Hensley, who won his Tony playing the beastly Jud Fry in Trevor Nunn's revival of Oklahoma!, recently finished a gig portraying Kerchak, the tough but soft-hearted gorilla leader in Disney's Tarzan. Now he's Broadway-bound again, playing the lumbering, grunting Frankenstein's Monster is Mel Brooks' stage version of Young Frankenstein. And this isn't even the first time he's played fiction's most famous ogre. He was the Monster in the 2004 film "Van Helsing." But Hensley's not complaining. The Mel Brooks-Thomas Meehan-Susan Stroman musical is one of the most anticipated events of the 2007-08 season. And besides, his kids like it better when he's cast as a non-human. The actor spoke to Playbill.com just as rehearsals began in Seattle, where Young Frankenstein will begin its pre-Broadway tryout Aug. 7.
Playbill.com: At what point are you in the rehearsal process?
Shuler Hensley: We spent the past six weeks in New York pretty much getting through the entire story, with limited sets. Now, it's about getting the make-up, the costumes, and the huge sets, which I hear rival anything. The Paramount Theatre here, I think it's about 2,800 seats, so it's quite a large theatre. Apparently, the sets are very comfortable in that size house.
Playbill.com: Six weeks of rehearsal in New York, and then more time in Seattle. That's a lavish amount of time for a show to rehearse.
SH: You know what? You gotta do what you gotta do. It's been quite a treat. The thing about it is, from day one, we've all had grins on our faces because we all have our own history with this movie. I grew up with Mel Brooks, as did most of these kids in the cast. It's like waking up and having some sort of great birthday present that you get to do every day. Susan [Stroman] has created wonderful storytelling and dances, and Mel [Brooks] has written songs and he's there every day.
Playbill.com: The film is so iconic. I imagine it's hard to get the original out of your head.
SH: Well, people have different approaches. I know some people in the cast watch it fairly religiously, just to see what they can glean from it. I personally haven't watched the film in five years or so. Once I knew that I was going to do this I really didn't want to watch it, or my character especially. We're talking about Peter Boyle and something that you can't really recreate, and you really shouldn't try to. I know enough about the film that when we're reading through it, you can have these images in your head of the scenes in the movie. But they're not so crystal clear. It goes back to the script, the humor of the script. Having Mel there, it's almost like discovering it for the first time. You have the creator, who's sitting in the room. The magic of the piece is from the page.
Playbill.com: When does your character arrive? At the end of the first act?
SH: I do. I am talked about and then we discover him at the end of the first act. It's pretty true to the movie. It's more about the creation of the monster. It's building him and bringing him to life. The second act is about what that entails. Playbill.com: Of course, you sing the famous rendition of "Putting on the Ritz" seen in the film. Do you have other songs?
SH: Mel wrote about seven new songs that were not in the movie. Toward the end of Act Two, I have a bit of a song. He doesn't just groan and moan.
Playbill.com: Well, at the end of the film, the Monster becomes a sophisticated man.
Playbill.com: "Putting on the Ritz" is the moment from the film people remember most. It must be nice to be able to star in that spotlight number.
SH: It's spectacular! I first worked with Susan in London on the revival of Oklahoma!. This is almost ten years ago. She has a gift for telling stories through the dance. What's she's done with "Putting on the Ritz," she's just created this whole story within that song. She makes everyone look spectacular, including myself. My mom died three years ago, but I know she is looking down saying, "Thank God, he's finally getting to dance." (Laughs) Playbill.com: Have they retained the famous scene between the Monster and the blind hermit?
SH: Yes they have. There is music involved. It's pretty much the scene in the movie, but then they've added music around that scene. It's very well done.
Playbill.com: Have you experienced the make-up process yet? I imagine it's arduous.
SH: I did. That's still a work in progress. But we took a cast of my face. There's a lot of aspects of the Frankenstein monster where the rights are owned by Universal. It's gets fairly specific in terms of the look of the Monster. They've had to be creative in terms of what they can and can't use. But I did "Van Helsing," the movie, as Frankenstein's Monster. That process took about six and one half hours of make-up. So this is a breeze! (Laughs)
Playbill.com: You last played an ape on Broadway, in Tarzan. Are you getting a little lonely to play a human being sometime down the road?
SH: (Laughs) Yes and no. I mean, I would eventually love to play a human. But I also have two kids under the age of 7, and if you have children, half of your time is spent playing animals and creatures. So, they're ecstatic about this. My kids go to school and say, "My daddy plays a monster!"