Friday, December 21, 2012

The Abominable Showman, December 21, 2012

Chip off the old block
Onetime child actor and two-time Tony-Award nominee Joel Blum pays homage to his own showbiz roots as he co-stars in the upcoming Billy Elliott the Musical tour across Canada
By Richard Burnett

It’s like veteran Broadway actor Joel Blum has come full circle: The onetime child actor is now the grizzled mentor for all the kids co-starring in the touring production of the hit West End and Broadway musical Billy Elliot.

“I grew up in a showbiz family,” says two-time Tony-Award nominee Joel Blum. “My father was 45 years old when I was born [in 1952] so he was actually around during Vaudeville! He and his sister were street kids who went to a dance every Friday night and they were so good they decided to put on an act together, like lots of kids did back then. 

“They were the vaudeville act that performed before the film on opening night of this [classic] silent movie called The Big Parade at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre [in Hollywood]. They also did a rag-doll Raggedy-Anne dance where my Aunt Gussie looked like she was a doll! They toured the Orpheum Circuit for years, even opened for Dean Martin at the Sands [in Vegas].

“So I learnt how to tap dance ever since I can remember,” Blum notes. “I had the acting bug from a young age.”

For the past two years Blum has co-starred as George the boxing coach in the touring production of Billy Elliott the Musical which pit-stops in Ottawa (at the NAC from Jan 1-6, 2013), Montreal (Salle Wilfred-Pelletier, Jan 8-13), Edmonton (Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, Mar 19–24), Calgary (Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, Mar 26–31) and Vancouver (Queen Elizabeth Theatre, April 2-7) in the coming weeks.

The musical is based on the 2000 film Billy Elliot, with music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall (who also wrote the film’s screenplay). The film and musical tell the story of motherless Billy who trades his boxing gloves for ballet shoes despite all the odds.  The musical premiered in London’s West End in 2005 to great critical acclaim and success (it’s still running) and the Broadway version won 10 Tony Awards.

Blum knows a thing or two about the Tonys, having been nominated twice, for his roles in the 1994 revival of Show Boat and the 1997 original production Steel Pier. 

My mother was still around when I got my first Tony nomination [in 1995 for Show Boat],” Blum recalls. “She always knew it was going to happen and was very excited for me. But I was really surprised because there were a lot of great shows that year.”

Blum continues, “It wasn’t the same feeling when I got nominated the second time. But I also felt really validated. ‘I guess I really do know what I’m doing.’ I enjoyed it more the second time around.”

Blum has also co-starred in shiny Broadway productions of 42nd Street, Music Man, A Christmas Carol, After the Night and the Music and Stardust. And before touring with Billy Elliott, he toured coast-to-coast-coast in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Doctor Doolittle. 

But Blum has always been on the road, beginning when he was a child. His family even did USO tours together.

“That’s where I really learnt how to feel relaxed onstage because my father was right there!” Blum, now 60, remembers. “I got all the funny lines. So when I [first] heard the laughs a light went on [in my head.]”

Blum sees the same thing happening with the child actors he works with night-after-night on Billy Elliott. This current tour introduces 12- and 13-year-old actors Ben Cook, Drew Minard, Noah Parets and Mitchell Tobin as the young Billy.

“My scene is very physical and I work with different actors playing the Billy and Michael characters every night, so it’s always challenging,” Blum says. “I have to play off that particular kid. They’re all taught the same way and have the same reading, but I love it when they finally get it and go, ‘Oh! I get what he’s doing to me now. I’m going to give it back to him.’

“Working with these kids really brings back the feeling my dad and I had onstage, especially when I see young kids on the show just starting out and they’re small. It’s amazing to watch them and see that light go on in their eyes. ‘Oh, I get it now!’”

Blum emphasizes he is not a father-figure for these kids. 

“I never set out to be anyone’s mentor or teacher, it is just a role [that they have given me]. Sometimes, for instance, backstage the kids can be scattered and not ready to go on and I’ll tell them, ‘Hey, come on – this is it!’’

Blum has also done a lot of TV work (Sonny and Cher, Ed, Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Sopranos, Law and Order) and he was even one of Debbie Reynolds’ back-up “dancing boys” for three years in the mid-1970s, in Vegas and on Broadway.

“Debbie was great because – unlike many other acts like Ann-Margret - she would give us [back-up dancers] bits to do in her shows,” Blum says happily. “I’d do WC Fields!”

Whether he was dancing, singing or acting, Blum has always preferred the magic of the live stage.

“I was in this play once with an older actor and I told him, ‘I love this business.’ He told me, ‘Don’t love it too much.’ I asked what he meant and he replied, ‘You’ll know.’ 

“For years I didn’t really get what he was trying to tell me but I get it now: In this business you’re not always going to be working. People love you one day, then they don’t the next. And you sit there waiting going, ‘Why didn’t I get a call for this?’ 

“But you know,” Blum winds down, “I still love it a lot. You have to take the down times. I can still hear my father in the 1950s and 1960s telling me, ‘Hey Vaudeville’s coming back, you’ll see!’”

Billy Elliott the Musical in Ottawa (at the NAC from Jan 1-6, 2013), Montreal (Salle Wilfred-Pelletier, Jan 8-13), Edmonton (Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, Mar 19–24), Calgary (Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, Mar 26–31) and Vancouver (Queen Elizabeth Theatre, April 2-7). Click here for tickets to all shows.

Also click here for tickets to Evenko’s presentation of Billy Elliott the Musical at Montreal’s Salle Wilfred-Pelletier at Place des Arts, from Jan 8-13.

Running time is 2 hours and 50 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

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