multimillion-dollar musical. She’s the children’s casting director for “Billy Elliot The Musical,” which is touring around the United States from July 2012 through June 2013.
Most of us wouldn’t trust an 11-year-old boy to run a lemonade stand. But Nora Brennan has to find the male preteens she can entrust with the fortunes of a multimillion-dollar musical.
She’s the children’s casting director for “Billy Elliot The Musical,” which is touring around the United States from July 2012 through June 2013. It’s up to her to scour the country for those rare 11-year-old boys with the unique set of skills required to be Billy.
And it’s not a one-and-done proposition. The makers of the beloved 2000 indie film that inspired the musical only had to find one Billy Elliot, but during her long tenure with the show, Brennan has had to cast about 25 Billy Elliots –– most recently, Noah Parets from Sharon, Mass. He’s one of four Billys in the touring production.
“Finding a Billy is a major challenge,” says Brennan. “You need a boy who’s about 11 years old, who has had at least several years of serious ballet training, as well as tap and contemporary dance. In addition, he needs gymnastic skills, he has to be a natural actor and he needs to sing.”
Oh, and did we mention he must master the Geordie accent? That’s from Northern England (note: your sketchy Paul McCartney imitation simply won’t do).
But the biggest trick may be the gender bit. Brennan says that preteen ballet girls still outnumber the boys about 20 to 1.
In fact, that’s kind of the point of the musical, which has won over critics and audiences since it premiered in London in 2005, before bowing on Broadway in 2008. Billy Elliot is the young boy who faces the prospect of a hardscrabble life in a small, bleak British town. He’s more interested in ballet than boxing. Despite the odds and the pressures, he’d determined to dance. The film spawned the musical (score by Elton John), which won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Dance training, acting ability and a Y chromosome are all vital to the role, but Brennan says that in casting sessions, she also keeps a sharp eye on the personalities of the young auditioners.
“We need to see determination and tenacity in them,” she says. “They need to be the kind of kids who don’t give up easily. They must be disciplined and focused.”
That’s why the audition process becomes a bit of a boot camp for the youngsters.
“The call-back sessions are several days long,” says Brennan. “They start at 10 in the morning and they go to about 6 at night. They learn choreography, songs and the dialect. And then they go home and sleep on it. And when they come back, they are expected to remember everything they did, and build on it.”
After enduring all that, some of the boys will still suffer a cruel fate: If they have a quick growth spurt or a voice change, they’re out.
Is it nerve-racking to pin the hopes of a show on a kid who isn’t old enough to know what Clearasil is?
“The creative team spends an enormous amount of time with them,” says Brennan. “We’re all pretty confident [the kids] know what they’re doing by the time they hit the stage.”
Interestingly, at this point, the movie and the musical serve as a kind of feeder system for the casting director: Many of the boys have been inspired to dance by “Billy Elliot.”
In addition, the audition process can be its own reward. In many cases, these would-be Billys are finding, for the first time, other boys who are interested in dance. It can create an immediate bond among the boys, who, Brennan says, in almost every case, have been teased or bullied by classmates for their interest in dance.
“In most cases, they’re the only boy in the studio [where they’re taking dance classes],” says Brennan. “Here, they meet other boys their age who love to dance as well. They find a network of boys with the same interest, and many of them stay in touch on Facebook.”
And the story comes full circle: It was by watching “Billy Elliot” that the boys got the idea to be Billy Elliot.
“In many cases, ‘Billy Elliot’ has helped them,” says Brennan. “The boys have been inspired by the show. It’s helped them find the courage to follow their dream.”