THE LEADING MEN: Swenson and De Shields

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: Swenson and De Shields
 
Hair's Will Swenson and Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe's André De Shields join us this month for some highly entertaining Leading Man-chat.
Will Swenson
Will Swenson

WILL THE THRILL
Will Swenson was born in Logan, UT, where his dad was teaching at the time at Utah State University. Later, he found his youth split down the middle between his love for football (a die-hard Denver Broncos fan to this day) and working behind the scenes at his family's theatre. "In high school I was ostracized by my football friends for doing musicals and then ostracized by my musical friends for being on the football team," he laments. The problem was solved, he laughs, "when it finally dawned on me I just wasn't very good at football." Football's loss has been theatregoers' gain, as Swenson has been electrifying folks as the charismatic Berger in Hair, for which he was Tony-nominated and accompanied to the ceremony by sweetheart Audra McDonald, whom Swenson first met on 110 in the Shade in '07. The pair plans on reprising Shade next year as a fundraiser for the Hale Center Theatre in Orem, UT. For now, Swenson is happy getting his freak on each night onstage and in the aisles of the Hirschfeld.

Q: Congratulations on Hair. It has been a critical and audience smash, which is the dream, yes?
Will Swenson: It's pretty great. We have the best time, and it's fantastic, top-of-the-mountain, career-highlight stuff. If it never gets any better than this, I'd be totally okay with that. [Laughs.]

Q: Are you able to bask in the connection to the audience this show is having?
Swenson: It ends with that huge dance party where everybody comes onstage, and I don't think [actors] often get to interact with the audience the way we do. The audience comes up, and we get to see first-hand their reaction to the show. You see men in business suits who've been crying, people that just want to hug you and thank you. We leave on a high every night so to speak [laughs]. It takes me awhile to wind down every night because it's such a buzz. I keep using drug terminology. I guess it's embedded in me.

Q: For all the peace and love, Berger is kind of the most symbolic of the limits of the culture of that time, the selfish side, perhaps?
Swenson: He's certainly the least optimistic of the group and the least concerned with the outcome of his decisions. He's just all about the moment, and while Sheila [Caissie Levy] is all about the activism and the need to change the world, I think that kind of bothers Berger. He just wants to live in the moment, and if he feels like smoking right now, great. If he feels like taking his pants off, great. He's just going to do whatever suits his fancy in the moment. There's a line at the end of the show, "I'm just gonna stay high forever." And that sounded great to the hippies back then, with no foresight to what that would end up being like. They really thought drugs were the answer and that it would expand their minds. I picture Berger would be probably on the street somewhere nowadays if he's still alive at all. So, you're right, definitely the darkest shade of the Tribe.

Q: In a way the truest believer, too.
Swenson: Yeah, in a way. He's the truest hippie. The most committed to the hippie ideals, but only so far as his party lets him go. Q: You've directed and written shows yourself, so you know how hard it is to get even a small cast on the same page. How can you sum up how director Diane Paulus got this Tribe so perfectly in sync?
Swenson: I think she's just brilliant. There are a couple reasons. One is we've been together as a tribe and as cast mates for going on three different calendar years of this project. We've been able to try stuff out for a longer period of time than most shows are allowed. But more than that, Diane had us vigorously dive into homework for our characters — the interaction between the Tribe. You have to believe that all these hippies have partied together, lived together, slept together, and if there's not a certain level of physical comfort and emotional comfort, it just wouldn't read as a unit. So, she had us do these projects in rehearsal where we had to do these presentations based on our characters, and we had to choose music to underscore it and say why the music was significant for our characters. We had to give back-story, how we joined the Tribe, who our closest friends and Tribe members were, and that gave you an immediate knowledge of who every single Tribe member was, and you could then figure out how your character matched up with everybody else. It created this community, and I give Diane all the credit for that.

Q: How has the show affected your life offstage?
Swenson: I don't think you could realistically or effectively pull off a show like this if you didn't believe in the ideals that the show professes. I certainly found myself paying much more attention to the "cheesy" ideas of the hippie movement like love and peace, and trying to embrace those a little more deeply. In New York you can, in your day-to-day dealings, get kind of selfish, you know, pushing someone out of the way so you can get your seat on the subway and not looking for that little opportunity to spread cheer and happiness. Those kinds of things have been more visible to me since I jumped into the show. When I got cast, I spoke to somebody who had done the show before and told me it would change my life, and I was like, "Yeah, sure, it will change my life." But they were absolutely right. I don't think we could tell the story as effectively unless we truly thought we could make a difference. And, you know, the Tribe really, really does. I'm just in awe of Gavin Creel [Claude], who has headed up Broadway Impact for Marriage Equality, and he's holding rallies and really making a difference. And we've gone to protests and we're really trying to walk the walk.

Q: Yes, when I talked to Gavin two months ago, he was so fervent, it made me question what I was doing in my life.
Swenson: He is! And he just does things! He's not someone who's like, "I think I'm gonna go to this rally..." He creates rallies! I'm amazed by his pro-action. He's trying to get the Tribe involved in the March for Equality in D.C. in October.

Q: Your first Broadway credit was in Brooklyn in 2005. Did you ever think of that show as kind of a "bizarro" Hair?
Swenson: I have thought about the drug use parallels. My son, who is eight now, we took him to see me in Brooklyn, and there was a heavy scene where I shot up heroin, and it was really dark, and also in a flashback-y mode, where the drug use in Hair is also in an alternate universe. There was a Vietnam battle scene as well. It's interesting because those are relatively similar ideas, dramatically, but Hair is presented with such purpose, where the idea is to get Claude high, and then he'll see the light. To me, all of the Vietnam stuff and the drug use is presented with more optimism, pointing out how absurd war is, and how absurd drug use is, really, in that it doesn't have the answers. In Brooklyn, it was a much darker take. But yeah, I have thought of those parallels. My character couldn't be more different though.

Will Swenson and Tribe in Hair
photo by Joan Marcus

Q: Lastly, what is your favorite song to sing in the show and your favorite song to listen to.
Swenson: Favorite song that I sing is "Hair," just insane energy and the pinnacle of the evening, fun, out there, in the audience, I love it. My favorite song musically, and to listen to every night is "What a Piece of Work is Man" — just gorgeous with the Shakespeare libretto and the gorgeous melody. [Hair is playing the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th Street. For more information, go to www.hairbroadway.com.]

André De Shields
photo by Lia Chang

DE DAY
Saturn has returned in a big way for theatre legend, André De Shields, if his astrological self-assessment is to be believed. As a "textbook Capricorn ruled by Saturn," he says the planet returns every 28 years into his orbit, and it has brought a veritable "This is Your Life, Andre" in its wake. His first professional show, Hair, is back on Broadway; The Wiz, for which he created the title role, is at City Center; Full Monty, for which he created the role of Horse, is at Paper Mill; Ain't Misbehavin', which helped make him a star, is touring. And, De Shields' own career has him currently crashing through the fourth wall at the Clurman in The Classical Theatre of Harlem's Molière musical Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe. He will soon move onto Euripides' The Bacchae in Central Park, with David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre at the Alliance to follow. The latter is a piece with personal resonance for De Shields, he says, "because I have chosen a life in the theatre and it has chosen me." Q: When we spoke a couple years back about your famous turn with "The Viper's Drag" in Ain't Misbehavin', you said breaking the fourth wall is your favorite thing in theatre. Still true?
André De Shields: I feel it is my mission as an actor to challenge expectations, to detonate stereotypes. I believe that people come to the theatre for the same reason they go to a church or a temple. It's the only place where people come together and sit in a dark cathedral for purposes of community, communion and worship. It is my responsibility to solve whatever problems patrons bring to the temple… If their quest is for simple entertainment and distraction, I should provide that also. In this particular piece, this very loose adaptation of Molière's Tartuffe, I get to do that and have a great time. Several people have said to me, "My cheeks ache from laughing so much, from grinning so much." If you come to the show and have a good time, then my work is done.

Q: Does some of your love for audience interplay come from being in Hair early on in your career, or that era of theatre?
De Shields: Yes, that was my first professional gig, Hair, in 1969 in Chicago, under the direction of the late, great Tom O'Horgan. I sharpened my teeth, if you will (because I now have a reputation for chewing scenery) — those teeth were sharpened in experimental theatre, where the need to eliminate the fourth wall is first and foremost. I've learned that breaking the fourth wall affords not only the actors but the audience that rare occasion to just let their hair down, to hang loose, to have a good time.

Q: Have you seen the current Hair?
De Shields: Five times. I dig it a lot [laughs]. I'm glad that I, as an unreconstructed hippy, have lived long enough to see the mantle passed to a generation who may not understand all of the provocative and evocative reasons for Hair's having existed 40 years ago, but our grandchildren who are now doing the show have the power and the insight to change the world…And I want to say that Will Swenson and I connected on a very personal and heart-to-heart level when I went to see Hair. During the concert version in 2007, Oskar Eustis invited ten alumni from Hair to sing "Let the Sunshine In," and when it was my turn to be part of the ten, the company embraced me as a parent, a figure who had prepared the way for them, and Will gave me one of the strongest embraces. We connected immediately. At that time, Jonathan Groff was playing Claude, and Jonathan will be Dionysus in The Bacchae.

Q: So you'll be going from Molière to Euripides…
De Shields: [Laughs.] Yes. What a leap of faith! It's about re-inventing yourself, shedding that skin, approaching this craft and this life fearlessly. Before I did Supreme Tartuffe, I was on Broadway with the Michael Jacobs play Impressionism, which I think was underappreciated, but one of the lines I remember that Joan Allen's character said was, "Life rewards discipline." I'm the kind of guy who for 40 years has been a nose-to-the-grindstone actor. Work constantly, hone your craft, and the discipline will be rewarded. I think this opportunity to move from Jacobs to Molière to Euripides to Mamet is reward for my having my nose to the grindstone.

Q: Have you worked in Central Park before?
De Shields: I only worked in the Park once before, and that was in 1973 with Peter Link when he was the darling composer at the Public Theatre. It was a project called Please Don't Let It Rain. I had been auditioning for the bus-and-truck tour of Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Peter was walking by the audition room and heard someone singing the Jackson 5's "Never Can Say Goodbye." He waited outside the room until the person who was singing came out, and it happened to be yours truly, and he explained to me he was putting together a concert of his music. Long story short, I did the concert in the Park, which is where I met Irene Cara, and we went on to do the Off-Broadway production of Ain't Misbehavin' back when the Manhattan Theatre Club was on East 73rd Street. Q: Did you ever meet Michael Jackson?
De Shields: I met him once during the family's Encino days, when I was on the West Coast doing The Wiz. The Jackson family came to see the show and invited the cast to their estate, and we were privileged to briefly meet the angel, Michael Jackson, and I don't say that facetiously.

Q: What is it like working in Tartuffe with Ted Lange, so well-known to most folks from "The Love Boat"?
De Shields: Ted is my personal Love Boat. He is a great human being. He is so open. He's like me: The director says jump, we both say, "How high?" He comes in with his head open, his heart open, his eyes open…and he doesn't back off. This is our second collaboration. In 2006 we did King Lear, also with the Classical Theatre of Harlem.

Q: Now, I know you live very close to the Clurman. Do you have the best commute in NYC?
De Shields: When I did Impressionism, I had to walk three blocks. Now I'm across the street. I tell my colleagues my next show is going to be in my kitchen because I'm also a good cook!

[Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe is playing the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, until July 19. Call (212) 279-4200 for tickets.]

HITHER AND YON

Skip Kennon (Herringbone, Time and Again, The Last Starfighter) is among artists announced with new work in the 3rd Annual Festival of New American Short Plays at 59E59 Theaters. Kennon wrote the music and lyrics for The Eternal Anniversary, with a book by Bill Connington. Neil LaBute also has a new play, A Second of Pleasure, directed by Andrew McCarthy. The festival runs July 24-Aug. 27. Call (212) 279-4200 for ticket info or visit www.59e59.org. . . . Animal lovers and music fans unite! Broadway Meows, featuring the music of Seth Bisen-Hersh, is a benefit for the Humane Society of New York at Don't Tell Mama's on July 20. Brian Childers, Brandon Ruckdashel and Darryl Winslow are among the performers. Who will sing the "Meow Mix" jingle? Go to donttellmamanyc.com for the rest of the cast, and ticket info. . . . On July 6, Dominick Farinacci is at Birdland, debuting his new CD. Show time is 7 PM. . . .Vinyl thrift find of the month: Still shrink-wrapped "Introducing Ann Jillian the Singer." Ann sings 12 Steve Allen compositions, and they are quite lovely, especially "I Love You Says It Very Well," which should be a standard. . . . Interesting Jacksonian note: "Never Can Say Goodbye," the Jackson 5 hit De Shields mentioned above was written by Clifton Davis, who starred in the ABC sitcom "That's My Mama," with Ted Lange…Okay, until the heat of August kicks in, keep it Broadway Real!

Tom Nondorf can be reached at tnondorf@playbill.com.

Gina Marie Rivera, Charletta Rozzell, André De Shields and Kisa Willis
Gina Marie Rivera, Charletta Rozzell, André De Shields and Kisa Willis
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