In anticipation of the 2002 Tony Awards June 2, Playbill On-Line is revisiting interviews from the past season with artists who are now Tony Award nominees. This Q&A with Shuler Hensley, who is now nommed for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his work in Oklahoma!, first appeared April 16.
If he had penned them himself, Shuler Hensley couldn't have written better reviews for his Broadway performance in the acclaimed revival of Oklahoma! About his work as Jud Fry in the classic musical now at the Gershwin Theatre, The New York Times' Ben Brantley exclaimed, "[Hensley] brings unsettling depth to a part more often tossed off as a glowering conventional villain. His resonant baritone conveys myriad shades of longing, despair and anger, turning (of all things) 'Lonely Room,' Jud's solo, into the evening's most memorable musical moment...this Jud is such a completely and complexly realized character that he threatens to become the show's center." Hensley has a history, in fact, of bringing a sense of understanding and even sympathy to characters who straddle the line between misguided and just-plain-evil. His portrayals of both the title character in a German production of The Phantom of the Opera and Javert in the Broadway company of Les Miserables were similarly greeted with enthusiastic reviews. The 6-foot-3 actor-singer has also performed lead roles in several operas, and has appeared in the films "Someone Like You" and "The Bread, My Sweet" as well as on NBC-TV's "Ed." Hensley, who garnered an Olivier Award for his role in the London production of Oklahoma!, just received an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for his New York work. The actor recently spoke to Playbill On-Line's Andrew Gans about the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, his desire to work more in television and film, and his 20-month-old daughter with wife Paula, Skyler Elizabeth.
Playbill On-Line: Let's start from the beginning. Where did you grow up, and what kind of exposure did you have to the theatre?
Shuler Hensley: I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, just outside, and as far as my exposure to theatre, my mom is a ballet director, and she has her own ballet company down there. I started, I think, when I was four when I went onstage for the first time as Fritz in The Nutcracker. [Laughs.] So, I've always been in the wings or on stage of a theatre. That's how it started with me.
PBOL: When did you know that this is what you wanted to do as a career?
SH: I guess I've always wanted to do it. My mom is a ballet director, and my dad was an All-American football player at Georgia Tech, so I did athletics and theatre. And I just thought that's what you do. [Laughs.] You do one in the afternoon and the other at night. People say, "Well if you can think of anything you'd rather do, than do it." But that's never really been an option for me.
PBOL: Your reviews for Oklahoma! have been incredible. What have the last few weeks been like for you since the reviews came out?
SH: For me, personally, it's been something that you're very thankful for. I've just been more in tune with our audience and how the show has sort of transformed itself. It takes awhile for a three-hour show, as you know, to sort of gel and get into a smooth run. And, I think, really, within the past week, we've finally reached that point. So, that is what I'm most excited about because I did this production in London when it first started, and I know where everyone is at — as far as trying to find themselves within the show — because I've already done it. So, now I can see it in the people around me onstage that we're really ready to have fun with it. PBOL: Were there many changes made between the London production and the New York one?
SH: Not really. As far as basic staging and that sort of thing, nothing. I think Susan [Stroman] changed a bit of the choreography to suit the personal dancers. She always builds on individual strength, so that was worked on a bit. It's just such a organic process with Trevor [Nunn] directing. He has an outline, and we just see what happens.
PBOL: How did the role originally come about for you?
SH: My wife is British, and I was in Hamburg doing The Phantom of the Opera [in German], and on our way home to New York, we stopped in England to see her family, and while I was there, I found out there was [a production of] Oklahoma! that was coming to the National. So, I got an agent and got into the auditions.
PBOL: Was it a long audition process?
SH: It wasn't so much long — as far as date-wise — but it was very thorough. I think I went in four or five times, but on successive days. One time was with Trevor, one was to sing, one was with Susan to see how you move and that sort of thing, but it happened within a week, I think.
PBOL: In the 1940s I imagine Jud was probably perceived as a villain, but today's audiences might see him as more of a victim of circumstances or upbringing, and I wonder how you view him.
SH: I say this a lot, just as an actor. I've heard it said, "If you play roles that are classified as a villain or a psychopath, none of these characters view themselves that way," so you can't really come at him, "Well, he's a villain," if you're going to play him. I just think he is a victim of circumstance. It's funny because I get feedback from the audience afterward and they say, "We felt so sorry for Jud," because it's clear to a lot of people that if he was around at our time, they'd have him on sort of drug. They could help his condition. It's more interesting to not make him such a clear-cut villain but someone who has the same dreams and hopes as everyone but just cannot function normally.
PBOL: I was wondering whether you read Green Grow the Lilacs [Lynn Riggs' play upon which Oklahoma! is based].
SH: Yes, Trevor is great in that regard. We read the play first, and then throughout the staging, we wouldn't sing anything, so everything was sort of rehearsed as a play. You really tend to find more about the characters when you do that than having to focus on the music. And, he did that originally [in London] and with us here [in New York]. And it does open a lot of doors that I think are harder to find if you don't do it that way.
PBOL: Did you go back to the film at all?
SH: The film, we did not, just because a lot of the play and the musical are cut from it.
PBOL: "Lonely Room" is not even in the film...
SH: It's so incredible because it's such an important part of Jud. It's really the only time you get to see the human side of him, his real wants and things, and I don't know why they cut it. Maybe it was that Rod Steiger couldn't sing or that they needed to have a clearer distinction between the good and evil...
PBOL: A colleague here said that you played Curly in a regional theatre.
SH: Yes, I played Curly in Milwaukee at Skylight Opera.
PBOL: What year was that?
SH: I think it was '92 or '93. And, you know, it's funny, you just grow up with this musical. And, if you're in regional theatre long enough, you're gonna run in to some sort of production. And, at the time, I was more of a Curly, I guess.
PBOL: Who's more fun to play?
SH: I would say, absolutely, Jud. I'm a character actor at heart. It's just fun to sort of delve into those characters that are perceived so heavily one way, and just say, "What if you give them this quality?" And, I think, you can do that more with the character roles than, say, the leading man stuff.
PBOL: I'm a big fan of Andrea Martin [who plays Aunt Eller in the musical], and I was wondering what's she's like to work with.
SH: She is a total nightmare! [Laughs.] I'm kidding. Oh my gosh — the trailer, the limos. [Laughs.] No, she is just a doll, she's wonderful. She's always bright-eyed, inquisitive and really loves people. And, you know, she is Aunt Eller.
PBOL: You were recently Javert in the Broadway company of Les Miz. What was that experience like?
SH: That was excellent. For a number of years, even before I went to do Phantom, there were a few roles in modern musicals that I thought I really needed to do at some point. I went to Germany to do Phantom because that was a chance for someone of my voice type [to play the role]. It's a darker sound than what people here would conceive of the Phantom, but in Germany it works well with the German language. So, I did that, and I always thought Javert was the perfect role for me. When I got over here, it just happened at a good time that I was available. It's Cameron Mackintosh [who also produced Oklahoma!], so I just went into [Les Miz].
PBOL: I know you have also performed in several operas. Does opera still interest you as a performer?
SH: As a performer, not at the moment. The classical training was such a big part of what I wanted. I always knew that if I could sing classically, I would be okay with any other sort of [singing], musical theatre. That was always in my mind. I trained actually as a straight actor as well. I did private classes all over...I went to Manhattan School of Music here, and then while I was in opera school, I would train and do classes at the Total Theatre Lab and some private studios, but opera to me is such a wonderful art form, but it's something I think I need time to grow into. There are a couple of roles that I would eventually like to do if that ever were to happen, but I'd need to grow a bit vocally.
PBOL: What would you like to see happen to your career after Oklahoma!? Would you like to do more film?
SH: I love film and TV, the medium of them, just because it's such a smaller screen. It's much more precise. Ideally, I'd like to do maybe a film a year of some sort and use that to work more in the theatre because theatre really is my first love. But, as we know, with the way things are these days, it's nice to have a film star in a theatre...because that sells the tickets.
PBOL: How has it been combining fatherhood and your performance schedule?
SH: Absolutely wonderful. I think it's really because I had a parent in the theatre, and I know how wonderful it is. [Daughter Skyler] has been to the theatre. Every two-show day [wife Paula and Skyler] come and spend time with me in the dressing room, and we go out onstage sometimes, and she loves it. She loves the lights and the sets. I think it's just a great environment. I know firsthand, that was so fun — to go to the theatre. It's funny because Paula and I will say, "Daddy has to go to work." And then we say, "Skyler, what does Daddy do when he goes to work?" And she goes, "La la la, la." [Laughs.]
PBOL: One last question. When people hear the name Shuler Hensley, what would you like them to think?
SH: I would like them to think "a really interesting, believable theatre actor."