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Pore Jud Ain't Daid

Shuler Hensley continues to win awards and nominations for his role in Oklahoma! logo
Shuler Hensley in Oklahoma!
(Photo: Michael LePoer Trench/Joan Marcus)
Shuler Hensley seems to have an inside track on playing outsiders. An Olivier Award winner for his performance as Jud Fry in the London edition of Trevor Nunn and Susan Stroman's revival of Oklahoma!, Hensley made his Broadway debut as Javert in Les Misérables and starred as The Phantom of the Opera in Hamburg--singing the role in German, thank you very much. Currently recreating the part of Jud in the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic on Broadway, Hensley continues to collect kudos and honors: Thus far, he's won the Outer Critics Circle Award and is nominated for a Drama Desk and a Tony.

The auburn-haired, 6'3" Hensley greets me as the door of the Gershwin Theatre's backstage elevator opens on the third floor. Suspended in the wings, the surrey with the fringe on top provides Jud with a temptation to tamper, jokes the actor. In his dressing room, several pictures of his wife and daughter adorn Hensley's makeup table, but the dominant feature is a huge exercise machine. "It's very easy on the joints," he claims. "There are certain things I try to do every day: be with my family and stay fit."

Since it's been well publicized that he won the Olivier, some people assume that Hensley is British (as is Josefina Gabrielle, who's reprising her London role of Laurey in Oklahoma! on Broadway). But no. "I want to make it perfectly clear that I'm American, born and bred," says the actor. "My wife is British, so I can work in England. You can have a permanent work visa if your spouse is from the country."

Was it Trevor Nunn's idea, I ask, to have Jud come across more sympathetically in this production than he has in the past? "I don't think it was anyone's decision," replies Hensley. "It was an understanding that we had. Trevor is so great because he never tells you what to do. He allows the actor to discover things--lets him feel, 'I came up with that'--but the end result is always where Trevor wanted to go to begin with." Hensley feels that a sympathetic Jud "humanizes the show and makes it more believable. For whatever reason, he is the way he is, but he's a human being. There's a side to Jud that wants what everyone wants--to be loved. The song ["Lonely Room"] is the only moment when the audience gets to see a human side to him. If it's cut, as it often is, you only get a one-dimensional character."

Hensley created his own history for Jud--"not too detailed, but a background of where he's from, the type of work he does." In his portrayal, he also draws upon the frustration that he experienced when he was eight and panicked during the tryout for a talent show at school. "Looking at it now, it was just a silly talent show," he says. "But, at the time, it was the world laughing at me." He describes Jud as "someone who has been alone too long. Anyone who's isolated begins to think too much and live within his thoughts: The ability to recognize what reality is, as opposed to what he thinks it is, becomes blurred. He's paranoid. Jud truly believes that everyone else is better than he is. When you live that kind of life, it can cause a lot of problems." Playing the character, notes Hensley, "is my therapy. We all have a dark side, if you want to call it that. I take my time getting out of here [after each show]; I either walk home or take the bus. By the time I'm home, I'm fine. It works so much better when you don't live the show outside the theater!"

During Broadway previews, Oklahoma! ran nearly three-and-a-half hours with intermission, but it has since been whittled down to just under three. "They get us off the stage pretty quickly," says Hensley. "The overture has been trimmed. So has "It's a Scandal! It's a Outrage!" And a lot of the transitional music has been cut. They even changed the curtain call; originally, we sang the title song again."

Though he has given a great many performances as Jud, Hensley is still able to find new things in the character. "I'm so comfortable with him now that I can just allow myself to go onstage and get a different energy from each audience," he says. And he has noted a difference between London and Broadway in terms of theatergoers' responses: "It's a feeling you get. In London, there was a sense of 'This is something new' rather than a revival. Here, people come in with their own personal histories of Oklahoma!--whether they've seen the show before or have done it in high school--and it makes them reevaluate the whole thing because it's a different take." Hensley first played Jud about a decade ago at the North Shore Music Theatre, "just outside of Boston. It gave me a glimpse of the possibilities," he says. It's interesting to note that, a few years earlier, he played Curly in a production at Milwaukee's Skylight Opera Theatre. Of the two roles, he finds Jud more interesting.

Perks of the job: Hensley and girls
in the Oklahoma! dream ballet
(Photo: Michael LePoer Trench)
When the Cameron Mackintosh Oklahoma! was delayed in coming to Broadway, Hensley stepped into another Mackintosh show, playing Javert in Les Miz. "He's considered the villain but, of course, the essence of Javert and Jud is that they don't believe themselves to be villains," observes the actor. "They think they're right and everyone else is wrong. Javert is a more educated Jud Fry, but he also believes that you can't turn your back on anyone."

Born in Atlanta, Hensley grew up in Marietta, Georgia, the youngest of Sam and Iris Hensley's three children: "My brother, Sam Jr., is a writer and my sister, Nevanne, is an actress." His mother's maiden name was Shuler; the Hensley name, of Scottish origin, "means 'a tree full of birds.'" Sam Hensley is a retired civil engineer, a former state senator, and was a football player at Georgia Tech, while Iris is artistic director of the Georgia Ballet. At age four, Shuler made his stage debut as Fritz in The Nutcracker, directed by his mother. ("I learned early on that directors can be awfully difficult," he says with a laugh.) He attended the Westminster Schools and then went on to the University of Georgia on a baseball scholarship.

After spending two years as a pitcher, Hensley decided that he couldn't balance sports and the arts. Transferring to the Manhattan School of Music, he graduated in 1989 with a degree in vocal performance. In 1993, he earned a Masters from Philadelphia's Curtis School of Music. "The opera department there did three major operas a year," he says. "I never really wanted to be an opera singer but, because of my mother being a ballet director, the emphasis was on having a classical foundation. I've always considered myself an actor who could sing."

In school and/or regionally, Hensley performed such roles as Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd, Pitkin in On the Town, Joey in The Most Happy Fella, and Miles Gloriosus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. At the Chautauqua Festival in upstate New York, he appeared in the operas La Bohème and Faust, then returned there "to focus on straight acting." He met his wife, Paula DeRosa, while she was a bartender at a Manhattan restaurant. They were married in 1995. She's now a yoga and fitness instructor. Their daughter, Skyler Elizabeth, turns two on July 17.

In 1996, Hensley starred in the Hamburg production of The Phantom of the Opera, directed by Harold Prince. "All things happen for a reason," he says. "At Curtis, we studied German, Italian, and French. And I had performed quite a few operas in German, so doing Phantom was fairly easy." While he and his wife were visiting her family outside of London, Hensley heard about the National Theatre's upcoming Oklahoma! and wrangled an audition. He has fond memories of working at the National, which he describes as "a community of actors, doing wonderful things. Everyone's paid the same; we're all on the same playing field. When I was there, down the hall were Judi Dench, Alan Rickman, Ian McKellen. You went to see their shows and they came to see yours. The experience was extraordinary."

Hensley and Vicki Simon, who played Ado Annie, were the only two Americans in the London cast of Oklahoma! Following its run at the National's Olivier Theatre, the production moved to the West End's Lyceum for a commercial engagement; in 1999, prior to the move, the cast filmed the musical for British TV. Hensley's other film work includes Sabrina ("You have to look quick!"), the TV-movie Monday Night Mayhem (as sportscaster Keith Jackson), and Someone Like You.

What would winning a Tony Award mean to Shuler Hensley? "Besides just being exciting," he says, "it's recognition for a job well done and it could be a stepping-stone towards other work." Two parts he'd love to play are "Iago in Verdi's Otello and the title role in Sweeney Todd"--perfect fits, it would seem, for an actor-singer who plays outsiders with such admirable skill and deep perception.

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