Even before Broadway’s latest juggernaut-in-waiting, Billy Elliot, officially starts previews there are rumors swirling in the theater community that one of the show’s three rotating stars is being tossed to the curb. Why, after endless press events with the child’s face beaming before national camera crews, would the producers fire their star? Or as the ultimate showbiz euphemism would have it, “let him go”? A little life experience called puberty is to blame—that beaming face and blasting voice are changing.
This season is all about the child star, in its transient forms, which means more replacements and crushed dreams than ever. Billy Elliot contains an entire chorus of adolescent girls, as well as several young boys as the title character. 13, a musical starring all teenagers, focuses on the very facet of life that makes their employment fleeting: that uncomfortable transition to adulthood. And the most famous child star in the world, Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame, is taking his clothes off eight times a week in Equus—nothing like a little full-frontal nudity to squash perceptions that you’re stuck as the most famous wizard of all time. Throw Haley Joel Osment into the mix (trying to prove that he isn’t always seeing dead people) with American Buffalo, and Broadway appears to have been taken over by children trying to make a career, and others trying to break out of the roles that define them.
It all begs the question: is there a career in acting after child stardom? This conundrum of success at an early age is nothing new; Broadway and Hollywood have been making money off fresh-faced kids with toothy grins since before Shirley Temple danced her way into the hearts of millions. But what are the chances this early success will pay off, particularly for the Broadway children of today? It was another redheaded tot that cemented the idea of a child carrying a Broadway show. In 1977 Andrea McArdle became a household name with her portrayal of the title character in the musical Annie, based on the popular comic strip. What some may not know is that McArdle was actually a replacement for the original actress who was “let go” during the out-of-town tryout. The time would come when McArdle herself needed to be replaced, and a young Sarah Jessica Parker was just the girl for the job. History shows Parker was able to move on to bigger and better things, but McArdle, while still a working actress, is singing “Tomorrow” at endless concerts to this day. Daisy Eagan is a performer who won a Tony Award at the age of eleven – the youngest winner ever – for her performance in the musical The Secret Garden. Since then, she’s followed the path of many New York actors, picking up occasional work on television shows and in smaller theater productions, but it’s likely that her most prestigious accomplishment occurred at an age when most kids are daydreaming of what they will be when they grow up.
After the initial shock of losing a role for things beyond control wears off, these young performers are faced with the reality that (in the public’s consciousness at least) their best work is already behind them before they reached their teens. No matter how ecstatic the reviews are, Broadway success seems to be less of a big break and more of a fleeting moment; the shows, rather than the child performers, are the true stars that stick around from decade to decade. Child actors, meanwhile, are forced to grow up the moment they are thrown into the adult profession. No matter how sheltered a parent tries to keep their child, rehearsals and performances include interaction with adults who are misbehaving like it’s their job. We’ve all heard the stories about Hollywood’s latest tween star who dabbles in drugs and alcohol after hitting it big, only to end up in straight-to-DVD movies; all before he or she can blow out their sixteen candles.
Of course, Hollywood and Broadway are on opposite ends of the country, and they’re worlds apart in the way people do their jobs. Most of the cast members of this season’s 13, all under the age of eighteen, will perform their roles eight times a week until the show closes or, more likely, they grow too old to play the part anymore. A Broadway child actor is always at risk of being replaced. A Hollywood actor, on the other hand, wraps a movie in thirty days, does the press, and reaps the benefits of fame, not to mention the lifelong residual checks. Movies are forever; theater is ephemeral. Sure, Hollywood starlets are replaceable in the hearts of the audience, but not in such a literal sense as they are on stage. Take Billy Elliot, for instance. Because the show calls for a twelve-year-old boy in the lead role, producers know they’re fighting against time. If the boys’ bodies don’t wear out by performing the taxing role several times a week, their voices will surely change within months of entering the show.
When the musical began in London several years ago, this led to the idea of the Billy Elliot Academy, a thinly veiled breeding ground for its future stars. Adult performers aren’t forced to execute their part night after night, knowing that someone is being groomed to take over; but when you’re a kid, being replaced is just another part of the job. The Radcliffe’s and Osment’s of the world possess a pivotal quality that their Broadway counterparts lack: power. Since they are already marquee names—translating into money for the producers—they have the freedom to reinvent themselves as adult actors, however challenging it may be. Career longevity is difficult, if almost impossible, to establish as a child actor on Broadway. Once a boy playing Billy begins to crack on the high notes, what is he to do? Most kids end up having to step away from the profession, return to real life, and wait for the next job. Many even go to college to train to become an actor on Broadway, even though it’s a goal they accomplished long ago. A role in a show as a child doesn’t provide a springboard for future successes like a blockbuster movie does. Fortunately Broadway doesn’t have the paparazzi drama notorious in Hollywood, so the boys playing Billy will be free to step away and reinvent themselves without analysis of their every move. It seems the best they can hope for is to avoid being tied to the show, lessening the need for reinvention, and allowing them to mature in a more natural fashion. The role of Billy doesn’t include a tune as synonymous with the character as “Tomorrow” is with Annie. They won’t be Billy forever… and maybe that’s a good thing.
By Matthew Murphy