Friday, January 18, 2008

An Interview with Shakiem Evans of 'High School Musical'

The first time I saw any portion of Disney's High School Musical, I was standing in the electronics department of Wal-Mart, and there was a video playing on several TV screens. I did not recognize what I saw, but as I watched for about a quarter-hour, I could not help but think, "This is a well-crafted movie musical. Why haven't I seen it before?" Eventually, a couple of visual clues helped me to realize that what I was watching was the DVD of High School Musical, the phenomenon that began on the Disney Channel and burst forth into popular culture as a CD, ice-skating show, arena concert, a sequel, and -- since January 2007 -- legitimate stage musical.

The only time I have seen the full-length HSM was when the Disney Channel ran a "pop-up video" version on Thanksgiving weekend in 2006. Believe me, I learned more about the making of that movie than I ever thought it was possible to know. But that viewing confirmed my earlier thought that High School Musical is well-written, well-directed, and well-shaped. As an introduction to the musical-theatre form, teens and tweens could do much worse.

The stage version of High School Musical is coming to the National Theatre in Washington. Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to interview one of the actors in that production, Shakiem Evans, who plays "Chad Danforth." I wrote an article for The Metro Herald based on that interview, and here it is:

‘High School Musical’ Takes to the Stage:
A Chat with Actor Shakiem Evans
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

(WASHINGTON) --- The High School Musical phenomenon – which began as a Disney Channel TV movie, climbed to the top of the CD and DVD charts, morphed into an arena concert, and spawned a TV-movie sequel – has become a legitimate stage musical. This latest incarnation arrives at the National Theatre in Washington on February 5.

The Metro Herald had an opportunity to speak with actor Shakiem Evans, who plays Chad Danforth (the role originated by Corbin Bleu in the Disney Channel movie), by telephone from Memphis, where High School Musical is on tour as it winds its way towards Washington.

Evans, a professional actor since he was 13 years old, grew up in Hillside, New Jersey, and attended Arts High School in Newark. His parents would take him to auditions in New York City as a child and eventually he landed the role of the early-adolescent Tito Jackson in the TV miniseries, “The Jacksons - An American Dream.” There is still wonder in Evans’ voice when he explains that “my first job was as Tito Jackson opposite Angela Bassett.” That 1992 production also featured Billy Dee Williams, Terrence Howard, Holly Robinson Peete, and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs.

He learned a lot on that first job. “For that to be my first professional acting experience, working with Angela Basset and Vanessa Williams,” Evans says, is “where I got a lot of my foundation” as an actor. He learned, he says, “mostly from observation. I’m a very introverted type of person; I like to sit back and watch.”

Seeing Angela Bassett – an Oscar-nominated, Yale School of Drama-trained actress – at work, he explains, “was really an inspirational experience.”

He remembers how, “between takes, Angela would sit and still be in character – even after the director yelled ‘cut!’ It was such a great learning experience for me because,” when filming on location, “you have all these distractions. There are extras in the background and onlookers from the neighborhood, but your job as an actor is to produce when it’s time to produce.”

“The Jacksons” miniseries took several months to make, and the cast traveled to Pittsburgh and California for filming. “My family traveled with me,” Evans recalls, “and we had tutors because we still did our schooling on the set.”

During high school, Evans continued to make commercials and participated in musical theatre. He muses how the character he plays in High School Musical has much in common with classmates who would make fun of him in high school for wanting to sing and perform. The role of Chad Danforth, he says, “is really a lot like the opposite of what I was in high school.”

After high school, Evans took what he calls “a break,” attending the prestigious drama program at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. After filming part of “The Jacksons” in that city, he explains, “I was familiar with the Carnegie-Mellon name, and a director I worked with in high school recommended certain schools and conservatories” – Carnegie-Mellon among them. “I knew I wanted to go to a school that was acting based. This was a very hard program.” At Carnegie-Mellon, “they had a ‘cutting’ system where after every semester, if they felt you were not progressing with the rest of the class, you were cut – it was a hard, rigorous program that prepared me for life in the business.”

Evans was part of the original cast of the new stage version of High School Musical when it premiered in Atlanta early last year. “I play the role of Chad,” which, it turns out, “was one of the hardest roles to cast.” At the time they were casting High School Musical, “I was working on Broadway in Mamma Mia!; my agent called and said they were looking for the role of Chad; they had auditioned hundreds or thousands of kids for all the roles in the show. When I auditioned, they offered me the role the same day.”

All of the songs are the same as in the television version, except there are two additional songs for the stage show. One of those is called “Cellular Fusion,” which occurs when Troy (played by Zac Efron on TV and by John Jeffrey Martin on stage) tells Chad he got a role in their school’s musical. Chad immediately gets on his cell phone to tell Zeke this news, which gets transmitted student-by-student in the distorted way that messages travel in the parlor game of “Telephone.” In this case, however, the actors on stage use real cell phones – something that brings a contemporary feel to High School Musical.

Although much of his work has been in film and on television – his other credits include parts on “Providence” and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” – Evans enjoys the unique experience of performing before a live audience.

“There’s nothing like having a live audience and experiencing their emotions, exchanging emotions with them. We feed off the energy of the audience, and you can’t get that in television or film. I do all of them [different media] for different reasons,” says Evans, and “this is one of the reasons” I work on stage.

The national tour schedule is harsh. The show stays in most cities for only a week at a time, sometimes two. “The longest run we had was in Toronto – we mostly do one-weekers, occasionally do two weeks, but we did three weeks in Chicago and Philly, four weeks in Toronto – and it can be hard. We do eight shows a week, just like a Broadway schedule. Your one day a week off is a travel day, so it’s hard to stay healthy.”

In an effort to do that -- stay healthy -- Evans does yoga and tries to work out every day. His first stop in every city is a supermarket, so he can stock up on fruit. “If you’re living in a hotel, there’s no chance to cook. And if you stay in a hotel downtown, there is fast food galore, but not a lot of healthy options, so you have to do the best you can.”

That’s why physical exercise is so important to Evans. “We’ve been on the road for almost seven months,” he says, “and it’s really important to stay focused and stay centered. One week we were in three different time zones!” It is no wonder that, in Evans’ words, “The hotels blend together, the theatres blend together,” and that’s why “you do the best you can to find a gym, eat healthy, do sports outside, so you’re not in the hotel all day and only have the time on stage for physical activity.”

Despite growing up and working primarily on the East Coast, the arrival of High School Musical will be Evans’ first professional visit to Washington. Consequently, he says, “I’m looking forward to being in Washington. A lot of my [nearby] family will be coming to visit me because I’ve never performed in D.C. before. This is my first touring experience, so I’m able to visit a lot of places that I never would have seen without being in High School Musical.”

With regard to the show itself, Evans says, “if people enjoyed the movie, they’re really going to enjoy our show. We respect the movie. We’re professional actors,” and, by choice, they are not trying to replicate the television experience. “I’m not trying to imitate Corbin Bleu, who played Chad on TV. Our director doesn’t want us to mirror the performances in the movie. He has respected us as actors.”

The theme of High School Musical, Evans says, is “about being yourself: As long as you’re doing your best and not hurting others, and doing what you love to do, the rest will take care of itself.”

After Washington, High School Musical will play at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore before heading to Des Moines, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Salt Lake City. A tour of the United Kingdom (with a different cast, of course) begins on January 23 in Bromley.

High School Musical opens at the National Theatre on February 5 and plays through February 17. Ticket prices range from $41.50 to $86.50, with a limited number of premium seats available on weekends at $126.50. Tickets are available at the National Theatre Box Office and through Telecharge at (800) 447-7400 or at
I will be seeing the stage version of High School Musical (or, what I have come to call "High School Musical: The Musical") on Super Tuesday, February 5. Art trumps politics.


Heidi said...

I really like him in Center Stage! I'm surprised that wasn't mentioned on here. Does he have a myspace or facebook page?

Anonymous said...

SHAKIEM!!! Oh my goodness!!! I am his former manager and I could not be more proud to see he's been moving onward and upward. I still remember faxing you the 20 pages of sides for your "Center Stage" audition. In the event that you ever read this, I love you and miss you!!!

Anonymous said...

i was in a few shows with shakeim at moc and it was a pleasure to know him then

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