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Stage Dad: ‘So Long Billy! It’s Been Good to Know You!’ by Glenn Cook

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No question, it’s time.

I knew those words would come at some point, so it’s not a shock to the system, but I’m somewhat surprised by how much emotion accompanies them. Our son, Ben, is leaving Billy Elliot this weekend; his final show is scheduled for Sunday in Las Vegas.

Ben Cook.

Ben Cook.

He’s 15 now and growing, with a deeper speaking voice in a show that tells the story of a pre-pubescent boy who just wants to dance. Like every child that has played Billy before (and after) him, the role has a certain shelf life. The average Billy’s run is 12 to 18 months, with most of the boys starting at age 11; Ben started rehearsals for the role last May at age 14.

But our family’s “Billy” story goes back much farther than that, which I chronicled in a series of posts that started last May. When the curtain falls Sunday, it will be the conclusion of a journey that started 5½ years ago with his first audition and almost three years after he debuted as Tall Boy/Posh Boy in the Broadway ensemble. Over the past 19 months, he has been to 45 cities in 25 states and Canada.

It’s a remarkable achievement, especially for a teenage boy.

*****

Glenn Cook

Glenn Cook

Writing is one of my lifelong passions. It allows me to step back, reflect, and process major and minor events. For several years, I maintained a family blog and then for several months I wrote the Stage Dad column for DCMetroTheaterArts.

Then I just stopped.

Why, you ask? Call it a series of cumulative events. I had a minor health scare, several relatives passed away within a short period of time (my wife’s father, uncle, and aunt; my aunt and cousin), and we faced the usual life/work/family commitments/challenges that come when parents have two careers, three teenagers and one college student.

Shortly after the tour began, we hired Ginno Murphy to be Ben’s guardian, which meant that we didn’t have to employ Sheldon Cooper to develop a cloning device that would allow us to be in two places simultaneously. Using vacation somewhat sparingly, and tagging on stops to a couple of work-related trips meant we could see Ben and Ginno every three to four weeks.

When Ben lived in New York, I was on a train or bus once or twice a week, which gave me opportunities to think and write. For several months, we’ve been so busy moving forward and from side to side that I haven’t taken the time to reflect.

The other night after dinner, my wife and I talked about what this weekend represents. We agreed: It’s time for everyone to move on, but not having our child and this show inextricably linked will be very different. Or as Jill described it, there will be “a void.”

Glenn and Jill Cook

Glenn and Jill Cook

That’s the right word to describe it. And it’s the word that led me to reflect, and start writing again.

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Billy Elliot, like the current Broadway hit Matilda (also a London import with much of the same creative team), is different from your usual musical. Most shows have a rehearsal period, followed by tech, previews, and then the run. Rehearsals during the run are rare, and usually occur when a major creative change is scheduled or replacement cast members are being put into the show.

That’s not how it works with Billy, which rotates four boys in the title role. Because the show is so physically taxing, each does two shows a week and serves as standby for two others. Two boys also share the role of Michael, Billy’s best friend. Billys and, to a lesser extent, Michaels take classes in cardio, ballet, tap, and acrobatics in addition to spending 15 to 20 hours a week in school.

When Ben started with the show, he was cast as Tall Boy/Posh Boy, a member of the ensemble, and performed eight times a week. Over a 15-month period, he racked up more than 500 performances while understudying Michael. The tour, which started in October 2011, gave him an opportunity to perform as Michael and train for Billy, which is somewhat unique because the roles are very different.

On Sunday, he will have totaled more than 640 performances in the show, including 61 as Michael and 71 as Billy. That’s not a record; two of the tour’s Ballet Girls (Madison Barnes and Brionna Trilling) have more than 1,000 performances, and long-serving ensemble members have done many more shows than our son.

Other Billys and Michaels have performed in more shows as well. But with one notable exception — Kylend Hetherington (one of Ben’s best friends) who was Tall Boy, then Michael for a short time, then Billy for two years — our son is the only one in North America who has played all three boy roles for a substantial period.

That speaks to his versatility, and his never-say-quit nature. I think he willed himself to stay short and not go through a voice change until he played Billy. He practiced and turned and practiced and turned deep into more nights than we can count. More than once, my wife and I discussed whether he should quit, only to decide that he had to be allowed to pursue his dream.

Down the line, when Ben has time to reflect on it, even he will see what an accomplishment that is.

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For the past month, the big question we get is, “What’s next?” And my only answer is, “We’ll see.”

That’s not meant as a cop out. The truth is, we don’t know. For now, Ben is going back to New York to finish his ninth-grade year at Professional Performing Arts School, which he loves. Then, he’s back here for the summer and perhaps into the fall and spring.

He wants to continue to dance, sing, and act. Someday he hopes to be part of the Broadway musical Newsies, but can’t do that until he turns 16. He’s working on audition songs, making plans to take dance classes, and keeping his fingers crossed that he can stay in New York.

No question, this is a transitional period for Ben. He is officially nestled in the “dead zone,” that period where teens are too old to play children and too young to be out from under the necessary rules that are designed to protect them until they turn 18. It may be weeks or months until he books something, or it could be years.If nothing bears fruit, then his return to Northern Virginia will be long-term, at least until he and his sisters go on to college. And that will be different for all of us, because he’s been away from our day-to-day home life for almost four years.Actually, as I think about it, we do know a couple of things.

We know Ben has the work ethic, desire, and love for performing to do whatever it takes to pursue his passion. He’s proven that. And we know it will be good to be back together as a family under the same roof, for whatever length of time that is.

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As for the rest, we’ll see.


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3 Responses to Stage Dad: ‘So Long Billy! It’s Been Good to Know You!’ by Glenn Cook

  1. Sean Patrick Brennan May 17, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

    In the worldwide story that has been and continues to be “Billy Elliot The Musical”, Ben has become a featured star among stars. You’re not just biased, it’s actually true. He really is that incredible! So sad to be missing his finale, but it is of course really just a brief intermission. The best for this young man is always yet to come! Knock ’em dead, kidda!

  2. colin w. stetson May 18, 2013 at 11:27 pm #

    Hi, Glenn,
    A life long athletic coach/teacher here from Northern Indiana who has seen Ben perform in a number of Midwest venues. What a joy and pleasure to experience his Billy interpretation, which were always emotionally compelling, and inspirational beyond a fault. I’ve written quite a few reviews on his performances for both the Internet Forum and Ticketmaster all of which were as glowing as were represented by his artistic persona and stage presence. I actually presented a copy of a couple of those reviews to him at one time or another along the way.
    It has to be quite a transitional time for him and your family, and please allow me this opportunity to wish Ben and the Cook household all my best as a new story unfolds for all of you. I enthusiastically look forward to following his professional career wherever it may take him and will hope you’ll find a way to keep avid supporters such as myself apprised as to how things develop for him. What a fantastic example he has been for young people everywhere and how disparately proud you all must be.

    My regards to Ben and all of you.

    Colin W Stetson
    Department of Athletics
    Culver Academies
    Culver, IN 46511

  3. Victor May 19, 2013 at 6:49 pm #

    I’ve been following Ben for quite a while now. I’ve never seen him actually, but I really admire the way he has evolved and what he brings to the show. I particularly loved the work he’s done with Cal with the choreographies, I’m convinced he has a great future in the field; As you said, he just have to wait for the end of the “dead zone” to come! I’m sure it won’t take long.

    Victor, from France