Shortly after rising Motown star Little Stevie Wonder found stardom in 1963, he discovered early on that hitting the textbooks was just as important as hitting the stage.
Amidst a string of now classic R&B singles, a teenage Wonder was enrolled at the Michigan School for the Blind in Lansing. While he graduated from the now defunct school in 1968, Wonder would pen some of his biggest hits while earning his diploma.
Forty-eight years later, that fiery Motown spirit returns to Michigan’s Capital City with the Broadway production of Motown: The Musical. Twelve-year-old cast member J.J. Batteast (who portrays Young Stevie Wonder/Berry Gordy/Michael Jackson) is going through a similar juggling act of performing and schooling.
As the youngest cast member, Batteast manages his studies by day and rocks out by night. While he’s a student at Springwood Middle School in Canover Park, Ill. — when he’s on Broadway it’s a bit trickier.
“I have school every day from 12 to 3:30 p.m. and on the weekends I have school in the morning and sometimes at night,” said Batteast, whose father accompanies him on the road. “It’s time management, basically. You have to get a certain amount of hours in the week. I have all my books with me from my school and they have all of my subjects. I do it almost every day or on the weekends.”
|MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL
Wharton Center for the Performing Arts 750 E. Shaw Ln., East Lansing
March 15-20 / Tickets from $38
whartoncenter.com, (517) 353-1982
Motown: The Musical, a jukebox musical coming to the Wharton Center For Performing Arts March15–20, was written by the legendary Motown Records founder Barry Gordy and features over 60 iconic songs from the label’s roster, including “ABC,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “My Girl,” “Shop Around,” and “Mr. Postman.”
At only 12 years old, Batteast said he still manages to find time to rehearse when he’s back home with his mother and four sisters. “I like to sing; I sing in my room all the time,” he said. “It’s always been my dream to be an actor, singer and dancer. I dance in front of the TV when no one is watching — or even when someone is watching.”
From his bedroom stage to the big stage, Batteast is no newcomer to the performing arts, getting his start with the Lion King tour as Young Simba.
“I was with Lion King right before this, but I took a three-month break to come to this,” he said. “I’m enjoying myself pretty well being on the road.”
While Batteast did not grow up on Motown music (he found vocal inspiration from none other than Justin Bieber), the young crooner soon learned the weight of what he was involved in.
“I met Barry Gordy at the audition process,” Batteast recalled. “It was something. I didn’t quite know who he was at first but at the end my dad told me about him. He said, ‘He signed Michael Jackson, Dianna Ross and all those good people.’ So I went in there and did my thing.”
After landing a spot on the cast, Batteast was then tasked with portraying legends. So what was the hardest part?
“Probably the dancing,” he said. “I think I have the singing down pat, but the dancing really gets me. It’s difficult portraying Michael Jackson because he was so full of energy all the time. He couldn’t stop moving. He could do these moves I’ve never seen before.”
Batteast said his time in the Broadway spotlight continues to motivate him.
“It’s very inspirational since Gordy started from nothing and I think I started from nothing but now I’m on a Broadway tour,” he said. “Gordy was a cookware salesman and now he’s one of the most famous people in the world. It’s like you can do anything if you put your mind to it.”
So what’s next for the fledgling showman?
“I see my career on Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and in movies,” he said. “I’m constantly writing, so hopefully those writings will go somewhere one day.”