Broadway's Lion King Star Dies of Cancer

Feisty 11-year-old Shannon Tavarez succumbs to acute myelogenous leukemia.

July 22, 2010, 10:08 PM

Nov. 2, 2010 — -- Shannon Tavarez, the 11-year-old who played Young Nala in Broadway's "Lion King" has died, it was reported Monday.

The little girl with the big voice fought a six-month battle against leukemia, but lost after getting a cord-blood transplant in August that doctors hoped would save her life, according to

"It's a great feeling, performing for people and being Young Nala, because she's tough and I feel like that's who I am through this whole experience," Shannon told ABC last summer.

"She's just a great kid," said Joel Karie, a Broadway cast member, at the time of her diagnosis.

More than 8,000 from around the country, including the rapper 50 Cent, had volunteered to be bone marrow donors in her name, but no match was ever found.

The fact that Shannon, who has no siblings, was part African-American and part hispanic, made it harder to find a bone marrow transplant. Of the 7 million Americans listed as potential donors, only 12 percent are minorities, according to DKMS Americas.

The star also underwent chemotherapy last summer.

Shannon was 5 years old when her mother realized she could sing.

"She sang an Alicia Keys song, 'I Keep on Falling,' and when she sang it, it was just unbelievable!" said her mother Odiney Brown, a contract analyst for the City of New York.

By 11, the talented girl competed against thousands of other star-struck young girls to win the part of young Nala, Simba's feisty feline girlfriend in the Broadway production of "The Lion King."

The little girl who loved Silly Bandz and "Twilight," was living her dream. But then the circle of life took a terrible turn. In April, when she was performing on stage, she knew something wasn't right.

"It was hard to walk, I was fatigued and tired a lot," Shannon told ABC's Good Morning America.

The talented star was diagosed with acute myeloid leukemia and immediately began chemotherapy, finishing her Queens fifth grade but missing graduation and the big school dance.

"That day we never left," said her mother. "We were in the hospital for almost two months."

Hoping to fight the disease with a bone marrow transplant, her cast mates came together to hold a drive at the Minskoff Theater in Times Square, but none was ever found.

Both African-Americans and Hispanics are underrepresented in the registry of potential bone marrow donors. According to the National Bone Marrow Program, only 7 percent, or about 550,000, are African-American. Only 3 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent Asian.

"We know minorities are underrepresented and have more varied DNA," said Katarina Harf, DKMS executive vice president. "It's like finding a needle in a haystack, looking for your genetic twin."

Tavarez got the role of Simba's girlfriend in the popular musical after her first-ever open audition at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She had never appeared in a professional production, only in school recitals and plays.

Her mother, Odiney Brown, who works for the City of New York as a contract analyst for the Human Resources Administration, said her daughter was "the feisty, fierce lion. She really fears nothing."

Shannon had attended Harlem School of the Arts for vocals and piano since the age of 3, and it was her coach who saw the notification for try-outs.

"I asked my mother if I could do it and she said, 'Sure, it will be fun,' said Shannon. "I didn't think that day that I would get it. There were thousands of kids."

Leukemia Masked as Cold, Virus

The little girl made her debut in September 2009, playing four of the eight performances a week, alternating with another girl as understudy. She continued to attend public school.

"I loved meeting all the great people and having so much support from everyone and being on stage in costumes and running around with other kids," she said.

Shannon's contract was extended for six months and was supposed to be up in September of this year, but in April, she began to have unusual symptoms.

At first, Brown thought that Shannon's sniffles and coughing were a cold or a virus. Her pediatrician said she would be fine.

"But I started noticing she was very tired and fatigued and it wasn't normal," said Brown, 38. "She'd never been like that before. She looked peaked and that wasn't normal for her."

Shannon had trouble getting out of bed to go to school and later told her mother that keeping up with the "Lion King" was tough, too.

"She confessed to me that her legs and lower back were hurting while she was on stage and had to run up the stairs on the show," said Brown. "Then someone on the show said, 'Shannon needs rest, she seems tired.'"

Blood tests revealed that Shannon had acute myelogenous (AML) leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow and blood.

"The day we found out, we immediately admitted our lives had just changed completely," said Brown.

Leukemia is a rapidly-progressing disease that results in the accumulation of immature, functionless cells in the marrow and blood, according to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. In many cases the bone marrow stops producing enough normal red cells, white cells and platelets. Anemia, a deficiency of red cells, develops in virtually all persons with leukemia.

Some 245,225 Americans are living with leukemia and an estimated 44,790 new cases are diagnosed in adults each year. Another 3,509 children up to the age of 14 get the disease each year.

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