Halifax has Broadway fever. Thankfully, Neptune’s here to help satisfy our craving. | Arts + Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
The musical manages to be "gritty and real" but also "uplifting", director Jeremy Webb promises.

Halifax has Broadway fever. Thankfully, Neptune’s here to help satisfy our craving.

The theatre's season-closing Billy Elliot ushers in a mini wave of major musicals.

It’d be a stretch, really, to say that director Jeremy Webb has lived the real-life version of his latest play, Neptune’s season-closing musical Billy Elliot, the story of a young ballet dancer in 1980s England going against his parents and peers to chase his dream. But it’s no reach at all to say Webb can empathize with how the Broadway classic's title character often feels: “I was only a year or two older than what Billy would be in the show. So I grew up at this time as a kid, doing theatre and being bullied at school for wanting to be involved in the arts. I was literally hung on hooks in hallways and spat at—and very quickly learned to be funny to talk myself out of getting a beating in a very large high school setting. So I really identify with Billy,” Webb says, speaking by phone with The Coast from Toronto—a quick trip squeezed in between show days. (Billy Elliot runs until June 18.)

In some ways a lot has changed since Webb and Elliot’s school days in Thatcher's England (for example, Webb and his team deliberated for days over whether to keep a then-common homophobic slur in the script for accuracy and impact). But in other ways, Webb is quick to note that the play is a story that's as timely as ever—thanks to the likes of Florida's recently-expanded “don’t say gay” laws and hate crimes closer to home, like the burning of a Pride flag at a Halifax high school. “Here's the kicker: All the hatred in the world against the queer community, against trans people, against non-binary folk hasn't gone away,” he says. “Even though the show is set in 1983.”

The show’s arrival is also landing months before two other big Broadway productions show in Halifax, the beginning of a mini wave of major musicals (the others are non-Neptune, showing at the Scotiabank Centre: The Book of Mormon in July and Come From Away in November). Yup, Webb has noticed the city’s hunger for these sorts of blockbusters and is happy Neptune’s latest is part of it. “These show are developed to trigger and excite an emotional response,” he begins, before adding that the edge his theatre has in the micro-boom is this: “One thing that we always hear is that even though they've seen the shows in Toronto, in New York, in London, because our car seats 450 people—therefore you're all really close to the stage—it's a really intimate experience, even for the big shows. You can see the moisture in an actor's eyes as they tear up delivering a line. You hear them when they whisper. You can see all that physicality.”

It’s been six years since Webb began the process of bringing Billy Elliot to life—a timeline clogged by COVID delays that even domino-ed into the need to recast actors who, by the time of the show’s run, had aged out of the youngest roles.

But if, somehow, even after highlighting the musical’s “incredibly uplifting, feel-good” afterglow (thanks to the story arc) and “really gritty, really realistic” style, Webb had even the slightest shadow of doubt, it was obliterated in the beam of the house lights during one recent performance: “We have a school matinee the other day with 450 high school kids. I'm guessing that most of them were over the age of 13. And, you know, school audiences can be pretty tough to keep entertained. But I gotta tell you: They were the most amazing audience. There’s a sequence in the show [where] one of the characters, the character of Michael, played by Paul Fawcett: He is experimenting with… expressing himself. I wouldn't want to put a label on it. The character’s only 11—who knows what's going to happen. He's very open to expressing himself and he dresses in women's clothing and there’s a sequence, a whole number, called ‘Expressing Yourself’ where he gets Billy to try it and they have an amazing musical number that becomes the most colorful and flamboyant moment in the show,” Webb begins. “At the end of that number, they have essentially sung lyrics like ‘what the hell is wrong with expressing yourself?’ The audience gave him a standing ovation in the middle of the show. Everyone in the cast was in tears.”

Billy Elliot runs until June 18 at Neptune Theatre. Tickets and details are available via the theatre's website.

About The Author

Morgan Mullin

Morgan is the Arts & Entertainment Editor at The Coast, where she writes about everything from what to see and do around Halifax to profiles of the city’s creative class to larger cultural pieces. She’s been with The Coast since 2016.
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