Dancer inspired by 'Billy Elliot'

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“Billy Elliot the Musical” has become one of the most highly decorated and beloved musicals to hit the boards in the past decade. Out actor/ dancer Christopher Howard believes that’s because the narrative about a little boy who would rather dance than box has redemptive qualities.

“I believe ‘Billy Elliot’s’ greatest message is that the main character realizes he can’t give up, no matter what it takes to succeed,” says Howard, 26, a cast member of the touring production that’s set to perform at three different Wisconsin venues over the next two months. “That message has spoken to me.”

“Billy Elliot the Musical” opens June 19 at the Fox Cities performing Arts Center in Appleton, closing June 24. The show next travels to Madison for a six-day run at Overture Center for the Arts July 10-15. The Badger States tour concludes in Milwaukee, where Marcus Center for the Performing Arts hosts the show July 17-22.

With music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall, who wrote the screenplay for the film version of the story, the multiple Tony Award-winning musical tells the tale of a young boy living in northern England during a coal miners’ strike in the 1980s. When both his widowed father and brother lose their jobs, the family tries to prevail upon young Bill to box, just as his father did at his age.

Billy tries and fails. But he discovers that his true talents lie in ballet. In order to achieve his dream of becoming a dancer, Billy must first overcome the disapproval of his family, friends and society.

Howard sees some parallels to his own career. A graduate of the theater arts program at the State University of New York-Buffalo and scholarship recipient to New York’s Joffrey Ballet School, Howard came to dance late. He found he had to prove himself repeatedly, not only to others but also to himself.

“I did have very supportive friends and family and am very grateful for that,” says Howard, who’s part of the touring show’s ensemble and one of several understudies for Older Billy. “But I didn’t start dancing until I was 18, and I had to continually prove that I was good enough, no matter what anyone said.”

As an out-of-work actor, Howard answered the casting call almost as a fluke.

“I auditioned on whim,” he says. “All I knew about the show is that it was about miners and tap dancing.”

The show, in fact, has multiple forms of dance, including tap, ballet and partner dancing. Even after he was hired, Howard didn’t feel he was right for the show and worried he would embarrass himself or fail. An internal struggle to prove himself ensued. He turned for inspiration to the perseverance of the play’s main character. “This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “But it has made me a much stronger person, not only physically but internally.” Howard believes the struggle overcome by Billy is something that not only inspired him but also can inspire all gay people. The play’s much talked-about scene in which Billy’s friend Michael kisses him on the cheek is something of a model for gay-straight relations, Howard implies. Billy tells his friend he is not gay, but he does not reject the other child. That’s how life should be, and it’s the sort of understanding that sets “Billy Elliot the Musical” apart from the crowd, he says.

“The message behind the show is very powerful,” Howard says. “I believe it speaks loudly to the gay community.”

On stage

“Billy Elliot the Musical” makes multiple stops in Wisconsin during June and July. For general information, tour dates and tickets, visit  www.ticketmaster.com.