For three boys (and their mothers), Billy Elliot is the role of a lifetime. Provided they don’t grow out of it too fast.
By Jesse Green
Published Oct 26, 2008
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?
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?”
What the boys like to do on days off.
Kiril: Anything but sleep. On a Sunday even now I wake up early and go out and play sports. Except I can’t play sports because I’m in the city.
What else do you miss from normal life?
Kiril: I have a totally normal life. This is what I like to do.
But like video games, TV, homework…
David: No video games. That’s a waste of time.
Kiril: I hate watching TV. I hate watching movies.
David: Oh, come on! You gotta start. Now.
Kiril: I do miss In-N-Out Burger!
David: Yeah. I want to sleep more and eat a lot of cheeseburgers.
Kiril: They’re scrumptious. There was one next to my ballet studio in San Diego. I’d go four times a week.
David: How are you ever in shape?
Kiril: Thanks a lot, David!
David: They have so much fries it isn’t funny! I would get fat if I ate that way.
Kiril: Me too.
Trent: I get so much exercise I’m not afraid to have five bowls of ice cream. Either cookies and cream or mint chocolate chip, but it has to be the green kind, because if it’s not green, your brain doesn’t know there’s flavor.
Kiril: I miss biking or running on the beach.
Trent: I miss playing basketball with my friends, but everyone’s scared of getting something injured. It’s crucial that everything is intact.
David: Yeah, I’m not allowed to bike. My mom is afraid I’ll break my leg. Or Rollerblade. She doesn’t let me do anything.
Does that bother you?
David: Huh? No. As long as I do what I love.
Kiril: Me too.
And where does that come from, “what you love”?
Kiril: It comes from me.
In the 29th-floor lounge of the glassy new building in which she and Kiril have rented an apartment, Raisa Kulish seems perturbed in a grandmotherly way (though she is only 54) that no one will eat the free schnecken. A concert pianist in Ukraine, she’d left everything behind when she emigrated, in 1989, along with her husband and two children—Victor, now 31, and Beata, 27. They settled in La Jolla, near San Diego, where Kiril was born five years later. Though he has the bright blond cheer of a surfer dude, there is still something Old World about him: a sense of high purpose and discipline.
Raisa herself seems to have been quarried from the Pale. When Kiril’s dance training, which started when he was 5, began to interfere with his schooling, she simply home-schooled him. By the time he was 10, their daily schedule involved leaving home at 4 a.m. to get to Los Angeles for his ballroom-dance class. After that he sometimes had auditions (he’s made several commercials) before heading back to San Diego for ballet from four to eight. Then home to bed. “Is okay,” Raisa explains. “He can eat and read and study during the car rides.”
Kiril didn’t mind—he never complains about anything—though it’s hard to see how it would have mattered if he did. “No, a child doesn’t always want to do it,” Raisa says, “but if you make it mandatory he will. This is the key. Brushing teeth isn’t optional! No one asks if math is optional! They are mandatory. It’s the same with music, with dance. American parents say, ‘Would you like to do this, honey?’ They don’t say, ‘Would you like to do math?’ But we take him to ballet class not because we think he will fall in love with ballet but because we love ballet. If he will love it, that is up to him, but at least he will be cultural. And we are lucky, he loved it right away.”
If Kiril was a Billy waiting to happen, the problem for the production was how to find him. Starting in October 2006, Nora Brennan, a casting director and former Broadway dancer, held auditions in eight major American cities, sending out 4,500 flyers to all the dance schools within a four-hour radius of each. Because of the skill requirements and the narrow parameters of age and height, they’d usually get just a few dozen boys per city, of whom only a handful made it to the end of the day. In June 2007, fifteen finalists from these auditions were invited to New York for a ten-day callback process the boys called an “intensive,” perhaps because there was reportedly one fistfight. It wasn’t until months later that Kiril and David got the good news. (Kiril’s family went to the Cheesecake Factory to celebrate; David’s to Pizzeria Uno.) But Trent was confused to learn they wanted him sooner—and in London. “My mom was thrilled,” he says.