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Father Figure

Date: Mar 23, 2009


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To play Billy Elliot’s gruff but big-hearted coal miner father, the stocky, impossible-to-dislike Gregory Jbara seems an obvious, almost inevitable choice. He sings well and he’s a consummate actor, but above all he blends a solidity of will and generosity of spirit in a package that makes him an ideal father figure.

“I can remember in my auditions, director Stephen Daldry spent as much time talking to me about my relationship with my family and my kids as we did working work on the role,” says Jbara, sitting in the house at the Imperial Theatre while a dance captain runs two Billys through their warmups for the night’s show. “I can’t imagine Stephen didn’t do the same with everybody. Children and family are ridiculously important to him, and I think he really valued that and knew how important it was for the workplace.”

Still, getting into that audition room in the first place took some doing. As obvious a choice as Jbara seems for the role now, he wasn’t even on the list a few years ago, when Daldry and the producers of the West End hit were shopping for a New York cast.

“Stephen actually came to look at this theater when I was doing Dirty Rotten Scoundrels here,” Jbara recalls of his last Broadway role. Daldry probably didn’t look twice at Jbara for the role of Billy’s dad, for a variety of reasons. “I was 30 pounds lighter then,” Jbara says. “My character was French-speaking and lived on the Riviera.”

But there’s another good reason Jbara wasn’t called in to read for the part right away—he didn’t want to be called.

“When I left Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, I told my New York agents, ‘Don’t call me—my kids are going stay in school in L.A., and I’m just going to work in TV and film,’ ” Jbara says. Perhaps significantly, given Billy Elliot’s theme, labor troubles. “We had the Writers Guild strike, which was brutal; we were living off savings in L.A. by the third month. And then we knew that the SAG negotiations were coming up in July, and my wife and were thinking maybe I needed to consider coming back and doing something under an Equity contract—anything just so that we could weather another strike.”

What do you know? His New York agents called.

“They said, ‘We know you told us not to call, but we’ve sent every client we have for the role of the dad and no one has caught fire. Would you please consider coming in?’ My wife and I thought, ‘Maybe this is kismet. This could be the thing that allows me to sleep at night.’ ”

Indeed, Billy Elliot—a show that, apart from telling the story of a young man pursuing his dancing dreams, is also a critique of Thatcherite attacks against the British working class—may almost qualify as a Broadway stimulus package by itself.

“There are 52 actors employed by this show,” Jbara says proudly. “I actually went to the deputy meeting today and said, ‘Guess what—we’ve hired yet another union member.’ And they said, ‘That’s a beautiful thing.’ ”

A native of suburban Detroit, Jbara watched a great national industry decline in much the way the coal miners of Billy Elliot see their fortunes fade.

“My hometown is equally decimated; it was tragic,” Jbara recalls. But instead of the violent labor strife of Billy Elliot, he recounts, “We had more of the racial issues going on in Detroit, though before I was 10 years old, I had no idea. I lived 15 miles west of downtown and didn’t even know there were people in buildings burning, people dying for their civil rights. I had this insulated little white world that I lived in. The first black family that moved into our town was a big deal; I was aware of a lot of racial issues as I got older.”

This highlights one important difference in worldview between the U.S. and the U.K.

“With the auto industry, they didn’t blame Reagan for it going down,” Jbara says. “Even my family still preferred to blame the black race for the fall of Detroit. In our thinking, it was never about economics or something bigger at work. That’s always been interesting to me.”

As important as is the political backdrop of Billy Elliot, it’s not what touches people most about the show.

“People tell me they’re able to get swept up in the political aspect of the show, but they still think of it as family story—as a struggle between a parent and a child achieving his dreams. It’s set in a major civil struggle that took place, but people still come away going, ‘It’s a beautiful family story that still has resonance.’ ”

Sometimes the best laid politics go awry. One night during the “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher” number, a Godzilla-like effigy of the dreaded Prime Minister, which looms menacingly over the stage at the climax, was the victim of small rigging problem.

“There was one performance where the winch motor had a mind of its own and yanked the Godzilla/Thatcher puppet out of the stagehand’s grip and it went careening into the grid and got stuck up there,” Jbara recounts. “The audience laughed, not knowing that wasn’t supposed to happen. I saw it happen and thought, ‘She’s gotta come down at some point.’ ”

The follow-up song is “Deep in the Ground,” a moving soliluqoy by Billy’s dad about his own dashed dreams. Do we see where this is going?

“Sadly, she came down midway through my song, and the audience started laughing,” Jbara recalls good-naturedly. “I was like, ‘OK, we will surrender the dark side of Dad’s song today to the reality that we have to let the stagehands drag her off the set.’ ”

Despite the eight-show schedule and the role’s physical and emotional demands, Jbara says he’s the only cast member who’s never missed a show. That may be because he finds the role “healing. People go, ‘Oh, you must be so exhausted, it must be so hard on you.’ And it’s like, no—because of the arc this character has, at the end of the show, I’m fired up. I’m happy; my soul is full. It’s all acting, but still, I personally benefit from it.

“Honestly, this role is more gratifying than I would have expected to have at this point in my career,” Jbara says.

For Billy Elliot’s audiences, the gratification is mutual.

Click here for more information about Billy Elliot.