When the call for auditions went out in November 2015, 1,346 boys sent in their head shots and resumes hoping to land what could be a life-changing role as the titular lead in a Japanese production of “Billy Elliot.”
The competition was fierce — around 900 couldn’t even get through the door — but why wouldn’t it be? The musical is based on the award-winning film of the same name that made a star out of its young lead, Jamie Bell. A hugely successful musical in London’s West End that ran for 11 years followed. It received four Olivier Awards before closing in April last year after 4,600 performances.
The Japanese staging is the second one in Asia. There was a production in Seoul in 2010, and the play has also graced theaters in Brazil, Australia and the United States among others. Wherever “Billy Elliot” turns up, representatives of the original London team are always in tow. In Japan they’re working with Horipro Corp., and they’ve been involved in the auditions to find Japan’s Billy.
The original number was whittled down to 450 boys who were then invited to three selective auditions in April 2016. Within a matter of weeks, just 10 hopefuls were left to face the rigorous course of lessons in ballet, gymnastics, tap and jazz dance — and two more auditions.
Finally, on Dec. 18, four boys were named to play our Billy throughout the run: Kousei Kato, 13, who is already a prize-winning ballet dancer; Sakuya Kimura, 10, who was invited to audition along with his (unfortunately unsuccessful) older brother; Kazuki Mirai, 14, a singer and dancer from Kumamoto in Kyushu; and Haruto Maeda, 12, a hip-hop dancer who grew up in the United States.
At a press conference to announce the castings last year, Maeda admitted that — regardless of whether he might land the role — he’d applied because, “I hoped I might receive top-level dance lessons in different styles.”
Sitting beside him, the youngest winner Kimura, buoyantly declared, “I enjoyed the whole procedure … and I’ve actually hung out with my cast mates for longer than most of my school friends.”
Kato, too, was beaming as he told reporters about a “fun episode” when he was once told off because he started tap-dancing without realizing it during a morning meeting at school.
Mirai, the eldest Billy, got slightly poignant at the press conference.
“In Kumamoto, I used to see mountains around me and I felt calm,” he said. “Here, I can only see high-rise buildings, so I think how the blue sky in Tokyo is the same color as Kumamoto’s sky.”
Looking at the current cast roster, however, keen eyes will be able to count five boys in the role of Billy, not four. The fifth Billy is 11-year-old karate fanatic Riki Yamashiro, who previously had to wipe away his tears when his name wasn’t announced as part of the cast in December. However, the production team “had a hunch about his potential and had been impressed by his positive attitude,” so he was allowed to train for the role with the other four boys. After demonstrating a lot of determination, the organizers brought him on board.
Regarding the final five, Simon Pollard, an associate director over from London who is the key caster for the Japan shows, tells The Japan Times, “I’m excited that they’re entirely different both on the stage and off it. Consequently, each show will be different because they’ll each bring their own unique strengths to the role of Billy.”
Pollard says that when it came to the selection process, the first criterion was having some kind of experience in dance or even martial arts.
“Then through the auditions you start to see how quickly (the boys) learn and retain information, whether their bodies are lithe enough for ballet but with the muscularity to handle acrobatics, and whether they have the rhythm to do tap,” he says. “You don’t even find many adult actors who are proficient in all those areas.”
Pollard also points out that it takes a while to discover each boy’s real personality — and that is key.
“We chat to them and observe how they interact with each other,” he says. “Eventually they get comfortable with us and that’s when we start to see whether they have the personality to be Billy.
“In the end, I look for a boy with physical, emotional and mental strength, because this is a tough, 2½-hour show and it’s a tough part to play. We need to know they have the stamina and determination to deal with that.”
Anyone who has seen the film will understand that this is a challenging role. Eleven-year-old Billy, whose mother has died, lives with his grandmother, his father and older brother. The men in Billy’s family are coal miners, spending their days picketing during the bitter 1984-85 strike against government plans to close most of Britain’s pits.
In that macho male culture, Billy’s father (double cast between Kotaro Yoshida and Toru Masuoka) sends him to boxing lessons to “make him a man.” However, after watching a girls’ ballet class in an adjacent room, Billy secretly switches his activity of choice. His teacher (Reon Yuzuki and Kaho Shimada) quickly sees the boy’s talent and urges him to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London.
Billy’s father is furious when he hears his son is partaking in “girly” ballet lessons. One day, however, he sees his son dancing alone and is moved to support his dream of becoming a dancer. Pointedly, though, this means he has to choose between staying on strike or “turning traitor” and going back to work to pay for Billy’s trip to the London audition.
“We often say ‘Billy Elliot’ is not a conventional musical, but a piece of political theater with great songs,” Pollard says. “The theme, though, is about a community and a family, and I think audiences here will really engage with that, as others around the world have done.
“In addition, it’s wonderful to witness how little Billy develops as a person during the show, and how others’ relationships with him change. In fact I think being able to see the human drama in actual people’s performances is one of theater’s great qualities.”
Fuzuki Isaka is a principal soloist with K-Ballet Company, Japan’s leading ballet troupe, and has been charged with instructing the boys in ballet.
“In the future I suppose this musical will be staged again and again in Japan,” he says, “so these first cast members are crucial because kids who come to see this show, or who watch the DVD, will be hugely affected and may want to be like them some day.
“It was like that in 1999 when (K-Ballet founder) Tetsuya Kumakawa returned from England, where he’d been a principal at the Royal Ballet. Back then a lot of Japanese boys started thinking it was cool and stylish to be a ballet dancer.”
It’s a definite possibility that dreaming big can work. Japanese television has recently reported on the story of Amir Shah, the 15-year-old son of a welder in Mumbai who has only done ballet for two years, but has been awarded a place at the top-level American Ballet Theatre in New York.
And the young actors playing Billy in Japan aren’t holding back when it comes to their hopes for the production. As Maeda told the press conference when his role was announced, “I hope our ‘Billy Elliot’ will be a sensational success and occupy the top spot on the web’s news rankings. I imagine headlines saying, ‘What a brilliant “Billy Elliot!”‘ The other Billys and I will do our best to achieve this.”
“Billy Elliot” is being staged at Akasaka Act Theater in Minato-ku, Tokyo, until Oct. 1. Show times and ticket prices vary (no performances on Mondays); call 03-3490-4949 for details. It will be staged at Umeda Arts Theater in Osaka from Oct. 15 until Nov. 4; call 06-6377-3800 for details. For more information, visit www.billyjapan.com.