André De Shields is best known for originating the title role in the Broadway bow of The Wiz, but the actor has booked many roles on the Great White Way, including his Tony-nominated turns in 1997’s Play On! and 2000’s The Full Monty. Here, he takes us back to when he first began auditioning in New York circa 1973 and shares how he scored his breakout role in the soulful retelling of The Wizard of Oz.
Take me back to your days of auditioning. What were some of the go-to songs in your repertoire?
André De Shields: I’ve been in New York since 1973, and as you probably know my first national profile came with having the opportunity to create The Wiz in The Wiz. Now, in ’73 soul music was very hot, very on point, very the “flavor of the month,” along with Motown, so I won that audition by singing “[In the] Midnight Hour.” That was [Wilson Pickett’s] most famous song. I am a rhythm-and-blues artist. I like to say that I sing from the other American Songbook, and [during] my first ten years in New York, that was the book, if you will, that I would go to for audition songs—a nice, hot, number-one-with-a-bullet R&B song that would display what I call the ping in my voice.
What’s your favorite song to use in the room?
When I was nine years old, I saw Cabin in the Sky and was smitten, if you will, with the performance of John Bubbles, who sang a song called “Shine,” from the era of the Harlem Renaissance. It was written by R. C. McPherson [Cecil Mack] and Ford Dabney. I’d say that it was the quintessential race song of the 20th century. It’s a song that I adopted, which has served me for 47 years that I have been a professional performer because it allows for outrageous showboating, and since I was making my niche in musical theatre in New York, that was the thing to do. It also fit the range of my voice very well, and it has the ability to shock the people for whom I am auditioning. Not many people are familiar with the song, and once they hear the song, I think I get points for balls. It also gives me an opportunity to sing my money note, and it’s a lot of fun. It gives me the opportunity to move, to do things spontaneously, and, more often than not, it leaves the people for whom I am auditioning with silly grins on their faces.
What were the qualities you looked for in audition songs?
First of all, I think the most important thing about an audition song is: how does it make the person who is auditioning feel? I never want to have regrets about the choice of the song I made. I like to go into an audition with a sense of joy for the experience, and I like to leave the audition—whether or not I get the gig—being joyful about my effort and feeling as if I’ve done the best that I can. If I’m not the choice for this particular production, it’s not because I didn’t have a great time, and I didn’t show a great time to the people who were evaluating my work and my talent—my effort. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve kept “Shine” in my book.
Take me back to your auditions for some of your most iconic roles in shows such as The Wiz and Ain’t Misbehavin’ or The Full Monty, for which you were Tony-nominated.
I definitely remember each of those auditions! The Wiz I remember most specifically because, I initially was called in for other roles [I didn’t make any of the cuts for The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, or The Lion]. We auditioned in the theatre in which we knew the show was going to be done, so all of our auditions were done in the Majestic Theatre. I’m mentioning that because when you audition in a theatre, there is that time-honored magic of being called in from the wings, [and] having your footsteps echo on the bare stage. The only light is the ghostlight on the stage, and you are auditioning for a group of people you can barely see because they are sitting in a dimly-lit theatre. That kind of lure—that kind of magic that’s associated with our industry—was how I auditioned for The Wiz.
Now, I had already been cut from Dorothy’s friends, which is okay by me because I had an opportunity to say to our producer Ken Harper, “Mr. Harper, I would really like to audition for the role of The Wiz.” He said to me, “We’re looking for someone more like Frank Morgan,” who was the gentleman who played The Wizard of Oz in the Judy Garland film. I begged Ken Harper. I am an unreconstructed hippie. I had the big Jimi Hendrix hair, I was wearing Maasai earrings—that whole thing—my five-inch silver platforms… I came back like that, and I sang, as I said initially, Wilson Pickett’s “Midnight Hour.” Charlie Smalls, who is the composer of The Wiz, stood up and shouted, “That’s my Wizard.” When I left that audition I was doing jetés down the street.
Now, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is almost the flip side of the coin. Now we’re talking about the age of jazz. I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, in a family of 11 children whose parents came right out of that Harlem Renaissance era. I would hear my mother and my father sing songs by Louis Armstrong, so it wasn’t alien to me at the young age of 30 to have to go in and sing something that, at its essence, was sexually titillating. The song that’s most associated with me and Ain’t Misbehavin’, which is The Reefer Song, “Viper’s Drag,” based on a popular dance from that era called snakehips, my mother used to do in the kitchen of our house, so when [choreographer] Arthur Faria, who explained what he was looking for in that moment was a kind of Americanized version of Balinese dance, I said, “I know how to do snakehips. My mother used to do that.”
Fast-forwarding to the year 2000 for The Full Monty, the score and the song that was associated with my character Horse, “Big Black Man,” was something out of my cultural upbringing. It’s James Brown. Each of those iconic musicals, for which I am noted, was just a matter of expanding what I already know to fit a meta-theatrical context.
What are some of your favorite songs to sing? Also, what are songs do you think are overlooked and more up-and-coming actors should be singing in the audition room?
I think people should go to their colleagues—that’s what I do. I have friends who are composers. Jim Steinman and I have known each other since 1973. This is long before Jim’s very successful recording career with Meat Loaf, and his songs were so exciting, so expansive, so challenging, and a couple of them I kept in my repertoire over the years because, again, they are theatrical, they are dramatic, and they display a talent that’s unique to me. That’s what I think young people should be looking for.