Saturday, February 7, 2009


As I emerged from the Imperial Theatre I saw my friend Chris Whyland standing by the Stage Door on 46th Street flanked by a gaggle of pre-teen girls clutching Billy Elliott Playbills hoping for autographs. It was a wind-whipped, fiercely cold January afternoon. I pulled on my purple SEIU 1199 stocking cap and zipped my coat.

We had failed to agree in advance where to meet Chris and his family after the show. Merry and I had been searching in the lobby when it occurred to me to check the stage door. There he was, casually chatting with a fellow who also looked like he was also associated with the show. He told me that his wife, Melissa, had already taken the girls across the street to get a table at the Edison diner. The three of us hurried to meet them.

The Edison Hotel is a art deco gem with gorgeous terrazzo floors, murals and glittering lighting. Melissa, Erin and Casey were in the lobby. We got a table in the far corner of the diner and settled in to discuss the show. The Edison diner, it turns out, is a hidden NYC gem. It caters primarily to hotel guests and theatre people. It serves breakfast all day, has a cash only policy and a NYC gruff wait staff. I got a big bowl of good borscht with sour cream crammed into a plastic cup. Erin had a belgium waffle and Casey a pizza burger. Merry, Melissa and Chris ordered a medley of diverse breakfast, lunch and dinner foods.

We peppered the girls and their parents with questions about the show. Was the show substantially different when the role of Billy was played by a different actor (there are 3 rotating Billys)? The girls agreed that it was not, except for Billy's solo dances. Did they get tired performing eight times a week for three hours at a shot? They did not. Well, at first they did, especially on days with two shows, but now they were in better shape. Chris told us that Hillary & Chelsea Clinton had recently seen the show. What was it like if they knew a famous person was in the audience? The girls seemed unimpressed. Who would they like to see the show? They agreed they hoped the Obama family would come. Casey confided that she didn't actually care if they came to the show, but would love it if the Obama girls would hang out backstage with them. That would be “so cool.”

We discussed Casey's ankle injury and how the understudy system works. There are three understudies for the ten “ballet girls,” small, medium and large. Since Erin has a speaking part she has her own understudy. Melissa told us when Casey got hurt, she was assisted in her parenting duties by a theatre “guardian.” The show hires several guardians to manage the child actors at all times they are at work. The parents are not allowed backstage. Parents drop their kids off at the theatre and take them home but must rely on the guardians for supervision at the theatre. Since there are two Whyland children in the show, nursing one at home and having to shuttle one to work was going to take some juggling. Not to worry, a guardian did all the transporting door to door, on his free time and at his own expense.

Right then a small seven-year old boy rushed up to say “hi” followed by a tall young man. This was Michael Michaliszyn, one of the two boys who share the role of “The Small Boy” in the show. We chatted with his guardian while he goofed around for a second with the girls. Chris pointed out several other cast members and theatre staff were eating in the diner at the time. I remember seeing Carol Shelly who plays Billy's Grandma across the room. Two other guardians came over to say hello. One was introduced as the “head” Broadway guardian. I asked him how he keeps tabs on so many active kids at the same time.

“Can't really do it. Just last week I caught one driving a Zamboni down 45th Street.”

Our meal came to an end. The girls had to go back to work to get ready for the evening show.

We grabbed a cab. As we rode uptown we reflected on the life of child actors and their parents. Chris and Melissa seem to be handling the role of stage parents very well and actually enjoying the process most the the time, even with Chris having to make the weekly trek from Syracuse. The girls are clearly having a ball. Casey is a theatre veteran at age 13, having toured the country in Annie two years ago. Erin is full of energy and loves being in the spotlight.

How was the show, you ask? We loved it, but we're biased. A musical about a failed strike that ruined the coal industry in England? From my perspective they did as good a job of putting working class life on stage as can be done in a Broadway musical. The dancing is terrific by any standard, often elevated to divine. The production is inspired and the stark sets work well. The songs by Sir Elton John are hummable, but not forever. I recommend it.

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