Wanted: Tappers, turners and singers

At 12 years of age, would you have dared to audition for a lead role in an Elton John musical that requires you to dance, sing and act in front of an audience of hundreds of people?

It’s a Sunday afternoon in Islington, in early February. In a cavernous, warehouse like space with ballet bars along the walls, two women and three men are seated behind a table, lists and pens at the ready. They are waiting with anticipation as 12-year old Wilbur is being chaperoned in by Daniel Stoddart, Artistic Director of The Very Popular Theatre Co (VPT), a well-known force in Newcastle’s creative scene with a thrilling repertoire of modern shows and reimagined classics.

They are expert judges, looking for “two Billys and two Michaels”, young singers and dancers about 10 to 12 years of age, for their upcoming production of Billy Elliot, The Musical. With music by Sir Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall, the show is set against the UK miners’ strike in the mid-1980s. Hailed as the first mainstream British entertainment piece to openly discuss toxic masculinity and gender stereotypes, the musical has won multiple awards and will run at Newcastle’s Civic Theatre from 7 through 21 October 2023.

To keep the demands on the young stars within reasonable limits, two of them will share each of the lead roles of Billy, Michael and young Debbie, alternating between performances. Even though, the list of requirements is daunting for an adult, let alone for pre-teens. They need to be able to dance in different styles, to sing, to act and to command a stage presence way beyond their biological years.

Past productions of Billy Elliot have had their Billys and Michaels perform ballet, others required tap dancing, modern dance and even hip hop.

Custom choreography

“With such a young cast, you have to tailor the requirements to the strengths of your performers,” Daniel explains.

“That’s why we don’t have a choreography for the show yet. That work will start once casting is complete.
“One can tell that Elton John shaved off some notes at the top and a few at the bottom to make it manageable for those young performers. But it’s still anything but a normal show.”

Enter young Wilbur, smiling nervously. Wilbur, and after him Nate, Tyde, Charlie, Fergus, Lewis and a few others all get to perform a self-chosen dance routine. Some start tap-dancing with impressive skill, others demonstrate their ballet moves. They all get to stretch their vocal cords, performing two of the musical’s signature songs.

With reassuring kindness and a ready smile, Daniel shepherds them in and out. The judges do their best to calm nerves, but a few overwhelmed tears are still being shed. At the end of a long afternoon, have they found what they are looking for?

Read the full story in our Winter Edition of Hunter & Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.

Get your tickets for Billy Elliot The Musical at civictheatrenewcastle.com.au

Story by Cornelia Schulze, photography by Frank Schulze and courtesy of The Very Popular Theatre Company.