The Hippo


Mar 24, 2019








Courtesy photo.

Moving show
Rajotte talks about NH premiere, Billy Elliot

By Kelly Sennott

 When Palace Theatre Artistic Director Carl Rajotte saw Billy Elliot on Broadway for the first time, it moved him more than any musical had in years.

“It did something to me,” Rajotte said. “I think I’d been disappointed in shows I’d seen before that for quite a few years. I knew that, as soon as I could, I wanted to do it.”
The rights only recently became available to regional theaters, and when they did, he pounced, securing Manchester’s hold on it starting this weekend. Three weeks before showtime, he talked about the story, its significance, and the quest to find Billy.
The story
Billy Elliot: The Musical is based on the 2000 film, with music by Elton John and lyrics and book by Lee Hall, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. It premiered at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London’s West End in 2005 and was nominated for nine Laurence Olivier Awards and won four, including Best New Musical, in 2006.
The plot revolves around a motherless boy named Billy who secretly trades in his boxing gloves for dance shoes, unbeknownst to his dad and brother, who are in the midst of community strife caused by the 1984-1985 UK miners’ strike in County Durham, North East England. He struggles in deciding whether he should fulfill societal expectations or follow his dream of becoming a dancer.
Rajotte connected to the show through his own experiences.
“It’s about a boy dancer, which is how I grew up — as a boy dancer, having to deal with maybe not fulfilling expectations of what the family thinks a boy should be doing,” Rajotte said. “I dealt with that at just about the same time period, when I was 10, 11 years old. That’s the exact time when this show takes place. I really connected with the expectations of that time period, of what little boys should be doing, which is baseball and football and all that.”
For this production, Rajotte has designed his own choreography and is re-interpreting one of the musical’s dream scenes. Sets will also include video projector work, including images from the ’84 and ’85 riots during Billy’s angry dance at the end of Act I.
Finding Billy
On the quest to find Billy, Rajotte held auditions in New York City and at the Palace Theatre in Manchester and took video submissions. He filled some ensemble parts, but Billy was nowhere to be found.
It’s a difficult role to fill. You need to find a boy at just the right age — between 9 and 13 or so — who can sing, act and and dance phenomenally, and still be mature enough to handle the full weight of starring in a professional production. Most kids that age are in school all day, which doesn’t work for the Palace’s two-week production process. And, because they’re still just kids, they can’t travel by themselves; the show requires a parental sacrifice too.
“We actually almost canceled the show,” Rajotte said. “So many kids are in school full time and so, within a 200-mile radius, we couldn’t find anyone who could come here and continue to do school.”
Finally, he got 12-year-old Jamie Mann’s application, sent in by the boy’s mother. Mann, who lives in Westport, Connecticut, and trains at the School of American Ballet in New York City, was fresh off performing Billy Elliot at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre in Florida and the Company Theatre in Norwell, Massachusetts. 
“Before we got [Jamie’s] submission, I was not happy with the cast we could put together,” Rajotte said. “Yes, Billy has to dance and has to have great technique, but I wanted to make sure he was a good actor because he is the show. He’s onstage all the time.”
Rajotte also struggled filling the role of Billy’s dance teacher. 
“Here she is in a coal mining town. She’s not going anywhere, and she understands that. She’s actually a little bit down in the dumps about what’s going on with her life at the moment but finds a flame, a fire in a student that re-ignites her energy as a teacher. She wants to give everything she has to this kid. And it’s not to make her leave town or get notoriety, or get famous — it’s just for her to help him go do something, get out of here and have a great life,” Rajotte said. 
Rajotte found her while scrolling through his Facebook friends and messaged a woman he used to perform with back in his college days, singing and dancing at Hershey Park, Pennsylvania.
Meet Billy
Mann, sporting shaggy blond hair, arrived at the Palace Theatre a week before the rest of the cast. 
Mann’s the 118th young actor in the world to hold the Billy Elliot role. He’s homeschooled by his mom, and during the rehearsal process, they’re staying in a nearby hotel, though they’ll go back to Connecticut during the Monday-through-Friday run. He saw the musical on Broadway when he was 7, before he’d ever taken a dance lesson. 
“I remember sitting there and looking up at the stage and being like, ‘I want to do that. That sounds really fun,’” Mann said. 
Even then, the title role didn’t seem so far off; it seemed more plausible than traditional sports, anyway, which he’d given up on in first grade when he scored for the wrong team at a soccer game. He remembers asking his mom about the swear word Billy yells.
“I was like, ‘Mom, if I were able to do this show, would I be allowed to say that word?’” Mann said. (“Only when you’re practicing,” she told him.)
Mann and Rajotte love the show, and they think it’s relatable to anyone who’s lost a loved one or who’s found passion in something friends and family can’t understand.
“I think it will be one of the most moving shows we’ve done in quite a few seasons. We’ve done a lot of fun shows this year. Comedy. Fluff. Rock and roll shows. This is definitely a moving story, and there’s lots of comedy in it, but it pulls at your heartstrings,” Rajotte said. 

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