Nora Brennan has traveled the country for the last five years, looking in every major city for extraordinarily gifted dancers who also happen to be boys ages 9 to 12.
Brennan, casting director for “Billy Elliot the Musical,” said the demands of the show's lead role are so great that only one in every 100 boys she sees ends up playing Billy.
“Billy Elliot the Musical,” based on the hit 2000 movie, opens Tuesday at the Orpheum Theater for an eight-show run. A boy in northern England's coal country, Billy wants to dance ballet against his father's wishes.
None of the boys Brennan first auditions is ready for the Broadway or national-tour versions of “Billy Elliot.”
“The demands are so high, for a 12-year-old to be onstage, in nearly every scene, for three hours,” Brennan said last week. “They have to have very strong ballet technique, to be a tapper, to do gymnastics, to sing.”
And to act, talking in a very specific accent, the Geordie dialect from the Newcastle area of northern England.
If the boy's got the dance talent, she said, auditioners next look to see if he's open to learning skills that are not his specialty.
“The other big area that's huge for us is determination,” she said. “Every Billy we've had — about 20 in North America and five Americans who went to the London version (including Tanner Pflueger of Norfolk, Neb.) — has had that tenacity. They never give up. And that has to come from within themselves.”
That means focusing and continuing to work until each scene is the best it can be, she said. Watching these kids work day after day to perfect something is very moving for Brennan.
The role is so demanding, each boy performs only two or three times per week. Here's what Brennan had to say about the three boys who will appear as Billy in Omaha:
Kylend Hetherington: “Found him in a little town near Detroit. Just a natural. Wonderful dancer, natural actor, fantastic. He's been on the road about two years now as Billy. He's 15, the oldest of the three.”
Ben Cook: “Began as Tall Boy, then played Michael, then became Billy in January. He's 14 and has been playing Billy for a year. He's from Virginia, but he came to New York for an audition. I've known him since he was 9. He was a scrappy little kid then, with great edge to him. And he was funny.”
Noah Parets: “I heard about him from his Boston dance teacher. One day about a year ago he came to New York for an audition, and he was just fantastic. It's been a pleasure. He just joined the company about six months ago. He's 13, the youngest of the three.”
Once a boy passes auditions, the training period lasts three to six months, “depending on when we need a Billy,” Brennan said.
Rehearsal is from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily while they learn the show. On the road, their days are often longer — three hours of tutoring, rehearsals, dance class and performance.
Typically, a boy outgrows the role in a year to 18 months.
“It's always a heartbreak when it happens, when the voice starts to break or he has a growth spurt. But they know going in that it's inevitable. It's going to happen. It's just a question of when.”
Brennan tells them to enjoy that incredible slice of time, because it won't last.
“But they come out having learned so much,” she said. “And they can go on to whatever they choose.”
Traveling to Omaha with the company for training is Drew Minard, 11, from Des Moines. In a few weeks he will live the dream of every auditioning boy Brennan sees: to play Billy Elliot before a live audience.
Contact the writer: