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BWW Interviews BILLY ELLIOT's 'Coach' Joel Blum

Excitement is running high in San Francisco as SHNSF Broadway prepares to host the much anticipated national tour of ten-time Tony Award winning Billy Elliot the Musical. Set to begin June 27 thru September 17 at the Orpheum Theater, Billy Elliot tells the uplifting story of a British boy, from a working-class coal mining family, whose talent for ballet initially makes him the object of scorn but eventually galvanizes his whole community.

BroadwayWorld's Linda Hodges had the opportunity to interview Broadway veteran Joel Blum, who plays Billy's boxing coach, George. Nominated for two Tony Awards for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical (Show Boat and Steel Peer) Blum is a certified Bay Area native. Born in San Francisco, he attended Sir Francis Drake High in Marin then continued on at College of Marin (doing Shakespeare, plays and musicals along with fellow classmate Robin Williams) and eventually landed a part in the national touring company of Godspell at ACT in San Francisco. New York and Broadway have been "home" since then.

Unlike his latest show's title character, Blum's penchant for acting and dancing didn't distance him from his family. His father, Al, headlined on the Orpheum Circuit and his mother, Beatrice, performed in all the top night clubs in San Francisco in the 40's and 50's and went on to open for Dean Martin at the Sands hotel in Las Vegas. Show business is absolutely in his blood.

In the interview that follows Joel Blum shares his excitement at being home again, thoughts about the show and the life of an actor and finally, what's next for him.

Welcome home to San Francisco, Joel!

Thank you. It's like a dream come true. I've worked in and out of New York for so many years that it's been hard for my family and friends to see me in anything. So, to come home to the Bay Area with such a great show is just...well, the best.

Are there some favorite Bay Area places that are "must visits" while you're here?

I'll be taking my friends in the show, some of whom are from the Midwest and the East Coast, all over Marin County, Mill Valley and Sausalito. And I'll be taking them hiking in Muir Woods and, of course, up to the Wine Country. But I am, and always have been, a San Francisco Giants fan. So you'll find me at AT&T Park rooting for the Giants whenever a game doesn't conflict with any of our shows.

How great that you'll be right here in Giants territory. And Billy Elliot is here through the summer (June 27-Sep 17), so you'll have fantastic weather for the games. Joel, you play "George," Billy Elliot's boxing coach in County Durham, in Northern England. Was it hard to learn the accent?

From the first day of rehearsal, we had daily sessions with a dialect coach from England. The Northern or "Gordy" dialect, apparently, is the most difficult - even for native Brits not from that area. I am happy to say that it has become second nature to most of us in the cast, though we do sometimes get notes from the coach when he comes into town to "monitor" the show.

What is your favorite thing about playing George?

Well, George is that comic relief, smart/dumb guy character who somehow has gotten himself into a position of power. He's not too bright, but he's become one of the heads of the local chapter of the Miner's Union. He also teaches boxing to the kids in the town at the Union Hall. In the boxing scene he is the foil to Billy and his best friend, Michael and they don't really want to be there. It's a very funny scene with a lot of physical comedy and it has been challenging and fun working with the boys to get the timing and comedy just right.

You mention Unions and I know the Mine Workers Union figures prominently in the show. We're a pretty liberal town, to say the least. What, about the show, do you think will appeal most to San Francisco audiences?

Where do I start?? Apart from the basic story of a young boy who has recently lost his mother and discovered the outlet of expressing himself through dance, we have the fact that it all takes place in a poor coal mining town during the time when Margret Thatcher was trying to break the United Mine Workers Union. If she succeeds, every minor in every town in this area will lose his job. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of men.

It sounds something like the Governor of Wisconsin's recent attempt to break up the unions there.

Yes. When that happened, doing the show seemed even more cutting edge to me. And then, of course, there is the cross-dressing scene with the two boys (Billy and his friend Michael) that I am sure will play like gang busters in San Francisco - as it has all over the country - including the deep South!

Well, that's encouraging! Now, you grew up in a show biz family, so I'm assuming that you had a lot of support when you started to dance and act. How do you think your life would have been different without that support?

I couldn't imagine it. We all need support and encouragement. There is, I suppose negative reinforcement, but that means that you have to use your: "I'm gonna make it in-spite of you..." muscle.

In the show Billy doesn't get a lot of support from his family. What would you tell him if you could?

I would tell him something like what Mrs. Wilkinson in the play tells him: Keep looking forward, Billy. Never look back. Ask, "What's next?" I'd also say...When you run off stage after dancing your ass off in a long full-out number, and you are completely out of breath, but you have to do a costume change and get back out there - you can't dwell on how tired and out of breath you are. If you give in to the exhaustion you will never make it. Keep going forward and say, "What's next? Oh yes! Now, I have to go and do this." It's like a miracle. You go on, you find your steady breath, and you accomplish what you need to do.

That's good advice for us all. Ask what's next, keep going, find your steady sounds like you speak from experience.

Next year will be my 40th year as a working actor in the professional theater!

So that's not just good advice - that's great advice! In those forty years you've done it all. And along the way you've been nominated for two Tony awards and now you're in Billy Elliot. What's next for you?

I am open to anything. I have been writing and intermittently performing a one man show about legendary entertainer, Bob Hope. I plan on staying with the Billy Elliot tour as long as I can, but when the tour has run its course (which it won't for a while because we are booked though at least Fall of 2012), I plan to set up bookings for the "Hope Show" and perform it anywhere anybody wants me. I have also choreographed and directed and I hope to do more of that in the future.

Your future looks bright! We'll see you at opening night for Billy Elliot the Musical!

Billy Elliot the Musical
Orpheum Theater
June 27 - September 17
Photo Courtesy of SHN Broadway


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