André De Shields’s career has seen him dazzle in Broadway hits like The Wiz, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and The Full Monty, but it all began in the 1969 Chicago production of Hair at the Shubert Theatre. He’s set to return to the space—now the Bank of America Theatre—in Gotta Dance. “For me, this is a little bit of destiny playing itself out in my life,” De Shields says.
He portrays Ron, a widower who becomes the only man on the senior dance team after auditioning on a dare. The two-time Tony Award nominee says the team experience “turns Ron’s head and his life around and reminds him, as it does with all of the characters in the show, that if you don’t go after life, it is not gonna come after you.”
The actor says he started his career by just “going after life”: On a whim, he drove to Chicago during his senior year as an English major at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to audition for Hair. Three years later, he went to New York with the cast of the Organic Theater Company’s Warp!. he stayed in New York to pursue a Broadway career but regularly returns to Chicago for work. “I could not have guessed, having left Chicago in 1972, that I would have this 45-year love affair with the city,” De Shields says. “My lifetime friends are in Chicago. The people who mentored me are in Chicago.”
De Shields vividly remembers the moment he knew he would become a performer—“my epiphany,” he calls it. He would spend entire Saturdays at the movies as a youngster in Baltimore, watching Flash Gordon or musicals with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. “Even as a child, I thought, ‘None of these people really look like me, but I’m having a good time.’” Then one day the feature was Cabin in the Sky, a Vincente Minnelli picture with an all-black cast. De Shields remembers that while he watched performer John Bubbles execute an elaborate dance number “that voice that lives inside all of us said to me, ‘André, that’s what you’re going to do.’”