André De Shields is celebrating his 50th year as a professional performer in high style. As the dapper, loose-limbed Hermes in the blockbuster Broadway musical Hadestown, he’s the master of ceremonies who takes audiences to Hell and back to tell the love story of Orpheus and Eurydice, set to the music of singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell.
De Shields, 73, has already won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for best featured actor in a musical, and on Sunday, June 9, he could win his first Tony Award. He’s been nominated twice before, most recently for The Full Monty in 2001, and has starred in a couple of Tony-winning musicals, The Wiz (1975), an African-American retelling of The Wizard of Oz, and Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1978), a revue featuring the music of Fats Waller. This could be his third.
In between Wednesday performances, De Shields sat in his red dressing room and spoke to Billboard about a heartfelt Hadestown moment, how The Wiz overcame poor notices and what winning the Tony would mean to him.
Even though most people know what happens in Hadestown, it’s still a very moving experience. When I saw the show, there was a young woman who burst into tears when Eurydice was sent back to Hades. You handed her your handkerchief during the curtain call.
It was obvious her heart had been pierced. And as the gentleman that Hermes is, I carry a monogrammed pocket handkerchief. I thought, “Well, the gentlemanly thing to do is to hand it to her.” Someone in the mezzanine photographed it, and the photo went viral. Lin-Manuel Miranda was at that performance and he put it on his Twitter account. Then she came back with the handkerchief, had washed it and ironed it, and I said, “No, you keep that.” We’re glad that that kind of humanity is being evoked by the journey we take in this show.
You look like you’re having the time of your life onstage. Is that an accurate assessment?
Yes, I’m having a ball. I’m slaying it, as we say. And I’m glad it’s apparent because a huge agency in being able to be the chaperone for the audience on this journey is to make sure that love is a verb as opposed to a noun, that it’s active, that it’s a tool that makes the invitation to come on this journey irresistible.
What was it about the character and the show that spoke to you?
I’m an aficionado of mythologies, including Greek mythology, and my approach to Hermes was that if indeed his discipline is storytelling, then he has to speak beautifully. If he is messenger to the gods, he has to move beautifully, and that’s what I do, naturally. I believe I was part of the first workshop, the first theatrical iteration of Hadestown, in November 2012. That’s when I immersed Hermes in my DNA. Different iterations had different personalities and different personnel, but it was Anaïs who said to [director] Rachel Chavkin, “I want you to talk to Andre De Shields” [for the pre-Broadway London production]. The universe conspired with me and said, “OK, Hermes, it’s time for you to return home to the man who invented you.”
Your first big Broadway show was The Wiz in 1975, which ran for four years. What are your memories of that show?
The most significant memory is how it changed the terrain of the Great White Way. Previous to that, Broadway, for the African-American community, was an inhospitable place. The Wiz opened to very chilling reviews on January 5, 1975, but there was a movement that let us know we were gonna be alright. We got outrageously positive word of mouth because of the initiative of the producer, Ken Harper, who invested in a live-action [TV] commercial. It reached [black people] who were sitting at home on their couches. And once they came, they were like, “You have got to see The Wiz!” Then we got Tony nominations, and that changes everything. We won seven, including best musical.
Then a couple of years later you did Ain’t Misbehavin’ with Nell Carter.
And Ken Page, Armelia McQueen and Charlaine Woodard. Five of us, and with the exception of Nell Carter, who is a Virgo, the rest of us are Capricorn. That says something about the success of Ain’t Misbehavin’. ’Cause Capricorn is all about purpose, discipline, reliability, sturdiness. The only thing that’s more dependable than Capricorn is Taurus.
[Ain’t Misbehavin’ first] played at the Manhattan Theatre Club when it was an off-Broadway venture up on East 73rd Street. We started in December of 1977 and by May of 1978 we were on Broadway. That is a miracle.
You also did some choreography for a couple of Bette Midler shows in the ’70s. How did that come about?
Bette Midler said, “I’ve always wanted my girls, the Harlettes, to do a little dancing.” At the time her Harlettes were Merle Miller, Melissa Manchester and Gail Kantor, and what they would do is stand shoulder to shoulder and do the backup singing, three white chicks. She asked me would I do something for them, and I did. Just step-touch, step-touch, turn around and stop. I never pursued a career as a choreographer, but that happened, and of course that’s indelible because Bette Midler is indelible.
What are you most looking forward to about the Tony Awards?
I owe a huge karmic debt to my parents, who had a similar dream of being performers. They were not allowed to make those dreams manifest, and I believe those deferred dreams were passed on through the X and Y chromosomes when I was conceived. Had to go to somebody. So when I dance, I know I’m using my mother’s feet. When I sing, I know I’m using my father’s voice. What I would like for Sunday is to receive the Tony Award, then I would be a triple crown winner. I won Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and with the Tony, that would be my karmic debt paid in full.