With eight performances a week, the young title character of Billy Elliot brings the Imperial Theatre alive with his pirouettes and grand jetés — set against the working class backdrop of northern England. The multi-award-winning musical, nearing its two-year anniversary on Broadway, is like a well-oiled machine, and like any long-running hit, actors come and go.
It's no lie that once his voice changes, the young actor playing Billy must surrender the role. Thus, the Billy creative team has established Billy schools and training programs around the world, continuously searching for new talent. When a new Billy is finally found, the task of placing the prepubescent actor into the mega-musical can be daunting for both the performer and the company.
The rehearsal process for most new Broadway musicals ranges from four to five weeks (with about three to four weeks of previews). However, when an actor is put into a long-running show, he or she has, on average, only one to three weeks of rehearsals before the first performance in front of an audience — not to mention the final put-in (an actual run-through with the entire cast), which usually happens only once before show time.
Twelve-year-old Jacob Clemente, Broadway's latest and youngest Billy, recently went through this process. Clemente was first cast in the ensemble last fall, performing at night and training with other prospective Billys during the day. Working on ballet, tap and voice, along with tutoring and coaching by a nutritionist, his schedule was often grueling. "We would rehearse Monday through Saturday from 9 AM to 7 or 10 PM," says Clemente. "The most challenging part is when I get tired, I have to keep pushing."
On Saturday, April 3, 2010, post-training, tech, put-in and all, Clemente finally made his debut as Billy Elliot. "I was so nervous, shaking backstage right before the curtain went up, but once I was onstage, I was fine. The crowd gave me a standing ovation," he says. Like most performers being put into a Broadway show, Clemente felt fear at first, but then it subsided. He says with confidence: "Some things were great, but they will get better and better with time."
He laughs and sips on his root beer. "Hopefully a casting director will see me in the show and I'll get to do Hollywood next!"
(Frank DiLella is the theatre producer for NY1 News.)