Biographies & Memoirs

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Chapter 26

The Hard Side of Celebrity

After I got home from the White House, I raced to post the photos Liam and I had taken. Because my family and friends were so spread out, I was a huge Facebook user. I loved seeing what my teachers in Iowa were up to and reading comments from my family in California and Las Vegas. But now that I’d been in Billy Elliot for a while, I was getting more and more friend requests from people I didn’t know. I felt weird rejecting them, because they were all so nice. But it was also strange to accept their requests, because I didn’t know any of them.

At first, I said yes to everyone. They were reaching out in kindness, and I wanted to do the same. But it wasn’t long before things got . . . weird. Most of the fans I met on Facebook were wonderful people doing amazing things with their lives, and I loved hearing their thoughts on the show. Some of them, however, had a hard time telling the difference between seeing me in Billy Elliot and being my friend in real life. Maybe they were lonely, or confused, or sick, I don’t know. I think it’s part of our obsession with famous people. We get so used to being able to read about them in magazines, or see photos, that fans come to expect things, and can get upset when those expectations aren’t met. And some of them take it too far.

The first comment on my White House photos appeared only a few seconds after I posted them. It was from a man I’d never met, who lived in New York and had seen the show at least a dozen times. I know because he messaged me after every performance he attended.

Great photos!!!!!! he wrote. Coming 2 my party this wknd???? U never answered my invite.

My stomach flip-flopped. He’d been inviting me to parties, shows, and other events for weeks. Each time, I felt more uncomfortable. At first, they’d just been mass Facebook invites, but when I ignored those, he sent me individual messages. When I didn’t respond to the messages, he started posting on my wall. Now he was commenting on everything I did, demanding a response.

Who is this guy? I thought. He made me feel really weird, and he wasn’t the only one. Another fan had taken photos of me onstage and sent them, anonymously, to Mom at her job. The photos were pretty and maybe he meant it as a nice gesture, but it made me feel watched. A third guy had posted that I was his “real son” and he was going to “come get me.” It was probably a joke, but it wasn’t one I was comfortable with. But at least those guys commented and disappeared. This guy kept coming back, and each time he was more insistent.

“Mom?” I called out to the other room. “Will you look at something?”

“What is it, Alex?” she asked.

“This Facebook stuff. I don’t know, it’s making me feel weird. Read this.”

I showed Mom the comments and messages. She read them in silence, but I could tell from her furrowed forehead that she was upset.

“Alex, you should have shown me this before,” she said. “This is not okay. I don’t you want to talk to him anymore.”

“I never have,” I told her. “He just keeps messaging me.”

“Then you should block him, sweetie,” Mom said, scrolling through all his invitations. “I don’t like this one bit.”

That was exactly what I was hoping she would say. A few clicks of the mouse later and he was out of my life forever.

Or so I thought. . . .

After the end of the show the next night, I left the theater by the stage door, as usual. There were always a few dozen audience members camped outside waiting for autographs. I loved meeting fans and signing their Playbills. It was one of my favorite parts of being in the show. But that night I didn’t get to sign a single one.

At the front of the line was a large man with a scowl on his face. As soon as I left the stage door, he started calling my name.

“Alex!” he said loudly. “Alex! Why’d you block me? I just want to be your friend, man. What gives?”

My heart stopped. This was the creeper from Facebook. I didn’t know what to do.

“I . . . I didn’t block you,” I stammered. There was just a thin rope separating us, and even though there was a security guard nearby, I could easily imagine this guy leaping right over it. My guardian had stepped back inside, but he had already called a cab and I could see it idling across the street. There was a long line of people waiting to meet me, but I couldn’t stay, not with this guy here.

“I’m not on Facebook much,” I lied. “In fact, I’m deleting it. I didn’t block you. I have to go!” I yelled over my shoulder as I raced into the cab. My heart didn’t stop pounding until the door was locked behind me and the taxi was gliding into traffic on Eighth Avenue. That night, I deleted my Facebook profile and began to understand the hard parts of being a celebrity.

Hands down, I can’t imagine a better job than being in Billy Elliot. But there were problems too, and the longer I was in the show, the more apparent they became.

The biggest one was the most difficult to do anything about. I was performing three or four times a week. Even though I was in near-peak condition, that kind of repetitive stress takes a physical toll. I developed a long list of minor injuries, starting with my knees. Dr. Hamilton had been right: I had Osgood-Schlatter disease, and no matter how much stretching and strengthening I did, there were nights when the repetition of the same moves over and over again was too much for me. I’d learned my lesson, and there was no more trying to push through, but that meant I had to miss more performances.

But even worse than the physical stuff was the mental monotony. When I wasn’t in the show, I was rehearsing it, or talking about it in an interview, or doing a scene from it for a charity event. Technically, I was with the Broadway company longer than any other Billy. For two years, everything I did in life revolved around the same three hours of singing and dancing. Back in Iowa, if anyone had told me the day would come when I found being on Broadway at all boring or routine, I’d have laughed. But after a while, even the best music in the world starts to sound repetitive. There were times when I felt like I was in that Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, living the same day over and over again on a loop. I looked for ways to make the show feel new again, because I knew if I lost interest, I’d never give the audience the fully committed performance they deserved. I had to find a solution, so I called Stephen, which recently I’d been doing more and more often. The closer the end of my time in the show came, the more Stephen came to be a support figure for me.

When I was first injured, Mom and I were frustrated that he never sat us down and told us what would happen to me. But as the weeks went on, we realized there was no way he could do this. There was no time line for my knee, and though the show was doing well, you never knew when things might change. In fact, all the principal contracts had to be re-signed every six months, which is pretty standard on Broadway.

Now he was already working on his next project, the film adaptation of the best-selling book Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and Billy Elliot was going strong—on Broadway and elsewhere. To date, the show had toured twice, and had productions in New York, London, Sydney, Chicago, Toronto, and Seoul. It was impossible to expect Stephen to pay personal attention to me, one Billy from one of many productions.

And yet somehow he did. Not long after the White House event, Mom called me one afternoon during tutoring.

“Stephen just called,” she said.

“Is someone sick?” I asked. “Does he need me to go on tomorrow?”

“He wants to get dinner,” she continued.

“Tonight? I’ll be home in a few hours.”

“No,” Mom said. “I mean, he was actually asking me for a meeting. I think he wants to check up on you.”

That unexpected call was the beginning of a close friendship between Stephen and our family. He didn’t just make time to deal with me, as part of the show, he made time to interact with me as a person, to get to know Mom, Matt, and John, and to look out for us. We didn’t see him a lot, because he was rarely in New York, and when he was, he was there on business. But from then on, we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would do what he could for us. There were still no guarantees, but it helped quiet the feeling of panic I had inside me. It also meant that we could turn to him with questions. As I began to explore what I would do next, Stephen became my guide. So when I felt I was starting to age out of the show, he was the first person I turned to.

Thankfully, he had dealt with this issue before.

“You’re getting older now, Alex,” he told me one evening after he’d seen a random performance. “We should change the way you do some of the scenes. I’m going to have you work with Mark on aging up the part.”

I thought Mark Schneider, the new resident director, would just give me new directions, but instead, he helped me figure out what it meant to portray Billy as a twelve- or thirteen-year-old instead of an eleven-year-old. It was this kind of attention to detail that made Billy Elliot the huge Broadway hit it became.

“It’s all about the intention,” Mark told me. “You know how to play Billy at eleven. Now just be the same kid two years later.”

This changed the show in subtle but powerful ways. For instance, there’s a scene where Billy yells at Mrs. Wilkinson, his dance teacher. Always before, I’d done it like a kid throwing a temper tantrum, but Mark had me tone down the performance so I sounded more like an adult having an argument. It made the show more complex, and deeper emotionally.

Little changes like that helped me continue to fit the part even though I was entering puberty. They also helped keep up my interest. Sometimes, though, I tried to change things on my own, and that never worked out well.

The truth was, I was beginning to worry about my voice. Every singer cracks occasionally, even on Broadway, but soon after the White House event, I started breaking more and more. Some of the big, exciting numbers at the end of Act II were slowly slipping out of my range. David Chase, the show’s musical director, rewrote them one by one, bringing down notes, modifying sections, and in some cases, changing the key of the song entirely.

I was going through a big pop music phase at the time, and I noticed something. When all the big divas like Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera had to hit a really hard high note at the end of a song, they would often riff around it. It’s called melisma, in which you sing multiple notes on the same syllable. It allows you hit the note but not have to hold it. One night, I decided to try it myself onstage.

It didn’t go over well.

“This isn’t a riffing show,” said David. “It’s not that what you’re doing is wrong—you sound great—but that kind of singing is completely different from the rest of the show. It stands out, and not in a good way.”

Abashed, I stopped riffing and returned to singing the part as it was written. But what David had said stuck with me. What I was doing was entirely different from the rest of the show. For the first time, it made me wonder: if I wanted to do something different, was it time to leave Billy Elliot behind?

It was a scary thought, and one I wasn’t sure I was ready to contemplate. Counting the auditions, Billy Elliot had been part of my life for more than three years. Leaving would mean . . . what? My family had fully transplanted their lives to New York City, and I couldn’t see us moving back. Would I go to high school here? Try out for a new show? Get my GED and apply directly to college? I might have been ready to leave Billy Elliot, but I wasn’t ready to go anywhere else. In the end, I decided to talk to Stephen.

After I explained how I felt, Stephen nodded.

“I’m glad you said something,” he said. “This is natural. There comes a point in every role when you’re ready to move on. It’s just a matter of doing it the right way. And this is a good time, because your contract’s about to be up for renegotiation, and I know you’ve been having trouble with some of the songs. Maybe it’s time for you to leave. You need to think about what you want to do next in life.”

“But what if I don’t know?” I asked Stephen. I could give him a long list of things I wanted to do with my life in general, but I couldn’t say what was the thing I wanted to do next.

“What about college?” Stephen asked.

I shook my head no.

“Eventually,” I told him. “But I’ve always been ‘the kid’ in all my classes. I don’t want it to be the same way at college. I want the full experience.”

“Well, you should keep dancing,” Stephen said. “Take classes at American Ballet Theatre, at least while you figure everything else out. Maybe audition for some acting parts.”

It all sounded good, and that was the problem. I couldn’t choose one thing over another. Contracts were coming up in a few weeks, and suddenly I felt like everyone was staring at me, wondering what I would do. But a couple of small accidents in a row left the show with a shortage of Billys, and Stephen and the rest of the creative team asked me to stay on for six more months. May 15, 2011, would be my final performance.

After that? I had no clue.

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