The Broadway run of Billy Elliot the Musical ended last night. But the national tour is just starting its eight month road trip and has one week to go in its highly successful run at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House and when it does, one young cast member will once again say goodbye to his family and be on the road.
Taking place during the epic English coal miners’ strike in the 1980s, this popular Tony Award-winning show tells the story of a misfit working class kid who’d rather dance the ballet than fight.
Locally-based teenage thespian Ben Cook plays Billy’s energetic best pal, the madcap Michael who supports Billy one-hundred percent in his endeavors, even while Michael dealing with a few complicated social issues himself.
We recently had the chance to catch up with Ben and quickly discovered this lively young entertainer is already a seasoned theater pro.
Ben started out on the original 15-month Broadway run of Billy by filling the minor roles of Tall Boy/Posh Boy and serving as understudy for the role of Michael. When the show went on tour, he became the logical choice to step into the larger role full time and he jumped at the chance.
Ben, who’s easily as hyperkinetic as Billy, loves doing Michael. “I pick up more energy as the show goes on,” says Ben, “mainly because when I hear the audience laughing and clapping, it really feels good.”
In a production that sometimes waxes quite serious, Michael “is the comic relief in the show,” says Ben. Secretly, he’s coming to grips with the fact that he may prefer boys to girls and enjoys dressing up in his sister’s clothes. Ben doesn’t obsess over this aspect of the role, preferring instead to indulge in the broad, slapstick comedy of the whole incongruous scene.
“Michael’s always making people laugh,” he says, “and I never get tired of doing it. It keeps you on your feet, pushing hard, playing off the audience reactions, and I think that most audiences for this show are very good.”
For him, the greatest challenge in playing the role day after day is coordinating “all the singing and dancing at the same time. You just have to keep pushing,” he says.
Originally hailing from North Carolina, young Ben, along with his family, eventually wound up moving to northern Virginia, and his family still resides in Lorton. Ben himself, however, even at the tender age of 14, mostly makes his home in the Big Apple now, the better to be near the theater scene, which he already regards as his life’s vocation.
For a youngster attracted to the theater, Ben’s family couldn’t have chosen a better location for their son to stretch his thespian wings. He’d begun to study song and dance at a very early age and soon became so good at it that, at the ripe old age of 8, his dance teacher made a few phone calls and got him an audition for an agent, Linda Townsend of Townsend Management. Things began to take off from there.
Ben auditioned for and got his first bit part “in a Kennedy Center production of Alex in Wonderland,” as he recalls. He made the final cut but didn’t get cast. Roughly a year later, at the age of 9, he made his professional debut “when I got to play Tiny Tim in a Ford’s Theater production of A Christmas Carol,”.
At 10, “I was in the Folger Theatre’s Macbeth,” he says, and he later copped a role in the KenCen’s production of Ragtime. That show moved to Broadway, where he appeared in the Tony-nominated production again in 2009.
DC audiences have also seen Ben in the Ford’s production of Heavens Are Hung In Black, and in the Kennedy Center production of Terrance McNally’s Golden Age, part of last season’s “Nights at the Opera” trilogy. He’s also appeared in an episode of NBC’s popular sitcom “30 Rock.”
As it became clear that there was work for him in New York, Ben’s parents rented a small apartment in a midtown Manhattan. There, Ben leads a semblance of a normal life whether he’s currently in a production or not.
Ben and other youthful actors are schooled “mornings and afternoons when we’re not doing a show.” When they’re working on a show on the road, two tutors travel with them, starting with the initial rehearsals in New York. “We have a designated room for tutoring,” he says. “From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., all the kids get tutored together. We actually like this schedule,” he says. “It’s regular and it helps us get more sleep.”
Like the adult actors, the kids have also been tutored by a dialect coach for this production of Billy Elliot. Most of the characters speak a coarse British working class accent called “Geordie, from Northern England,” says Ben. During rehearsals, dialect expert Ben Fury “would come in every few weeks to coach us one on one and help us get the words and accents right,” he says.
Ben confides that he’s already leading the life he wanted to lead. For him, it seems, “I was always hoping to be a performer. I love musical theater best, but I like straight plays, too,” he says. “It’s always lots of fun.”
When Billy Elliot wraps its current Kennedy Center run next weekend, the show will pack up “and head for Cincinnati,” says Ben, clearly looking forward to yet another new venue. A few days there, a couple of weeks in Pittsburgh, then the tour heads to Florida for more than a month. But after getting to spend the Christmas and New Year’s holidays with his family in Lorton, will he be sorry that he’s taking off yet again?
Yes and no. “Mom and Dad are great parents. They support me with whatever I do,” he says. “They stay in constant touch,” and so, in a way, they’re always with him. Plus, “they’re always willing to make the jump like having to fly to see me,” he says. “They always stay with me for a few days when they come. And I know they’ve got my back, no matter what.”
DCTS review of Billy Elliot