Rod Harrelson was an energetic cheerleader on the sidelines of UNC Chapel Hill football and basketball games in the mid-1990s.
He traded sports for the stage and found Broadway success in “The Lion King,” “Bring It On,” “Legally Blonde” and national tour of “Motown The Musical.”
“Motown” returns to the Durham Performing Arts Center in Tuesday for a six-day run. Harrelson is the dance captain and swing cast member, or understudy for several roles.
Harrelson, who is from Greensboro, was a UNC-CH cheerleader from 1993 to 1997 and also on the university’s competitive dance team. He was one of the first two men on the dance team.
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“You could tell he had star potential,” said Mark Lyczkowski, the current UNC dance team head coach, who was an assistant then. It is rare for someone to make it to Harrelson’s level, he said.
“Motown” is the story of Motown music label founder Berry Gordy and the stars who rose to fame through the Detroit record company, like Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and Marvin Gaye. Songs in the show include “I Want You Back,” “My Girl,” “My Guy,” “Shop Around,” “War” and “What’s Going On.”
When “Bring It On” – a musical about competitive cheerleading – came to DPAC in 2012, Lyczkowski went to see it.
“Rod, being kind and generous with his time, took me and my wife backstage,” he said. He plans to see Harrelson on stage again next week.
Harrelson didn’t graduate from UNC, instead moving to New York to pursue his career. His acrobatic skills came in handy when he got a role in the “The Lion King” as one of the stilt-walking giraffes.
He moved to New York City at the same time as his best friend, fellow Tar Heel Tony James. They were those first two men on the Carolina Dance Team, and James also had a successful career as a performer until his death earlier this year.
Lyczkowski said Harrelson and James were on the cover of “Dance Spirit” magazine in the ’90s. They also won two national cheer championships. According to Lyczkowski, they should have won the dance championship, too.
In a phone interview from a tour stop in Pennsylvania, Harrelson said there are similarities between cheerleading and performing on stage.
“It’s kind of like people take on a different persona – you go out there to incite the crowd, or the audience. It’s a very similar feeling. I enjoy it,” he said.
Harrleson was in “The Lion King” ensemble three times from 2002 to 2006, between other projects. In addition to being one of the giraffes, he was also a zebra and adult Simba while a standby and swing.
Center of attention
As dance captain in “Motown the Musical,” Harrelson makes sure that “the show we did last Sunday needs to be as exciting as this Wednesday.”
It’s his job to make sure that all the dancers know their roles, as they make up the music groups in every scene. Every character at some point ends up in the center of attention, he said, including Harrelson if he is filling in for someone on vacation or leave, from Stevie Wonder to Rick James.
Another cast member is from North Carolina: Malcolm Armwood, who went to East Carolina University. Harrelson learned about their shared North Carolina roots at the first meet and greet when the cast introduced themselves.
They’re not the only North Carolina natives who have made it to Broadway. UNC Chapel Hill graduate Kevin Massey was in the tour of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and J. Harrison Ghee, who is from Fayetteville, stars in “Kinky Boots” on Broadway. And there are more, like Aaron Harrington of Durham in the tour of “Rent.”
The theater community is New York is big, Harrelson said, but it’s great to find out North Carolina connections when you share your backstory with others in theater.
Harrelson said that when he’s here for “Motown,” he’ll try to visit family in Greensboro and friends in Chapel Hill. He lives in New York, but said he’s a little biased toward North Carolina.
“I always like getting home,” he said.
Sometimes on Harrelson’s visits he has come to UNC cheerleading practices, said UNC Varsity Cheerleading Coach Brown Walters. Walters said they’re glad to have someone of his caliber visit.
Walters and Harrelson were cheerleaders together at UNC.
“Rod is very humble and approachable,” Walters said, and he was “overwhelmingly talented,” even when he was a student.