The China-red signboard in the mauve marble lobby of the Imperial Theater does not reveal, until shortly before the house opens for each performance of Billy Elliot the Musical, who will be playing Billy. Often enough, the three boys sharing the role will have only recently received the news themselves, as the schedule is constantly being rejiggered based on their health and readiness. However nervous this makes them—and just before curtain they are sometimes nearly hyperventilating—onstage they give startlingly confident, and different, performances: one suave and beamish; one brooding and heartbroken; one blisteringly angry, dancing as if his limbs were bats cracking baseballs out of the park.
But at the dinged-up stage door afterward, the scene is always the same. Actors emerging there face a kind of perp walk, penned in by barricades that keep fans, with their complicated emotions, at bay. Also kept at bay is a group with even more complicated emotions: the parents. Forbidden to enter the theater except in the usual way, with a ticket, they must await their little stars at a distance.
It is not because the production fears the intrusive wiles of stage mothers that it enforces this segregation; it is the sheer numbers. The 51-person cast includes 23 kids, 15 of whom appear in each show. No stage mother worth the name would waste her efforts on Broadway these days anyway; there’s too little reward. (Madame Rose herself would be off to California in search of a movie, or at least a reality show.) Rather, the mothers (and fathers) of the cast are mostly there at their children’s behest, having been turned by them into humble sherpas, lugging wheelies of dance gear to the theater and saying good-bye just shy of the mountaintop. It’s the show’s job to take the kids the rest of the way. Indeed, a significant part of the $20 million capitalization for Billy Elliot’s Broadway incarnation (the London production continues strong in its fourth year) pays for the huge in loco parentis apparatus that is responsible for training, educating, and minding its minors from the time they arrive for rehearsal in the morning to the time—as much as twelve hours later—they are returned to the real world outside.
After evening shows, that handover begins at 11 p.m., when seven child wranglers (technically called guardians so as not to suggest the use of cattle prods) start pairing their charges with the appropriate adults. On October 8, a week into previews—the official opening is November 13—the first to emerge was one of the youngest: 7-year-old Mitchell Michaliszyn, who plays the lollipop-sucking Small Boy at alternate performances. He was already wearing his SpongeBob pajamas, and jumped right into his father’s arms. A gaggle of so-called Ballet Girls came next, posing for cell-phone photos and slowly walking the gauntlet toward their folks. Soon a cheer went up, though if you weren’t in the front row, you wouldn’t have seen that it was because Trent Kowalik, who is four-foot-eleven, had stepped onto the sidewalk. A freckle-faced 13-year-old from Wantagh, Long Island, Trent had already played Billy for six months in London, but tonight was his Broadway debut. Joy wafted off him like an odor. When an older girl asked him to sign the T-shirt she was wearing, he threw his mother, behind the barricade, a thrilled, goofy look that seemed to say, “Can you believe it?”
Lauretta Kowalik, dressed in a tweedy jacket over a long brown linen dress, smiled briefly. For her, the whole experience was hard to believe. To begin with, she’d barely seen Trent in days; she and her husband had rented an apartment near the theater so he could catch a few extra hours of sleep (under the eye of an older sister, in college nearby) instead of racing to the Long Island Rail Road station each morning.
As a result, she and her only son lived in separate worlds. And Trent’s world was so extreme. He had always been a wonder, winning Irish-dance championships since he was 5, but now he had landed the title role (or one-third of it, anyway—he is the brooding, heartbroken Billy) in the biggest new musical of the season. More than that, it was a once-in-a-generation role for a boy, as Annie had been, 30 years ago, for a girl. Yes, there are lots of kids these days on Broadway: Gypsy has seven, Spring Awakening eighteen, and minors make up the entire company of 13. But the young actors in those shows share the burden of the storytelling with adults or with each other. In Billy Elliot, the drama is squarely on Billy’s narrow shoulders. He stands at the intersection of its two central questions: Will Maggie Thatcher crush a northern-English coal-mining community, circa 1984? Will that community’s philistinism crush the boy who, in the aftermath of his mother’s death, discovers his improbable love of ballet?