Andre De Shields' Postcard from London

Andre De Shields' Postcard from London Let’s cut right to the chase. I live in the White House — no, not the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I reside in the White House apartments in England on London’s South Bank. Nonetheless, I relish the giddy excitement I experience each time I relate to a friend, on the States side of the Great Pond, that finally I’ve achieved the ultimate American dream — residency in the White House without the headache of being President. It’s a magical existence.
Andre De Shields at the Full Monty curtain and atop London's skyline.
Andre De Shields at the Full Monty curtain and atop London's skyline. (Photo by Photos by Merle Frimark)

Let’s cut right to the chase. I live in the White House — no, not the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I reside in the White House apartments in England on London’s South Bank. Nonetheless, I relish the giddy excitement I experience each time I relate to a friend, on the States side of the Great Pond, that finally I’ve achieved the ultimate American dream — residency in the White House without the headache of being President. It’s a magical existence.

I’ve come with five other American artists as part of an exchange between British and American Equity; six Teabags are taking a bite out of the Big Apple, while six Yanks evoke Roger Miller’s 1965 top 40 hit, "Eng-a-land swings like a pendulum do; Bobbies on bicycles two by two; Westminster Abbey, the Tower of Big Ben, the rosy red cheeks of the little children." On the one hand, the arrival of the six visiting American artists was unremarkable; on the other hand, the alarm was sounded. "What are those distant and errant relatives from across the Pond up to now?" In essence, what we are doing is flipping the script on our British cousins, who in 1997 gave us the tremendously unassuming and successful film "The Full Monty." We then morphed the film into the deliriously entertaining Broadway musical of the same name; and now we’ve brought the original idea home to England, via Buffalo, New York, for a run on London’s West End.

The Full Monty opened on March 12, 2002, at the Prince of Wales Theatre, where it currently rules as new kid on the block, actually the square — Leicester Square, an area of London with the same centripetal appeal as New York’s Times Square; and where the curtain goes up on time eight performances a week. In fact, opening night’s howling response from the critic and star-studded audience, confirmed the Teabags’ whole-hearted approval of the move from blue collar Sheffield in northern England to Buffalo by the six working-class heroes, whose journey through the crises of masculinity — from self-loathing to self-esteem — is at the heart of both the British film and the Broadway musical.

However, positive response to the Americanization of "Monty" came initially as early as Thanksgiving 2001. That’s when we six male leads made a special trip to London in order to take part in the Royal Variety Performance (benefiting the Entertainment Artists Benevolent Fund), during which we displayed our vegetables for inspection by none other than HRH Queen Elizabeth II. On the evidence of the ensuing brouhaha, the Royals were plainly enthusiastic regarding the freshness of American produce. It was precisely at that moment the naked truth came crushing down upon us: The whole world is a stage, and we are cultural ambassadors upon it.

I’ve been making working sojourns to London since 1979, when Ain't Misbehavin' played the West End at Her Majesty’s Theatre. In the ensuing 23 years, I’ve come to revere London’s 33 boroughs (remember New York City comprises a mere five) and its countless contradictions. One only need stand on any street corner, staring white-knuckled at the oncoming traffic, to realize that you’re not in Kansas any longer; the all-too-familiar symbols of American consumerist culture notwithstanding — McDonald’s golden arches, the red KFC logo and, of course, the ubiquitous Starbucks. There’s one other sure fire way to know that one is in London — cuisine, and I’m not referring to the weekend festivals of pavement pizza. I’ve already been treated to spotted dick (a firm pudding made of grain, suet and currants), bangers and mash (grilled pork sausages and mashed potatoes), bubble and squeak (a crispy baked mound of potatoes combined with Brussels sprouts) and faggots in brown sauce (meat balls and gravy). In London, smoke-free restaurants are hard to come by, so I’ve gotten used to eating my food in the fog of smoldering fag ends. Now that’s a mouthful. Although The Full Monty opened two weeks shy of the vernal equinox, the blush of spring was already on the face of London. Now it is the summer solstice and, amid the fireworks of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and the lager haze of World Cup fever, the English summer has struck with the force of Lennox Lewis’ fist against Mike Tyson’s jaw. The great, gray English sky has turned a transparent azure blue, and the temperature has reached a wicked 30 degrees Celsius (that’s 86 degrees for you Fahrenheit heads). While the Teabags are fainting from heat prostration, I am reeling from substantial bouts of homesickness, intensified by the return to New York by three of the six American artists.

It was in February 2000 that The Full Monty experienced its genesis as a two-week long workshop in a nondescript rehearsal hall on West 46th Street in Manhattan. In the final analysis, the Broadway and West End incarnations of The Full Monty differ in only one major respect — the number of stairs from the stage door to my dressing room: at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 43 stairs; at the Prince of Wales Theatre, 49. Two years, two cultures, ten Tony Award nominations, and eight-hundred performances later, the gift of The Full Monty is being lifted. By summer’s end we three remaining Americans will have exhausted our six-month work visas, and the British will have effectively reclaimed The Full Monty. I shall return to the Big Apple full, fulfilled, and with the calves of a Russian ballerina. Until then, it’s "cheers," as the Teabags say.

— By Andre De Shields