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The Billy club

The demanding title role in 'Billy Elliot the Musical' requires a variety of skills, hard work and energy, and enough snacks to satisfy four hungry teens

April 11, 2012|Susan King
  • (right to left) Ty Forhan, 14, Zach Manske, 13, Kylend Hetherington, 14, and JP Viernes, 15, are playing Billy Elliott in the upcoming musical that will be staged at the Pantages
(right to left) Ty Forhan, 14, Zach Manske, 13, Kylend Hetherington, 14,… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Stephen Daldry, director of the 2009 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "Billy Elliot the Musical," once said that performing the title role of a blue-collar British lad with a gift for ballet is akin to playing Hamlet while running a marathon.

The young actor playing the 12-year-old Billy in the adaptation of the acclaimed 2000 film directed by Daldry must sing, tap, perform ballet, do acrobatics, master a Northern England accent and demonstrate acting chops.

The national tour of the musical, which opens Thursday at the Pantages for a five-week engagement, has four actors ages 13 to 15 who must do it all.

This is the first time the musical has played in Los Angeles, even though it's on its second national tour. The first tour was limited to extended engagements in Chicago and Toronto. This tour has been making its way west since it kicked off in Durham, N.C., in fall 2010.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, April 12, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
"Billy Elliot the Musical": In the April 11 Calendar section, an article about the four boys who rotate in the leading role of "Billy Elliot the Musical" said that the show rehearsed in Evansville, Ill. The rehearsals took place in Evansville, Ind.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, April 13, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
"Billy Elliot the Musical": In the April 11 Calendar section, an information box accompanying an article about the boys who star in "Billy Elliot the Musical" said that the show's schedule at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood includes a performance on Sundays at 6 p.m. It plays Sundays at 6:30 p.m.

The actors who play Billy reunited at the Pantages on Saturday after a short break from the tour to chat about their experiences in the musical, which features music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall.

Each boy sported a plain white T-shirt with "Billy" emblazoned on the front. Each brings something different to the company.

Towhead Ty Forhan, 14, who hails from Newmarket, Canada, has been with the show for 11 months. He loves making funny faces and drinking Starbucks coffee.

At 15, J.P. Viernes is the oldest. He was born in Half Moon Bay and has been with the show since November 2009. He's one of the most talkative.

Kylend Hetherington, 14, from Auburn, Mich., has been with "Billy Elliot" since November 2009, first performing as Michael and Tall Boy on Broadway before getting the title role on the tour. He's gregarious and, like Ty, enjoys Starbucks.

And 13-year-old Zach Manske from Woodbury, Minn., is the newbie, joining the tour last September. He's the most serious of the group. All four agree Billy is the role of a lifetime.

Still, said Kylend, "It is hard. It takes a lot of stamina."

"It's three hours long and pretty much straight dancing, acting and singing," piped in J.P.

Because it's such a demanding role, each actor plays Billy twice a week; they also stand-by for two other performances each week. "We always have two Billys in a building each performance," said production stage manager Joel Rosen. "God forbid, anything should happen we are able to make a substitution."

When they are not onstage or on standby, they are being tutored or attending classes to keep up their performing skills.

"A lot of them were ballet students prior to arriving here," said Rosen. "It is vitally important for their physical well-being that they continue to have classes and strengthen and not let their bodies deteriorate. It takes that kind of intensive work."

In fact, the boys perspire so much during a performance that the sweat often drowns out their mikes. "It sounds watery," said J.P. laughing.

Because the role is so taxing, the foursome eat frequently. "We have a snack during the show," said Kylend. "We come off stage and we have power bars."

They aren't supposed to have junk food, but during rehearsals for the tour last fall, they treated themselves to less-than-healthful fast food, which they smuggled into their rooms. "You can't imagine how fast we moved from our cars to our room," said Ty, laughing.

Rich Hebert, who plays Billy's dad, talked about what the boys bring to the role.

"They all have their own thing that each one is a little better at or different at," he said. "The main place I really notice is when I watch them do the 'Electricity' dance in the second act, which is the big number for them. It seems like they tweak it a little bit all the time.

"They always seem to be throwing in something new here and there. They are constantly rehearsing and making things better. You watch them learn. They become better dancers as times go by and their voice chances, so their singing changes. You really do watch them grow up."

Zach and Kylend are accompanied on the tour by their mothers. J.P.'s guardian is his sister Lexi, 19, who plays one of the ballet dancers in the show, and Ty has his grandmother, whom he calls "Nana." They don't get too much of an opportunity to see their family or friends.

"My brothers haven't been out to visit me," said Ty. "My mom came out once on this tour."

"I don't know my friends very well, I haven't seen them since 2009," admitted Kylend. "I have flown home to see my family and done things I have had to do. I don't have time to see anybody. My only real friends are here on the tour."

The four boys are as thick as thieves and are eager to experience Los Angeles on their free Mondays. "I am going to go to Disneyland," said J.P. "I want to go to the Santa Monica Pier."

"We are here for five weeks," said Ty. "I intend on doing everything."

But what they like to do most of all is to explore the theaters where they perform. Informed that the 81-year-old Pantages is allegedly haunted, they start to cheer -- "oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah."

Ty, however, looked a bit overwhelmed. "We stayed at a haunted hotel in San Antonio," he said. "It turned me off of ghosts."

Zach recalled the theater in Evansville, Ill., where they rehearsed for the tour. "We went searching and we opened up all of these doors," he said. "We opened a door and there was a single chair sitting in the room and there was a glow in the room," said Kylend with a shiver. "It was so freaky."



'Billy Elliot the Musical'

Where: Pantages Theatre, Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday. Ends May 13.

Tickets: $25 to $125

Information: (800) 982-ARTS or

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