How David Bologna made the leap to Broadway and a Tony nomination in 'Billy Elliot the Musical'
By the time he was 14, David Bologna had logged a lot of time in a skirt, and he doesn't care who knows it. Why should he? His cross-dressing turn as Michael, the irrepressible, secure-in-his-skin best bud to the titular hero of Billy Elliot the Musical, was a highlight of that show's first year on Broadway and even earned the young Austinite a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 2009.
Making one's mark on the Great White Way while still in middle school, skirt or no skirt, demands a mountain of moxie and a corresponding desire to show 'em what you got. But "Expressing Yourself," as Michael defines his personal philosophy in his big number, has never been an issue with Bologna. Inspired at age six by a live performance of Lord of the Dance, he taught himself the basics of Irish dancing by rewinding and replaying a VHS tape of the show. That eventually led to two first-place wins in the North American Irish Dancing Championships and a fifth-place finish in the World Irish Dance Championships. At the same time, Bologna was becoming the go-to kid on the theatre scene in his hometown of New Orleans, doing a dozen shows and earning a pair of Big Easy Entertainment Awards. When his family relocated to Austin following Katrina, the young performer was reticent to start over in a new city, but once he did, the roles kept coming, and in short order he'd won a B. Iden Payne Award for his work in Zach Theatre's Golly Gee Whiz!.
Indeed, had it not been for his Austin theatre involvement, Bologna might never have auditioned for Billy Elliot on Broadway. While doing Grease at kidsActing, a friend tipped Bologna to the regional auditions in Dallas, so David and his parents, Rick and Holly, decided to check them out, just for the experience. David's lack of ballet training made him less of a good fit for aspiring classicist Billy, but his Irish dancing skill was close enough to the tap Michael dances that the casting directors kept him in mind for the role. Months after the Dallas sessions came the call that David was on the short list for Michael. Chronicle Arts writer Adam Roberts helped him drill his tap technique for a grueling series of callbacks in which a group of 12 was whittled to six, then four, then two. Finally, Bologna was cast, along with Frank Dolce, with whom he shared the role. So in late June, Bologna and his mother moved to New York, where they lived for 15 months while he rehearsed and performed in the show. David returned to Austin to start high school at St. Dominic Savio, but was asked back to play Michael for a two-month run in the summer of 2010. Since then, he's continued performing at his school and with kidsActing.
With the national tour of Billy Elliot the Musical arriving in Austin, it seemed a fitting time to check in with Bologna about his experiences in the Broadway run. Here are excerpts from two interviews in which the young performer reflects on his time in the show and how it's affected his life. For the full version, visit austinchronicle.com.
Austin Chronicle: Billy had done very well in London, but a lot of shows do well there, then transfer to Broadway and it doesn't click. Could you sense early on if it was going to connect with American audiences?
David Bologna: That was honestly one of the biggest worries of everyone in the cast. You know, it takes place in Britain. We have British accents that no one can understand. We're cursing left and right – I mean, I was saying the F word constantly onstage. How is an American audience going to react to that? But the thing that was always there was the fact that everyone can relate to this story. It's a story of finding yourself, finding a dream, and immersing yourself in it to find something worth living for. For Billy, that's dance. For someone else, it may be service work. For someone else, math. I don't know. But whatever it is, they can relate to it.
AC: How was opening night?
DB: Opening night was one of the greatest experiences I've had ever. There was some sort of magic – I can't describe it any other way – some sort of energy that I don't think was matched in any other show. One of the best things about that night was the Gypsy Robe ceremony. It's such a neat Broadway tradition. A robe is passed from show to show, and whoever has done the most shows as an ensemble member gets to wear the robe, and whichever show you're in [adds] some sort of trinket or patch onto the robe, then we all make a circle, and the person [wearing the robe] runs around the circle three times, and everyone has to touch the robe for good luck. That was one of the coolest things for me, because it was like an initiation, like I was part of Broadway now because I'd taken part in this weird ceremony. It also reinforced the fact that all theatre people are weird, no matter where you go.
AC: What about once you got into the run?
DB: It was always a different day, never the same. We'd have cast members get injured and have an understudy or a swing come in for them. We also had a lot of people leave toward the end of my run. A few months after we opened, the first people started leaving. That was so bizarre for everyone in the cast. It was like reality – these people are actually leaving, moving on, and eventually we're going to have to, too.
So that always shook things up. Also, like any job you have, even if it's something that you love, there are days when you go, "I really don't want to go in to work today." There were days when I'd have school in the morning, then I'd have a Pilates class, because we'd have physical therapists work with us, then I'd go to rehearsal, then I'd go that night to do the show or stay on standby in case my understudy or double got hurt, so I'd have to be at the theatre every night, and it was a little tiring now and then.
Also, certain days you feel on top of the world and go, "Great show," and then other days you come out of the show and think, "Wow, I did a pretty terrible job." But that's the beauty of theatre: No two nights are ever the same. It's a blessing and a curse.
AC: Did you have many celebrities come backstage after seeing the show?
DB: Yes. We had countless people. Robert De Niro came. Hillary Clinton came. Debbie Reynolds, Tommy Tune, Miranda Cosgrove of iCarly – it was incredible to meet these people and have them appreciate your work. You look up to them, like, "You're a living legend," then they're saying, "You did a great job." That's so inspiring. Debbie Reynolds, I have to say, was very funny. She gave me a big hug and said, "My goodness, you remind me of me when I was younger. You are a little ham! You were wonderful." I was like, "Oh my goodness, Debbie Reynolds just told me that. I'm about to die."
AC: So months go by, then the Tony nominations come out. Tell me about that day.
DB: My mom and I had gone down to Times Square that day to watch the nominations on the big screen. It was raining cats and dogs, and there was no one in Times Square – which is really odd for Times Square – and, of course, there are technical difficulties, so the screens aren't working. My mom was on the phone to my dad, and he had pulled the live stream up on his computer at work back in Texas, and all of a sudden I hear my mom say, "He got nominated?" And she turns to me and grabs me and says, "David, you got nominated!" And I was like, "... What?" Still today, it hasn't hit me. It's still surreal. And totally, totally, unexpected.
AC: Was the time leading up to the Tonys one of the craziest months of your life?
DB: It was. It was interview after interview. I got to go to a luncheon with all the other nominees, and that was incredible. James Gandolfini was there, Liza Minnelli, Sutton Foster – so many huge names that I'm like, "Why am I here? What have I done to get here? This isn't, this isn't ... no!"
AC: And the ceremony?
DB: That was a great night. I was so taken aback by what everyone in the cast, the crew, the creative team, the producers, what we had accomplished. Regardless of whether we had won it or not, I was just so happy that we had all made it there together. And with my family, with all the families supporting their kids, it was a great culmination to our work.
AC: Talk about the decision to leave Billy.
DB: I think my family and I [always knew] that I would eventually leave and move back to Austin. It was just kind of understood. Then we finally sat down and talked about it, and I said that I really wanted to go back at the beginning of freshman year. So once we decided that, we let the crew know and we put in my notice. That was a weird time, because it was a countdown, basically. It was just waitin' for September 27th. That was my last day. But there were four of five of us leaving that day, so it was an emotional day – very, very emotional.
AC: Did that performance feel different?
DB: That performance was, by far, my favorite performance ever. Because at that point, I was past caring if I got the steps right, I was past the perfectionist inside me. I was just focusing on having a great time and cherishing the last moments I had in the show. And I had never done that before, honestly. I had never been able to fully let myself go into that moment as much as I had that night. That was so wonderful.
AC: Have you been able to incorporate that into your performances since then?
DB: Definitely. I think since that performance, my way of performing has changed. I've become a lot less tense.
AC: And did that make things different for you when you went back the next summer?
DB: It did. I was like, "Okay, I'm back. This is weird, unexpected, but I'm gonna just do my thing and have fun." Those two months were two months of last shows, basically. Every night was like, I know I have a limited run, but I'm gonna enjoy it anyway.
AC: I imagine that's made it a little easier to come back to Austin, where you're working on a different scale and level of material.
DB: It puts things in perspective. Instead of looking at the wrongs, the wrongs, the wrongs, it's about letting go every now and then and absorbing the positives and appreciating what you have in the moment.
AC: Are there places where you feel like your life intersects with Billy's?
DB: Oh, definitely. Billy finds himself just as Michael does, and I think playing Michael helped me find my own sense of individuality, both while I was there and once I left. I've been able to confidently be me, because I can relate to Michael going out and wearing a dress, doing the most extreme things, and not caring what anyone else thinks, pursuing it because that's what makes him feel himself. That's how he expresses himself. Everyone can relate to that, because at some point, everyone finds something that they absolutely love, that makes them feel like themselves, totally unique and special.
AC: You'll graduate from high school soon. Where do you see this taking you in the long run? Do you want to go back to Broadway?
DB: At some point, yeah. I love writing music, and I really want to pursue a career in that, so that's what I'm looking to go to college for. I would still love to do Broadway, of course, and theatre, and film. Music and dance will be my main focus, but I'm always going to be an artist who wants to challenge himself in every aspect of the arts.
AC: I imagine if you tried to give up theatre, you'd have Debbie Reynolds tracking you down and dragging you back on the stage.
DB: [Laughs] That would be funny.
Billy Elliot the Musical runs Dec. 11-16, Tue.-Sun., 8pm; Sat., 2pm, at Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Dr. For more information, call 471-1444 or visit www.textasperformingarts.org.
Texas Performing Arts and the Austin Public Library host a free Brown Bag Lunch with cast members from Billy Elliot the Musical Thursday, Dec. 13, noon, at the Austin History Center, 810 Guadalupe. For more information, call 974-7400 or visit library.austintexas.gov.
A Dance Master Class on Musical Theatre Jazz led by Billy Elliot the Musical Dance Captains Michael Biren and Alison Solomon, with special guest David Bologna, will be held Saturday, Dec. 15, 10-11:30am, in McCullough Theatre, 2390 Robert Dedman Dr. For intermediate-level dancers and up. Space is limited. To RSVP, call 471-6376 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.