BWW Interviews: Shuler Hensley Talks SILENCE!
Throughout June, Silence! The Musical, the parody adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, has a new Dr. Hannibal Lecter: Tony-winner Shuler Hensley, who has starred in Broadway musicals like Oklahoma! (for which he earned his Tony as Jud Fry) and Young Frankenstein, is taking over the leading role while David Garrison is away.
“I don’t remember how it all started,” he confesses when asked how he got the part, although he recalls that he had heard the music and read the script several years back. “I thought it was the funniest thing I’d read and listened to in a long time.” When Garrison had to take a leave of absence, Hensley was offered the chance to play the part.
“It’s the perfect scenario,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever—except for playing Javert—gone in without originating a role.” Being surrounded by other actors who have been with the show for a year or more is helpful, he adds, since there was not much time to learn the show before his performances began.
But, of course, learning a role that has been played by numerous others—including Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins for the film version—can still leave room for new development. “[Director and choreographer] Christopher Gattelli and [co-star] Jenn Harris and all the people I work with onstage have been very open to me trying new things,” Hensley says. “We’re trying to be funny in a truthful way, and it changes nightly in terms of the intention and energy of the show.” He saw Garrison play the part several times to learn the blocking, he adds, “but we’re so physically different. I never thought I’d recreate his show.”
Another challenge was learning the backstage set shifts, which can be just as crucial as getting the humor and songs right. “It’s really been learning experience for me, negotiating all the backstage traffic and the show. You don’t have a chance to sit down.” Yes, he acknowledges, things can--and do--go wrong, but that's all part of the comedy. “People forget this or that, but the show is set up nicely so that improvisation is what makes it all interesting.”
Hensley also has high praise for the show itself and its blend of low-brow humor and classic satire. “The music is quite wonderful,” he says. “It has all the zaniness of a parody, but it’s really good music, and it’s really fun to do.” One of Lecter’s more memorable moments is a ballad (complete with a dream ballet) simply entitled “If I Could Smell Her C**t,” and in spite of the title (and lyrics), Hensley believes that it is a sort of love song. “It’s a love ballad,” he says, “[even if] the lyrics are just ridiculous. If you play it with sincerity, that’s where the comedy is.” (He also wants to use the song for auditions from now on, he adds.) Having done Mel Brooks musicals, he feels that the pattern of setup and one-liner is similar to Brooksian absurdism. “What makes comedy funny is that you have to play it with sincerity and realness and truthfulness,” he says. “As long as it’s felt as a love song, that’s where the humor comes in.”