By Bridget LeRoy
(click for larger version)
"So you wanted to meet the Wizard…." That somewhat nasal voice is such a part of Broadway legend it's almost impossible to not hear it when thinking of shows like The Wiz, Ain't Misbehavin', or The Full Monty.
"I've been fortunate in my 48-year career, because I haven't done anything that I haven't loved," said André de Shields as we sat in the green room at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
"And that's very important in this industry, which is based so much on passion. Now," he continued, "it shouldn't be based on passion without compensation. Do it for the love, and the respect that you get for being paid for the work that you do."
De Shields has taken on the role of Touchstone, the fool, in Bay Street's As You Like It, which finishes its East End run this weekend and then almost immediately goes into production at Manhattan's Classic Stage Company, where the show's director, John Doyle, is also the artistic director.
Tackling Touchstone has been a wonderful experience for de Shields, who seems to have the knack for making all experiences wonderful. "It's no coincidence that Shakespeare chose to call him Touchstone," de Shields said. "A touchstone is an alchemy term. It is the stone that an alchemist would use to differentiate base metals from gold."
In other words, a bullshit detector.
"Hello!" de Shields said with a laugh. "That is the purpose of a fool in Shakespeare's world. Wherever there is royalty – in As You Like It there is the duke – there has to be a fool. He is the voice of reason," or the voice of the Bard himself. De Shields has played the fool before, most notably in Play On!, an adaptation of Twelfth Night set to the music of Duke Ellington. It garnered him a Tony nomination. And in his long and illustrious career, de Shields has taken on Shakespeare on many occasions.
As You Like It has always given Shakespeare scholars and performers food for thought.
"You have to wonder, 'Why is this play called As You Like It'?" he said. "My take on it is this. Shakespeare probably, more than any playwright, maybe more than anyone, is a decoder of the human condition. Shakespeare realized that things, life, people, are very seldom what they appear to be. So why not have them 'as you like it'?"
"He wrote this for the audience," de Shields said. "It's an invitation to the audience to bring their existential problems into the theater and we'll try to solve them. The ball is really in the audience's court -- How happy do you want to be? How much disbelief do you want to suspend? It's all As You Like It," he said with a smile.
De Shields's career seems to be a straight trajectory of not only hits, but shows of great import, from being in the original Chicago cast of Hair to originating the role of the Wizard in The Wiz on Broadway, to his Tony and Drama Desk noms for Play On! and The Full Monty, where he introduced the role of Horse, and of course his scene-stealing "Viper's Drag" in the original Ain't Misbehavin.
De Shields created his very first solo performance—Frederick Douglass: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory in 2009, which evokes powerful emotional responses from audiences. De Shields has twice performed his tribute to Louis Armstrong, Ambassador Satch, in the United Arab Emirates.
There have also been turns of choreography, writing, teaching – he has been honored and awarded more times than we have space to describe here – all of which can be read about in detail on his website, www.andredeshields.com.
And yet, he says he has simply been following signs from the universe. De Shields believes in following not only your heart, but also your gut. Your head – thoughts and intellect – come last, and can often confuse things.
"I remember being nine years old, living in poverty in Baltimore, one of 11 children, and going to the movies to see Cabin in the Sky," he recalled. The great African American performer John Bubbles – who later would become the basis for the character Sportin' Life in George and Ira Gershwin's African American opera Porgy and Bess – performed Ellington's Shine.
"That was it," de Shields said. "I had known what I wanted to do, but that was my epiphany," he remembered. "I still perform that song in my theatrical concert, Black by Popular Demand," which he brought to Guild Hall in 1980.
But, he says, it has been a series of ups and downs. "There have been downs," he said.
"But I am now 71 years of age," he continued, "and I have learned that those of us who have chosen this profession as our calling, and love it, and are loved back by the profession, should never spend a second being despondent or discouraged or dismayed. Because we are on a path that ultimately, if you stay on it long enough, is nothing but one golden step after another, one reward after the next. The universe is made for a pleasure," he said. "We all need to remember that and that we have unlimited access to that anytime we want it."
Tickets for As You Like It are available through the Bay Street box office at www.baystreet.org or by calling 631-725-9500.