In March, soon after closing night of his role as Gavroche in N.C. Theatre’s production of Les Miserables, Reed Shannon and his parents, Belinda and Keith, moved to Chicago. There, the 13-year-old joined the first national touring cast of Broadway's Motown the Musical as young versions of Motown music mogul Berry Gordy, Grammy-winning artist Stevie Wonder, and the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
That has meant trading familiarities of home, school and friends for a daily life of a tutor and a “wrangler,” an on-set guardian at the theater; a classroom for two instead of 30; days that start at noon and end at midnight; extracurricular activities of learning from Broadway veterans, voice and dance lessons, and field trips to museums and Broadway shows. It also means a single day off a week – Monday, the only day Broadway is “dark.”
I wanted to hear Reed’s behind-the-scenes take on his journey from Midtown to, well…Motown, which opened May 8 at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.
Q. Describe your Motown experience.
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A. So far, it's been exciting. Motown is a really fun show with lots of energy, singing and dancing. We worked a lot of long, hard days during rehearsals to do great for the performances. And on top of rehearsing and performing, I attend school every day except Sunday and Monday. My classroom is set up right next to my dressing room … to get in the hours of school I need. Once a week, I also take vocal and dance training to make sure I stay top-notch in those areas. The cast and crew are all great people and we're like one big family. My parents moved here with me, and we live near downtown and we are enjoying big city life in Chicago. Overall, it's been a great experience.
Q. Is it what you imagined when performing on Broadway was just a dream?
A. In some ways, it's just like I thought it would be. I mean, it's really exciting to perform on the stage and I like when the crowd responds to my performance. Also, I really like the cast and crew. Everyone is very, very talented, so I have a lot of people to look up to and learn from. It is harder work than I thought to get a show ready and to do the show eight times a week, but this is something that I love to do, so it's all good.
Q. What’s your advice for young actors back home in Raleigh – and beyond?
A. I would just say that doing Broadway is a really good experience, and that you should hold onto your dream and do all the things you need to do to get ready for an opportunity. It's really good to take classes, get trained and keep looking for roles that you are interested in. I always read Backstage Magazine because there were good articles and notices of auditions. You also have to make sure you're doing good in school because you can't get a work permit as a young actor unless your grades are at a certain level.
Q. Tell us the biggest thrill, challenge and adjustment you’ve experienced so far.
A. Thrill: definitely getting to perform on opening night, and feeling the excitement behind stage and, definitely, the excitement from the audience. I never imagined I would play such a great role in such an amazing story that impacted the lives of millions of Americans.
Challenge: I have this funky dance move I have to do as Young MJ, where he moves like James Brown. It was really hard and took me about a week to learn it. But I kept at it, and now it's one of my favorite moves in the show. The audience likes it, too!
Adjustment: Not being around other kids as much. I miss being around other kids on a daily basis because there's only me and one other boy who rotates in the role with me. Everyone else is adults, but they're very nice and fun to be around. They are all like big kids, so we have a lot of fun!
Chicago native Dionne Lester, who now lives in Raleigh and knows the Shannons well, saw Reed in Motown June 6 on a trip with her mom, 12-year-old daughter and best friend. She left awed by Reed’s growth as an actor and entertainer – and by the quality of the show offered by the Motown touring cast. Usually, she said, touring casts are easy to differentiate from Broadway casts.
“I didn’t feel that way in Chicago,” Lester said. “The quality of actors and actresses was as good as I’ve seen on Broadway.
“My daughter loved it and my mother loved it, so it doesn’t matter if you’re 5, 25, 55 or 85, it is thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining for everyone.”