Noah Parets is a kid who loves to dance and dreams of making it big, and in Billy Elliot, he plays one, too.
On the surface, actor and character would seem to have a lot in common. But the story, once a hit movie that has since been turned into a Tony-winning, Elton John–scored Broadway musical, describes how young Billy has to fight against his own family’s notions of manhood in his quest to become a dancer. Parets, a 13-year-old from Massachusetts, has found nothing but support in his home, however. In fact, the first time he saw the show, he recalls, his mother turned to him and said, “I could see you doing that.”
But while he relaxes in West Palm Beach, Florida, before playing the role—one so gruelling he has to share it with three other boys—Parets admits there were other obstacles to following his dream.
“I was lucky that nobody came up to me and said, ‘Don’t dance,’ but I definitely was an outcast at school. They thought I was weird and I wasn’t cool because I wasn’t on the football team,” says Parets, who has studied ballet, tap, jazz, and contemporary from a young age. Still, no kind of teasing or shunning could dissuade the budding dance star from his quest. “It means so much to me that I could never stop dancing. It’s my passion.”
That’s the kind of dedication it takes to tackle this touring show. Not only is Parets on the road, with his mom, for huge chunks of the year—when he takes the stage, he stays there for about 90 percent of the production, pulling off increasingly killer moves as Elliot tries to escape his small, Northern England mining town and get into the Royal Ballet School.
Parets’s schedule off-stage is just as demanding. “On the first day in a city, we’ll have school for about five hours, and cardio training and then any needed rehearsals and an acrobatic class as well. Then we have to be at the theatre an hour and a half before the show starts for preshow safety things.” Parets loves the acrobatics the most; he’d never done it before but now can pull off a mean back flip.
Not surprisingly, the cast and crew have become a second family to Parets, who insists he tries to find plenty of time for play. “We hang out with the other kids. There’s actually 17 kids on this production, so we watch TV or hang out at the pool,” he says.
Still, the production is not all fun and games—behind the scenes, or in the action on-stage, as it turns out.
It has a darker theatrical depth than a lot of glitzy touring shows. One of its most tormented characters is Billy’s older brother Tony, a coal miner who chastises the boy for wanting to become a dancer. Cullen Titmas, who is somewhere around his 460th performance as Tony when we reach him further up the tour road in Peoria, Illinois, seems to relish the meaty role.
“Sometimes he’s just trying to protect the people that he loves the most,” he explains. “He’s finding it hard to concede he’s worked his whole life to survive in this community and it’s hard for him to believe that money they don’t have is going to go toward this kid who wants to dance. I like to call it the play within the musical.”
While Parets’s biggest challenge is definitely the fancy footwork, Titmas has a little more strain on his vocal cords.
“I’ve done shows where I’ve done a lot of singing, and Avenue Q [which he toured with for two years] had a lot of different voices,” he says. “But when I started this role I had a lot of vocal issues, because he [Tony] does a lot of screaming.”
The unfortunate side effect of all that anger, he sometimes thinks, is that the kids don’t want to get too close to him when he’s off the stage. That doesn’t mean he fails to marvel at the discipline and talent of the young Billys he works with: most of them are high achievers who are excelling beyond their grade levels at school while becoming Broadway stars.
And each one of them, it turns out, has a different relationship with their “big brother” when they hit the stage. “We have four Billys right now, and they’re all very different,” Titmas says. “The veteran is 15 now and he’s very big and almost my size, so I have to play that different than from Mitchell [Tobin], who’s this tiny kid. That keeps it fresh.”
The role of Billy demands a range of emotions as well, from frustration to the ecstatic heights of the show’s great dance numbers. The role is an endurance test, the young Parets good-naturedly admits, but an enthusiastic crowd can compensate for that. “The audience helps so much to keep up my energy,” he says. “It’s so much when they laugh and clap, and you want to do a better show for them.”