The drama demands so much of a young performer—emotionally, vocally, physically—that it hardly seems sane to have tried telling it onstage. Billy goes full tilt for all but two scenes. There have been many injuries, and it has often happened, including to Trent in London, that a boy finished Act I but could not go on for Act II. Even leaving the role can be traumatic. (All Billy contracts include a termination clause that can be triggered by a growth spurt or change of voice.) James Lomas, who after a year of training lasted only six months in the West End production before his voice dropped and he “got muscles,” found life back home in Sheffield a lonely nightmare. He later returned to the show part time as a stagehand. Lomas says he is happy now, with a girlfriend, a flat, and Elton John, the show’s composer, helping to finance his education.
In response to such cases, the producers hired a social worker who not only counsels the London Billys during their employment but also provides “aftercare” when they age out. She may help find an agent, a ballet school, or just a way to relinquish stardom. Still, all Billys dread the day their adolescence becomes undeniable, notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) the onstage ceremony in which they are handed back to their families, with parting gifts.
Boys are ordinarily eager to adolesce. Billy himself says, “I don’t want a childhood.” But Trent and his co-stars—Kiril Kulish and David Alvarez, both 14—emphatically do not want to grow up just now. Nevertheless, and despite their smooth skin and still-passable sopranos, they are shadowed by a premonition of their older selves. The show makes the point impossible to miss. During the climactic Swan Lake pas de deux, Billy is spun high in the air (in a flying harness) by a hunky danseur noble identified as Older Billy; it’s a Peter Pan fantasy of being suspended, blissfully if temporarily, above the sweaty world of adults. And yet to maintain that fantasy, as the show requires, a preadolescent is asked to perform as strongly and reliably as those sweaty adults. This creates some contradictory incentives. Wearing a tank top at acrobatics class one day, Trent glimpsed his strawlike arms in the mirror and, thinking more like a self-conscious teenager than an actor playing an 11-year-old, started banging out push-ups.
Puppyish in repose, the boys are nevertheless fierce workers. (“Usually, they have to be declared legally dead before they stay home,” says Robert Wilson, the head guardian.) Kiril and David, international prize winners in ballet, are honing their tap and acrobatics. Trent, superior in these, is upgrading his “horrible” pointe. Their different strengths (and the different ways the show deploys them) diffuse their competitiveness; they are endearingly gaga over each other’s abilities. (“David’s turns look really classical!” “Trent’s tap is amazingly fast!”) Yet they are all similarly inured to the ickiness of being constantly examined, touched, palpated, corrected, and even (by nondancing acquaintances) mocked. They power past all that as they power past exhaustion. The morning after his Broadway debut, Trent still had to rise from the air mattress on the floor of his new apartment for a full day of class and rehearsal.
As he did so, the other two Billys would be preparing for the same kind of schedule. In a high-rise on 42nd Street, Kiril, the suave and beamish Billy who had moved from California with his mother when rehearsals began, would fold up the sofa bed, scarf down his egg whites, and squeeze in perhaps 30 minutes of piano. (The piano is about the only non-bed furniture in the apartment.) In the East Nineties, David, the blistering Billy with a mop of black curls, would wake up in the room he shares with his 10-year-old sister, Maria, and his G.I. Joe action figures. He would probably already have missed his father, who sometimes returns from work at night to find David sitting in front of the news in frog position, conked out but limber.
To some parents, this would no doubt be a terrible picture: overworked, overdriven kids living adult lives in an artificial world. But as the Billy parents see it, their sons are experiencing the pleasure and utility of their gifts to the fullest extent; they are never bored or idle but, rather, devoted and fulfilled. What’s odd is that the three families came to that conclusion (and thus to Manhattan) from enormously different premises. Their roots couldn’t be further removed: in cul-de-sac suburbia, in exilic post-Soviet Jewry, in Cuba by way of Montreal. They speak different languages, at least at home: English, Russian, Spanish. And yet, like Lauretta, they each seem awestruck by their son’s talent, if not by the sons themselves. It’s as if someone had handed them the Hope diamond and said, “Here, take care of this, would you? For a while?”