Helena student Josiah Benson lands major role in MJ the Musical
Published 12:07 pm Saturday, July 22, 2023
By EMILY SPARACINO | Special to the Reporter
Helena resident Josiah Benson doesn’t need stage lights to show his talents in musical theater; he can manage that by himself. This year, however, 12-year-old Josiah will have the chance to shine under the bright lights of stages across the country—from Chicago to New York to Los Angeles, and many more cities in between—in his biggest role to date.
Josiah landed the part of Little Michael in MJ the Musical, a production designed to showcase Michael Jackson’s “unique and unparalleled artistry” as an entertainer, according to the show’s website. Created by Tony Award-winning Director/Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, the MJ the Musical Tour will take Josiah and his castmates to Broadway and cities throughout North America over the next year. It’s an opportunity Josiah and his family didn’t even think to have on their radar when Josiah first tried musical theater several years ago.
“He initially didn’t want to get into theater,” says Dedrick Benson, Josiah’s dad. Josiah had plenty of experience singing at church and performing at various events, but applying the combination of singing, dancing and acting in a musical theater production was something he had not done before the summer of 2021. That’s when a young man at the Bensons’ church, Friendship Baptist Church in Homewood, suggested that Josiah audition for the role of Sebastian in The Little Mermaid JR. at Birmingham’s Virginia Samford Theatre.
“We had to talk him into it at first,” Dedrick says. He and Josiah’s mother, Felicia, told him they didn’t want him to look back someday and regret that he didn’t at least try. They could see his potential, even at just 10 years old. “He is reserved, but once he gets on the stage, he really steps into his role.”
Josiah took his parents’ advice and auditioned for the role of Sebastian, landing it for both of the production’s casts. “At first I was nervous,” Josiah recalls. “Once I started to make friends in different shows, I just rolled with it, and it’s been fun ever since.”
And roll with it, he did. With his first musical theater production under his belt, Josiah was hooked. “He just fell in love with theater from there,” Dedrick says. After The Little Mermaid JR., Josiah landed roles in Madagascar – A Musical Adventure JR., followed by Les Misérables with the Jefferson County Academy of Theatre and Dance. In 2022, Josiah signed with a talent agency and set up an actor profile online. A company in New York saw his profile and contacted him about auditioning for MJ the Musical. “It was surreal and overwhelming all at the same time because we didn’t really know what to expect,” Dedrick says. “It was kind of mind-blowing.”
Similar to his first big audition, Josiah says he was nervous but began to enjoy himself once he met others there for the auditions. “I started making friends and having a good time,” he says. “I didn’t really think I was going to get it, and then I got it and I was super happy.”
While rehearsing as Little Michael, Josiah has gained inspiration from castmate Roman Banks, who was cast as MJ, the adult version of Michael Jackson in the production. “It’s been really cool to work with the person that’s playing Michael,” Josiah says. “He has all the dance moves and everything.”
Another highlight for Josiah so far has been meeting the man who wrote the lyrics to Jackson’s song “Man in the Mirror.” “He heard us sing the song,” Josiah says. “He talked about how soulful we were singing it and the meaning to it.”
Josiah has been in New York since mid-June to rehearse for the tour, which will kick off with the first show in Chicago on Aug. 1. Cincinnati, Ohio will be the next stop, followed by stops in other major cities in more than a dozen states. Josiah attends Helena Middle School, but he will be homeschooled while on tour, Felicia says.
At HMS, Josiah participated in choir and played rec football and basketball. (Athleticism seems to run in his family; Josiah’s older twin brothers, Ja’lon and Jeremiah Benson, won the state championship this year in the 4x400m team relay, and they will continue their track careers at the University of Montevallo this fall.) In addition, Josiah earned school awards in choir and English and was an A Honor Roll student. He also served as an HMS Peer Helper, a role Dedrick says was special to his son. “He has a heart for people who are less fortunate or can’t fend for themselves,” Dedrick says. “He’s that kid. That’s why he gets blessed with these opportunities.”
He still loves sports, but according to his parents, Josiah’s opportunities in musical theater have shown him how much he also enjoys acting and singing. And although Josiah can be reserved, his parents vouch for his ability to connect with an audience as soon as he starts to perform, a skill Felicia says he developed in church, singing and speaking publicly at events. “He was kind of conditioned to be in the front at an early age,” she says. “Once he gets on stage, he transforms. He steps into his element.”
The positive effects of Josiah’s talent have been felt by his family, too. “Some kids that he was auditioning with, that were cast for different roles, we also made friends with their parents,” Dedrick says. “They can guide us and give us insight on certain things that we weren’t familiar with. It’s been a blessing for us.”
For more information about MJ the Musical and to view the full tour schedule, visit Tour.mjthemusical.com.