Like the character he plays in “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” Drew Minard is first and foremost a dancer. Whatever comes along with that is fine, but for now it’s still his feet doing most of the talking.
“I’ve been dancing since I was 3, and never really did any acting or singing before this,” said Minard, a 12-year-old native of Clive, Iowa, who plays the title character in the national touring production of “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” at Proctors for a six-day visit beginning Tuesday. “I’m still mostly a dancer, but during the rehearsal process I really learned a lot. They taught us the whole show, I knew what I was doing by the time of my first show, so I wasn’t that nervous. I was more excited.”
Minard is one of three boys sharing the role of Billy in the touring production at Proctors. Like the others, after impressing producers with a great audition in New York City, Minard spent five weeks preparing for the performance gig of his young life.
“It was hard some time, but mostly it was a lot of fun,” said Minard of his time in “Billy Camp” in New York City. “I trained with another boy and we learned everything we needed to know. We also had an acting teacher and he went through the whole show with us.”
’Billy Elliot: The Musical’
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 1 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $75-$25
MORE INFO: 346-6204 or www.proctors.org
Most of Minard’s time in New York was spent with choreographer and Broadway performer Alison Levenberg, one of the instructors in “Billy Camp.” A British native, Levenberg danced on Broadway in “Billy Elliot” and “42nd Street,” was in the film, “The Producers,” danced in “Springtime for Hitler,” and also performed as a Rockette at the White House.
“I’m the associate choreographer, which means I maintain the original choreography in the show and train all the Billys when they sign on to do the show,” said Levenberg, who served as a swing and dance captain during “Billy Elliot’s” Broadway run. “I’ve had a long personal journey with the show myself, and it’s been great being a tap coach and getting to work with all the new Billys. The most rewarding part for me is watching them achieve what they do; watching their journey.”
The musical, “Billy Elliot,” is based on the 2000 British film written by Lee Hall. Set during the 1984-85 coal miners’ strike, “Billy Elliot” tells the story of an 11-year-old boy who aspires to be a ballet dancer despite the wishes of his father, who prefers the boxing ring to the stage for his son.
The film was well received and nominated for three Oscars, but when Hall teamed up with Elton John to turn the show into a musical in London’s West End in 2005, he had a huge success. It opened on Broadway in November of 2008 and won 10 Tonys, including Best Musical. The show concluded its Broadway run in January of 2012 after 1,312 performances.
An IOWA Connection
Minard’s “Billy Elliot” story began when he was recommended for the part by Alex Ko, a Iowa City native who had played the role on Broadway. Ko, now 17, was the first replacement for the original Billy, Kiril Kulish. Ko made his Broadway debut in October of 2009 and his final performance as Billy came on May 15, 2011.
“He saw me at a dance competition and recommended me to the casting director,” Minard said of Ko. “Then I went to an open call audition in New York and it just kind of went on from there.”
Levenberg remembers being impressed with Minard’s determination.
“I had the pleasure of training Drew, and I can remember him being so passionate about the role when we started rehearsals,” said Levenberg. “He really wanted to do well.”
Finding the right young performer to play Billy isn’t an easy job according to Levenberg.
“We can get as many as 100 boys at some of our open casting calls, and we pick out the ones we see potential in, a handful, and then invite them back for a final audition,” said Levenberg. “Billy is 11 in the show, so most of the boys are 11 or 12, and there are a lot of different looks and types. Each boy brings to the role something of their own. There are specific things we look for, but each Billy is very special. There are no cookie-cutter Billys.”
Growth would hurt
One thing producers have to be concerned about is just how fast their young actors are growing.
“At that age it’s very much up in the air,” said Levenberg. “You can’t predict how fast they’re going to grow, and it’s hard to tell their maturity level when you audition them. Some boys can do it for two years, but for others it’s a much shorter time.”
Minard, who will enter the eighth grade in the fall, hopes he doesn’t fall prey to any sudden growth spurt.
“This is going to end in August, and then it’s back to school,” he said. “I want to stay short, and I’d love to keep doing it because it’s been so much fun traveling around the country and going to so many different attractions.”
Minard, who has started an anti-bullying program at his school, started dancing because of the influence of his older brother.
“My brother was in dance, and he looked like he was having so much fun I thought I’d try it,” said Minard. “I like diving and I played some soccer, but mostly I’ve danced. I had never sang much at all until this show, so that was a little hard to get into, but I got used to it.”
Minard says he’s also a big fan of the non-musical movie.
“It’s fun to see the scenes in the movie and see how they turn into these big dance numbers,” said Minard. “I watched it just recently and it was a lot of fun.”
Along with the singing and dancing, it is the message that makes “Billy Elliot” so popular, Levenberg said.
“There are so many great things about this show I don’t know where to start,” she said. “It sends a message that we all can relate to today on so many different levels. It’s about unions, the gay community, and ultimately it’s about Billy’s passion and drive to go for his goals. The rest of the village is decimated by the strike, but Billy carries on and strives for his goal, and while it took a long time for the village to accept Billy’s dream, they do come together as a community once they see he has the passion for it.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]