Saturday Special Spotlight: Andre De Shields
Today we are talking to an Emmy-winning stage star best known for his unforgettable turns as the Wizard of Oz himself in the original Broadway cast of THE WIZ, as well as his Emmy-winning performance in both the Broadway and filmed version of AIN'T MISBEHAVIN'. In recent years, he has found much success with his choices of eccentric, oft-controversial roles, particularly those roles in the hot-button play PRYMATE and the David Yazbeck/Terrence McNally musical THE FULL MONTY. In this portion of our conversation, De Shields impresses with his effortless grace, studied theories on his craft and the art of theatre, all with taking a look forward to his newest stage venture - KNOCK ME A KISS by Charles Smith - which opens this weekend. We also discuss his role in the career of legendary songwriter Jim Steinman - from RHINEGOLD and BLOODSHOT WINE with Joe Papp in the 70s all the way to the workshop for the forthcoming BAT OUT OF HELL: THE MUSICAL.
Divine Andre & Bloodshot Wine
PC: I am one of the world's biggest Jim Steinman fans and you have done so much of his work over the years. Could you tell me about the first show you did together, at The Public Theater with Joseph Papp, RHINEGOLD?
ADS: You didn't see that! You're too young!
PC: Yes, but Jim put the score up on his website. I love it. I've heard so much lore about the show over the years.
ADS: I absolutely remember DAS RHINEGOLD. It was my first exposure - collaboration - with Jim Steinman and Barry Keating. Of course, Jim wrote the music and did the arrangements and Barry directed and did vocal arrangements and the book. We were at the Mercer Arts Center, which no longer exists.
PC: What happened to it?
ADS: It collapsed after we performed in it!
PC: No way!
ADS: (Laughs.) I think it was a very auspicious happening!
PC: Talk about bringing down the house!
ADS: (Laughs.) It was never rebuilt.
PC: So, what was the rehearsal process like?
ADS: I think my memory serves me well when I say that there was a trio of Rhine maidens and one of them was Karla De Vito.
PC: Yes, of course! As one of the Niebelungians!
ADS: She, of course, went on to collaborate with Meat Loaf and Jim on the BAT OUT OF HELL album.
PC: Ellen Foley is actually on the album, but Karla did the Saturday Night Live appearance and the whole tour.
ADS: Oh, I know Ellen, too! OK. OK. At least I'm not quite having a senior moment, then. (Laughs.)
PC: Could you tell me about your role in the show and what it was like?
ADS: I was Albereech, the humpback dwarf.
PC: Was it your first show in New York?
ADS: I had just come to New York in January of ‘73. So, yes, this was one of the first performances after having come to New York that I had a chance. It was sort of like a showcase to get me introduced to the New York terrain.
PC: What did you think the future of the show would be?
ADS: We had a great time. We had great hopes for its future, but, as you know, it didn't go anywhere commercially. But, I have the fondest memories of it and it laid the groundwork for a second collaboration with Jim Steinman and myself called BLOODSHOT WINE. Now, you can't tell me you know about that show!
PC: Just "Private of Privates"! Tell me everything.
ADS: (Laughs.) Well, I can't tell you everything, but...
PC: Close is good enough!
ADS: It was the first event that opened the cabaret at the Manhattan Theatre Club, back when the Manhatten Theatre Club was on 73rd St. at 1st and 2nd Ave. before it became the stalwart organization that it is now - before AIN'T MISBEHAVIN'.
PC: And AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' established it as a venue, right?
ADS: Yes, AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' established it. But, Jim Steinman and I were in there with BLOODSHOT WINE before AIN'T MISBEHAVIN'.
PC: What was that night like, with BLOODSHOT WINE?
ADS: You know, I always remember the first names of most of the people. I have a program of it somewhere, but I'd have to search it out. From what I can remember, Barry Keating directed. Joanna Albrecht was the lyric soprano. It was very much German Expressionism after Bertolt Brecht. I did a song called "Who'd Do The Dirty?"
PC: What a weird, fun song that is!
ADS: That is from DAS RHINEGOLD. But, it was the beginning of my infamy in New York, because I performed another song by Jim called "Who Needs The Young?"
PC: What a spectacular song!
ADS: Oh, so you know it?
PC: Of course! It's from THE DREAM ENGINE/NEVERLAND and, now, BAT OUT OF HELL.
ADS: Right. OK. So, I performed it originally as a hermaphrodite.
PC: Oh, wow! What was your costume?
ADS: Half of my body was costumed in full, formal tails and top hat. The other half of my body was just in full, formal black lace evening gown. (Pause.) I must say that, judging from the audience's gasps and their overall response, that it was quite a stunning performance.
PC: I bet! It sure sounds it!
ADS: I still have the photo of that event and me in the costume. Ken Howard took the photograph.
PC: Could you tell me about your recent participation in the workshop of Jim Steinman's BAT OUT OF HELL stage musical?
ADS: Yes, I did the workshop and I played Captain Hook.
PC: Could you talk about your role in the show? Are you continuing with it to the West End or wherever it ends up?
ADS: I was Captain Hook and my wife was played by Justin Bond. (Pause.) I mean, can you imagine us as a duo? It's mind-blowing.
PC: They couldn't find anybody to fill your shoes - or Justin's pumps!
ADS: Absolute... decadence!
PC: It's so appropriate to have a corrupt evil queen and king in the age of Sarah Palin and so on. Do you think Steinman was ahead of his time - and, perhaps, still is?
ADS: I've always had a great time working with Jim Steinman. Again, it was a piece that we did for intended investors and so on. Barry Keating directed. They had great dreams for commercial success, but, as far as I know - and I only know from reports that I get - that it hasn't progressed from that. My impression, though, although I have not seen SPIDER MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK, but what Jim was designing in that performance, I think, would have been a combination of his vampire piece and SPIDERMAN in terms of his use of technology and futuristic themes and bloodlust.
PC: And magic.
ADS: Yes, magic and bloodlust.
For more of Andre De Shields' special blend of talent, artistry, magic - and, maybe, a little bloodlust - catch him in KNOCK ME A KISS by Charles Smith, opening tomorrow night. The play is described as "a fictional account inspired by the actual events surrounding the 1928 marriage of W.E.B. Du Bois' daughter Yolande to one of Harlem's great poets, Countee Cullen. The marriage marked the height of the Harlem Renaissance and was viewed as the perfect union of Negro talent and beauty. It united the daughter of America's foremost black intellectual, cofounder of the NAACP and publisher of Crisis Magazine, with a young poet whose work was considered to be one of the flagships for the New Negro movement. The marriage is a triumph of pomp and pageantry but fails to be a union of man and woman."
Tickets for KNOCK ME A KISS, which runs now through December 5th, are available here. Performances will be at Henry Street Settlement's Abrons Arts Center/Recital Hall, 466 Grand Street (between Pitt & Willett Streets). By subway: "F" train to Delancey Street; "M" and "J" train to Essex Street; or by "M14A" bus to Pitt Street. Don't miss it!