André De Shields of ‘Hadestown’ knows you’re never too old to reach for an EGOT
If the show wins a Grammy for best musical theater album, De Shields will only need an Oscar to complete the set
At age 73, André De Shields is eyeing an EGOT, the acronym for the grand slam of performance awards: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.
Why? He’s just following his own advice.
In July, 50 years into a career in theater, De Shields won his first Tony as best featured actor in a musical for his role as Hermes in the Broadway hit Hadestown. For his acceptance speech, he wore a black and gold brocade tux, set off with a gold bow tie, cummerbund and matching winged shoes — a nod to his character — and imparted some wisdom.
“I would like to share with you just three cardinal rules of my sustainability and longevity,” he said.
“One: Surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming. Two: Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be. And three: The top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing.”
De Shields also possesses an Emmy for outstanding individual achievement — which he won in 1982 for the television production of Ain’t Misbehavin,’ a Fats Waller revue that also starred Nell Carter and Charlayne Woodard. Both live in his dressing room at the Walter Kerr Theatre, which is painted in a shade he calls “rapture red” and is lined with an assortment of souvenirs, keepsakes, fan art, and gifts. If Hadestown, now nominated for a Grammy for best musical theater album, wins the category, (which is likely, given that it won Tonys for best musical and best score), then De Shields will be able to add a Grammy to his collection. He’s still climbing.
“Life has its specifics,” De Shields said in an interview earlier this year between a Saturday matinee of Hadestown and the evening show. “Those things that must be manifest on a daily basis, and life has its large amorphous unknowns, those things that allow you to envision what we commonly call greatness. So on the specifics side, this is a Tony. This is an Emmy. I’m 50 percent on my way to being an EGOT. All I need is a Grammy and Oscar. So that’s what André wants for himself.”
John Legend and Whoopi Goldberg are the only African Americans to achieve EGOT status. But De Shields says he plans on living for another 73 years, so he figures he’s got time. He calls it “breaking the Methuselah code.”
“Methuselah, one of the anecdotal centenarians,” De Shields clarified. “There’s no birth certificate. They say biblical births are discerned by what was happening culturally. When so-and-so was king, such and such happened. When so and so was king, so and so was born.
“Then there’s the question of reputation. So, if you can live a long life — and right now 73 is considered a long life — if you can live a long life and then have such significance that people continue to create your legacy, you live longer than you actually existed.”
De Shields is unapologetic about his ambition, and he’s certainly not in the mood for retiring. The inheritors of his legacy sashay across today’s red carpets and theater stages, living indications that perhaps he’s already broken the Methuselah code. There is more than enough room for the black queer abundance over which De Shields unofficially reigns. It’s evident in the fierce self-love that Billy Porter projects with every public appearance. There’s a touch of De Shields in the sartorial daring of playwright and actor Jeremy O. Harris. They both possess an instinct for artful transgression.
On the day of our conversation, an assortment of floral bouquets hung from the lights over the mirror that dominates his tiny Broadway den. A statue of Buddha sat on a shelf, surrounded by three silk lilies.
“You’ve entered the sanctuary of Hermes, which is festooned with items that André has collected over the years from friends and from travel. Symbols that create, for me, a sanctuary so that when I have the moments that I’m with myself in this room, all other concerns melt, fade away, ” De Shields said.
A small window air conditioner hummed behind a textile rendering of the Hindu god Shiva. “In the Western world, we think that we are evolving and almost radical now that transsexual is part of the gender spectrum,” De Shields said. “But these are Hindu gods and they’re all transsexual. One moment they’re male, the next moment they’re female. One moment, they’re adult, the next moment they’re children.”
Hadestown is the story of Orpheus, a musician who follows his heart down to the underworld, where his beloved Eurydice resides. No one is allowed to leave except for Persephone, the woman to whom Hades, the god of said underworld, clings. When Persephone is on Earth, it’s spring. When she leaves to rejoin Hades, it’s winter.
Persephone persuades the gruff and grizzled Hades to believe in the possibility of love, and to make a deal with Orpheus. He’s allowed to leave the underworld and take Eurydice with him, but she must walk behind Orpheus. The challenge for Orpheus is one of faith — he’s not allowed to look back and must trust that Eurydice is behind him. If he does look back, Eurydice is bound to the underworld forever.
As Hermes, De Shields provides a frame for the story, but he’s also a hype man for the Big Easy juke joint where the action takes place. In his shiny gray suit and heeled boots, Hermes cuts a spindly figure, holding the audience spellbound with each flamencolike turn of the wrist, and every twist in the plot.
Everything in this dressing room and in his career has gone into crafting Hermes, the agile narrator of Anaïs Mitchell’s New Orleans-inflected retelling of the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice.
De Shields’ turn as Horse in The Full Monty? A bit of him is in Hermes. So is the fantastical Wiz who dazzles Stephanie Mills’ Dorothy. The “Viper’s Drag” performer from Ain’t Misbehavin’? Oh, you better believe he’s rattling around in Hermes, too.
“Hermes is an amalgam,” De Shields said. “Hermes is a compendium of characters that I’ve made, even before I was working in New York. So that what you are witnessing is the completion of a cycle. The simultaneous end and beginning of an era.”
In 2014, De Shields performed at Carnegie Hall in Black Stars of the Great White Way, honoring the historical contributions black men brought to the last century of American theater. De Shields embodies the regality of a theater griot wherever he goes, but every time he resurrects The Wiz, the role he originated in the 1975 Broadway production, the effect feels new and a little bit dangerous.
At New York’s annual SummerStage festival in Central Park in 2015, for instance, De Shields entered in a white suit and pointed white platform boots. There was a green amulet around his neck and a cocktail ring big enough to play to the back of the biggest house. But the pièce de résistance was a white cape, lined in red and equipped with a high collar. Whenever he reprises The Wiz, De Shields turns the stage into a runway, spreading the cape like a set of wings. The sway of his hips announces decades of dance training and he swings the cape with the flourish of a bullfighter.
It makes perfect sense when you consider that Geoffrey Holder, the famed choreographer and husband of Carmen de Lavallade, directed the original Broadway run of The Wiz. De Shields speaks and moves with the same deliberate, studied grace that makes it impossible to tear one’s eyes from de Lavallade. When Porter unfurled his gilded plumage at the 2019 Met Gala, it was a move straight out of 1975.
“Even to see him walk into a room, he commands attention,” Michael R. Jackson said of De Shields. Jackson wrote the book, music, and lyrics of A Strange Loop, a cheeky and sensitive musical about a Broadway usher and aspiring musical theater writer contending with his blackness, his queerness, his fatness, and how it all feeds a sense of inadequacy. “You kind of want to bow like a character in Lion King to Mufasa. … I have another musical piece I’m working on that I would love for him to be in if I ever finish it!”
Three weeks after De Shields accepted his Tony, he entered a much smaller stage to a standing ovation.
The air at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in Greenwich Village was thick with midsummer sweat and humidity. The audience members fanned themselves with programs as actors performed a staged reading of the Terrence McNally play Some Men, for which McNally was in attendance. The reading was part of the Pride Plays festival, part of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Some Men is a survey of gay American life over the course of eight decades — its miseries, follies, triumphs and tribulations — told through interweaving stories.
Most of the actors — all queer men — were seated in folding chairs on the cramped stage, equipped with binders containing the script. But De Shields entered from a small dressing room at the back of the stage and took his time walking up to his microphone. He made full use of the limited floor space, and the audience watched rapt, as the The Wiz delivered McNally’s lines.
At a reception next door after the reading, De Shields explained why the night was so significant. Yes, McNally had given him a role in the Full Monty musical (McNally wrote the book), but this was bigger than just one playwright. It was a queer homecoming, and De Shields was clearly and irrefutably its king.
“It would be unthinkable, of me, as a same-gender-loving black man, to have won the Tony two weeks ago and not shared in this, specifically what we witnessed tonight, but the entire Pride month,” he said.
“It was really, really magical,” said actor and playwright Jordan E. Cooper, who debuted his satire Ain’t No Mo’ at the Public Theater this spring. Cooper, 24, was one of the readers alongside De Shields, one of his personal heroes. Growing up outside Fort Worth, Texas, Cooper marveled at De Shields’ work and found inspiration in it.
“André is just like, he’s a walking history,” Cooper said at the reception following the Some Men reading. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played that Ain’t Misbehavin’ album since I was like, 16 years old. Whenever I would lip-sync to the show, I was always André. There was something unique about his voice and his personality and the way he sung, and the phrasing of his — it was just magical. And then when I learned he was in The Wiz on Broadway, I was just like ‘What!?!’ And I would just watch videos of him being The Wiz.”
What Cooper absorbed was more than just craft, more than the way De Shields delights in holding a pause while you hang on, anticipating the next word. It was the love De Shields displayed by being his full, authentic self.
“I am a liberated man!” De Shields exclaimed in his dressing room. “Yes. I’m a free man.”
For De Shields, freedom came from leaving the very place to which Dorothy wants to return, the place she hopes the Wiz can send her: home.
A Balinese textile print, gifted from a college friend, adorns a wall in his dressing room. De Shields, a Baltimore native, returned home this summer to accept the key to the city from mayor Jack Young.
“I realized that if I didn’t leave Baltimore, I was going to live to the ripe old age of 25 earth years, and I’d probably be dead, because that is what happened to all of my colleagues,” De Shields said. “When you’re 25, you’re not old but you’re at the end of your life. Either because you’re the target of the police booth or you’re the target of some overdose.”
De Shields grew up in West Baltimore with 10 brothers and sisters. His mother, Mary Elizabeth De Shields, née Gunther, his father, John Edward De Shields, were born there and they died there. He was their ninth child.
Mary Elizabeth revealed to her son that she wanted to be a chorus girl. John Edward had wanted to be a singer. It didn’t happen for either of them.
“My parents were born around the turn of the 20th century,” De Shields said. “So their parents, my grandparents, were born closer to the Emancipation Proclamation. Their response to the dreams of their children was to my mother, ‘No decent colored child of mine, colored daughter of mine, is going to shuffle her way through life.’
“My father, my paternal grandparents, ‘How are you going to make a secure living for your wife and children with an insecure profession like singing?’ So my parents deferred their dreams. Somewhere along the line, one of those children had to bear the x and y chromosome into which those deferred dreams were placed. That’s why I call myself lucky No. 9. I got that deferred dream from my father. I got that deferred dream from my mother.”
Mary Elizabeth and John Edward would give their children weekly allowances of 35 cents, enough to traipse up Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue to the Royal Theatre. Twenty-five cents bought a movie ticket, and De Shields would use the remaining 10 cents for a box of Milk Duds. (Among the many treasures in De Shield’s sanctum? A box of Milk Duds.)
There he saw Cabin in the Sky. A small poster from the film now hangs in De Shields’ dressing room at the Kerr. Just as De Shields was a lighthouse for Cooper, the stars of the 1943 movie musical — Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson — were lighthouses for a little boy who would grow up to pay a “karmic debt” passed down from his parents and their unfulfilled dreams.
De Shields got up, and in the few feet of available walking space in his dressing room, began to recreate the dances from the film.
“The moonwalk is part of a larger genre of jazz dance called the camel walk. Yeah! Camel walk! Do you know about the stroll?”
I shook my head. The septuagenarian eased his body across the floor, verve radiating from his limbs.
“Let’s go strolling, stroll on down the street of … they call it the stroll, but it’s a version of the camel walk.”
Back to Baltimore and Cabin and in the Sky.
“So, John Sublett does this magnificent routine with Ethel Waters,” De Shields said. “He’s resplendent in white from head to toe. Three-piece suit with a cane, spats, and at the end of the dance, he goes up a flight of stairs. And in my young mind, it was like an annunciation. He was consumed in a cloud. And that small voice that lives in the gut of each of us and gets ignored most of the time, because there’s so much distraction going on, but tells only the truth. It will not shout. We have to be able to calm the distraction in order to hear it. But at that moment, in that dark cathedral of the movie house, that voice said to me, ‘Andre, that’s what you’re going to do.’ ”
And he did. De Shields, besides his roles, will likely be remembered for his stately way with words, a result of years of reading Toni Morrison (“the queen”), James Baldwin (“the king”) and the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (“Equal to Toni Morrison and James Baldwin in terms of his literary genius”). Whether or not he ever wins a Grammy or an Oscar, De Shields’ Tony acceptance speech will live on as one of the best in Broadway history. He thought about what he would have said if Holder, his first director, was still alive to see him accept his award, 50 years after his first professional role in the 1969 Chicago production of Hair.
“Geoffrey referred to himself as Mother,” De Shields explained. “Come to Mother, listen to Mother, and I would have said to him, ‘Mother, thank you for leaving those breadcrumbs for me to follow.’ ”