The only cast recording of Billy Elliot bears a parental advisory for language. It should also bear the label “No synopsis included – if you haven’t seen the show be prepared for confounding confusion.”
If you’ve been to London or Broadway recently and caught Elton John’s latest big hit, you will want this excellent souvenir, a bright, energetic and sometimes infectious recording of the score. If you saw the movie on which it is based, you will be able to fit the songs into the story and understand their dramatic strengths as well as their rhythmic power.
If, on the other hand, you haven’t seen the movie and haven’t seen the show, the package is likely to be a major frustration, for without a synopsis of the plot, a cast listing or notes there’s nothing that can help you figure out just what is going on. The fifteen tracks on the principal disc are the numbers performed as in the show. There is a second disc with three “bonus tracks” – Elton John singing his own pop versions of songs from the show: “The Letter,” “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher” and “Electricity.”
It would have been so easy to include a few paragraphs to put the songs into focus so you could understand why the children seem to be dancing, why the adults seem so angry and why in the world there is a song “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” which, to judge from the lyrics, is a thoroughly angry damnation of the government. And, it would have helped if anywhere in the package, they happened to mention that the date is 1984 and there is a miner’s strike in progress against Thatcher’s economic policies. They might also have indicated somewhere that this is the London Cast recording.
Even without knowing what is going on, however, you are likely to be captured by the score. Elton John has proven time and again his ability to merge pop and theatrical forms. What is more, he seems to be getting more theatrical as time goes on. The Lion King relied more on the genius of Julie Taymor than it did on his score. Aida was more score driven. This score is even more theatrical with each song seeming to be a scene rather than an interruption. (The shortest cut is 2:53 and that is a reprise.)
Many of the song/scenes run over five minutes (“Solidarity” runs almost 9 minutes of dramatic development, and big dance numbers like “Shine” (6:08) “Expressing Yourself” (5:15) and “Born to Boogie (4:26) take as much time as necessary to build the excitement.) It makes you want to see the show.
Don’t turn the disc off and throw it away in the first minute because the fidelity is so lousy – without a synopsis you might not have known that this is a beginning similar to what we’ve come to know from Evita and that the full fidelity material is just around the corner. When it hits, it hits with power and drive.
The tap numbers all include the sound of tapping as well as lots of whooping and woo-wooing to give the impression of a spirited live performance.
There’s no way to know exactly what is going on in “Angry Dance” but it is an impressive 3:51 explosion of tap and band.