Andre De Shields is a natural born performer and a triple threat with acting, singing, and dancing. He is also accomplished in directing, writing and teaching.
After college he choreographed Bette Midler's concert and starred in The Wiz on Broadway. He continued on The Great White Way with Ain't Misbehavin' and The Full Monty.
He performed in the Goodman Theatre's production of Camino Real, where he only simulated sex but was murdered onstage. He follows that with a return to that venue as King Louie in The Jungle Book. Windy City Times went backstage at the iconic theater's gala dinner to chat a bit with the entertainer. [Note: De Shields is in a same-sex relationship and introduced his partner to WCT.]
Windy City Times: Hey, Andre. How long have you been in the biz?
Andre De Shields: Forty-five years. I started here in Chicago. You need to know that fact.
WCT: Are you from Chicago?
Andre De Shields: No, but when I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, my first gig was in Chicago the very month I graduate. That was the Chicago production of Hair at the Shubert Theatre, now called the Bank of America Theatre.
I worked here for four years then I went to New York and they assumed I was Chicago talent, which I was in terms of how I honed my talent but I wasn't born and bred in Chicago. I get welcomed back here like a favorite son and I am happy about that.
WCT: How was it working with Bette Midler?
Andre De Shields: My relationship with Bette Midler is important because I was the first person to choreograph her Harlettes. This was in 1971. when it was Merle Miller, Gail Kantor and Melissa Manchesterthree white women.
WCT: You have done so many shows in the past, like Ain't Misbehavin' and The Wiz. What part did you play in that?
Andre De Shields: Want to guess?
WCT: I could see you playing a few different parts.
Andre De Shields: I was The Wiz.
WCT: What did you think of the movie?
Andre De Shields: There are easier ways of losing 33 million dollars!
WCT: How did you become involved with The Jungle Book?
Andre De Shields: Mary Zimmerman was casting and came to New York. She asked to interview me. We had a sit down conversation and we spoke for a half hour. We bonded rather quickly and then I got the call.
WCT: How do you make the role your own?
Andre De Shields: Didn't you just witness what I did tonight? [Laughs] That is how I make it my own.
WCT: It would just be easy to emulate the Disney cartoon.
Andre De Shields: I saw the Disney Jungle Book many years ago in my formative years. Because it is in the canon of American fairy tales ,I am left with some impression of it. When I knew I would be doing this role I went back to 2004 when briefly I performed in a play on Broadway called Prymate. Google it and you will understand my next statement. I wanted to finish the work that I started in Prymate. That is what I am doing with King Louie in The Jungle Book.
WCT: Were you always a ham? I saw some hamming up at this preview.
Andre De Shields: I suppose that is a fair way of describing me, but I would never describe myself as a ham. What I would say is I am happiest when I am onstage in a follow spot singing my ass off.
WCT: I like how you interacted with the crowd. Do you do that in the stage version?
Andre De Shields: This is a concert, so especially in these gala performanceswith the audience so far away from us and [with them] eating and drinkingyou really want them to understand this is participation. This isn't television. This isn't passive entertainment. You have to be involved in order to see what it is you came to get!
WCT: How was the last show you did at the Goodman Camino Real?
Andre De Shields: It was a very significant experience not only because it opened a window onto Tennessee Williams that I believe he had been cheated of these many years that he has been playwright laureate of the United States of America. What I understood about his canon, and iconic characters they are all alter egos of Tennessee Williams. I am positive about this now that I have been in Camino Real.
The other reason that it was significant for me is that theater is the place to take risks. That doesn't happen very often or as often as I think it should but in that production it was risk repeatedly taken. It made people uncomfortable but you have got to understand that is part of the reason of coming to the theater, to be challenged and be taken out of your comfort zone. The covenant that we make with the audience is that we will challenge you but we won't harm you so take the trip with us.
WCT: You have a few projects coming up, including one with Victory Gardens Theater.
Andre De Shields: They are happening simultaneously. I have a residency and Victory Gardens is my host theater. So when I am not at the Goodman I will be there.
WCT: How you do you do it all?
Andre De Shields: I don't get much sleep!
The new musical based on the Disney film and stories by Rudyard Kipling runs now through Aug. 4 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
For tickets and information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org .