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Mohamed A. El-Erian

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Real and Persistent Struggles of Billy Elliot

Posted: 04/21/2013 5:43 pm

Over the weekend, close family friends invited us to see Billy Elliot with them. We loved it. Yet in sharing our reactions to this musical driving home, it soon became clear that our 9-year-old daughter and I had been impacted quite differently.

Both of us wish for a sequel, a Billy Elliot II, to tie up fascinating loose ends and extend a truly enjoyable experience. But, having focused on different aspects of the musical, we were looking for a range of answers.

For those not familiar with this long-running musical that started in the U.K., Billy Elliot tells the story of the struggles of a 10-year-old boy, and that of his community, in northern England in the 1980s.

The two face overwhelming odds from day one -- though it takes quite a while for them all to realize it.

Billy seeks to overcome adverse stereotyping and profiling in order to pursue his passion as a ballet dancer. He battles bravely, and ultimately successfully, to overcome the priors of a macho community whose proud traditions are said to dictate that sons always follow their fathers down into the coal mines.

Meanwhile, his community fights to avoid pit closures that would destroy their way of life. The miners strike for over a year. Displaying impressive solidarity, they confront an equally-determined government.

Led by Margaret Thatcher (as in "Iron Lady" and TINA, for "there is no alternative"), the government is intent on winning -- both as an end in itself (to reform the mining sector), and as a means to break the power of the unions and thus overcome what it perceives as a major contributor to Britain's persistent economic malaise. And the government does win.

Interestingly, this multifaceted plot immediately hit a chord with both our daughter and me.

She has her own artistic aspirations. She participates in community theatre, as well as "talent shows" at school. She is fascinated by the stories of young artists. And she dreams of making it to Broadway and living the life of a singer, dancer and actor.

I happen to have been at university in the U.K. in the early 1980s and still vividly remember the political tensions of that time. And my memories were refreshed by all the media reporting over Mrs. Thatcher's death last week.

So much for the similarities; now for the differences.

Our daughter was totally inspired by how Billy pursues his passion and ends up by making it to the Royal Ballet School in London. She is now even more determined to try to overcome all that she has been told about the tough and uncertain career of artists, and the related need for remarkable talent, determined perseverance and lots of good luck.

Billy Elliot took me to another place. Throughout the musical, I found myself torn between the feeling of solidarity with a community battling for its way of life, disappointment that it was defeated after fighting so bravely, and recognition that the outcome was a quasi-inevitable consequence of economic evolution and the lack of timely reforms.

Now both my daughter and I are hoping for a sequel. We so wish that the creators of this beautiful musical would tell us what happened next.

Did Billy Elliot succeed in London and make it to the big stage? Did the inhabitants of that determined and united northern village retool and avoid secular decline? And how did Billy subsequently interact with his friends and family back home?

So many questions! Yet as far as we know, there is no Billy Elliot II in the works. Instead, we are left to wonder... but not really.

As a parent, an economist and a financial market participant, I cannot but help think about the parallels between the musical and the world we live in today.

In this particularly fluid global economy, the Billy Elliot struggles play out repeatedly in many families, towns and cities around the world.

Personal ambition, passion and drive often battle the forces of unequal opportunities, unemployment, budget cuts, lagging education and deprivation.

Communities are challenged by unusually fluid economic conditions, political dysfunction, reduced net transfers and a realigning global economy.

For every success and inspiring story, there are -- unfortunately -- too many disappointments and tragedies. And for every seized opportunity, there are too many foregone chances and wasted talents.

Billy Elliot is more than a remarkable musical. It is a window on recurrent struggles that many face; and more should be done to empower and enable them to succeed.

 
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