André De Shields Plays 'Not My Job' On 'Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!' De Shields is an actor, singer, choreographer, writer, musician, lyricist, a professor and an icon of style. He'll appear as King Lear at the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival this summer.

Not My Job: We Quiz Broadway Star André De Shields On Canals

Not My Job: We Quiz Broadway Star André De Shields On Canals

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Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
André De Shields attends The 73rd Annual Tony Awards Meet The Nominees Press Day on May 01, 2019 in New York City.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

André De Shields is an actor, singer, choreographer, writer, musician, lyricist, a professor and an icon of style. He recently played Hermes in Hadestown on Broadway, and he'll appear as King Lear at the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival this summer.

We've invited De Shields — a Broadway star — to answer three questions about narrow ways, that is, canals.

Click the audio link above to find out how he does.

PETER SAGAL, HOST:

And now the game where we ask very classy people to go back and repeat a grade. It's called Not My Job. Andre De Shields may not be the most famous actor in the world, but he is, without question, the coolest. He is an actor, a singer, choreographer, writer, musician, lyricist, a professor and an absolute icon of style. He recently played the god Hermes in "Hadestown" on Broadway. He'll be playing King Lear at the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival this summer. Andre De Shields, what a pleasure to have you on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE SOUND EFFECT)

ANDRE DE SHIELDS: Thank you very much. I feel at home already.

SAGAL: I saw you once referred - it was about "Hadestown." It was around the time you won the Tony. And the statement was, it's just true that Andre De Shields is the coolest man in New York. Do you accept that title?

DE SHIELDS: Yeah, I'll take that.

SAGAL: Yeah.

DE SHIELDS: Coolest man in New York, but I've been working on it for 75 years now. Even when I was a poor, ragged, colored boy in Baltimore, Md., I had style, I had cool, I had self-possession. And I had a dream that one day I was going to be in New York on Broadway. The neon lights are bright.

SAGAL: There you are. Did they - did your peers, did your parents, your family encourage you in this, or did they say, yeah, right, Andre, you're going to be on Broadway?

DE SHIELDS: Yeah, they said, yeah, right, Andre, why don't you get serious and look for a job? And - well, you know, when you hear things like that, you have to keep your dream close to your vest because you don't want it to get sullied.

SAGAL: Yeah, yeah. One of the - for those who haven't seen "Hadestown" on Broadway, and I hope...

DE SHIELDS: Who's that? Who hasn't seen it?

ADAM BURKE: (Laughter).

SAGAL: Is - one of - I mean, the show begins with you just walking onstage. If I remember correctly, nothing has happened yet.

DE SHIELDS: Well...

SAGAL: No? Am I wrong?

DE SHIELDS: If I may - no, no, no, you're not wrong. But I just want to give you a small adjustment.

SAGAL: Please.

DE SHIELDS: When the stage manager says, warning, go, it's the entire company except Hermes that explodes onto the stage. And then Hermes enters from stage left and threads the needle all the way stage right. That's what mesmerizes the audience.

SAGAL: Right. I'm not surprised to hear that I forgot that anyone else existed as soon as you walked onstage.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Because I cannot - I wish I could describe the manner in which you carry yourself as Hermes the god, or maybe just as Andre De Shields. Do you practice that? When you go out in the street, do you know that you are Andre De Shields, dammit, and you are going to walk?

DE SHIELDS: Don't have to practice it any longer. Now, when I do interviews and people ask, who has influenced you, who are your idols, I reveal something that usually freezes the interviewer's face. My true idol is Yul Brynner.

MO ROCCA: Ooh.

BILL KURTIS: (Laughter).

SAGAL: Consider my face frozen. Yul Brynner.

DE SHIELDS: (Laughter) Now, in every movie that Yul Brynner does, the director - it doesn't matter who the director is - pulls back the camera and pans Yul Brynner as he walks. And he swaggers. And as a young boy, when I saw "The Ten Commandments," I said, I have to cop that. So...

SAGAL: Wow.

DE SHIELDS: I mean, was my own business at the time until I got my first review in a New York newspaper, and the reviewers wrote, Mr. De Shields, why walk when you can strut? And I said, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

DE SHIELDS: But, you know, as they say, he had hit the nail on the head.

SAGAL: Now, when you made it big - and I don't know when you would put that, maybe when you created the role of The Wiz...

DE SHIELDS: I don't know if I've made it big yet.

SAGAL: Did you ever go back to Baltimore in one of your beautiful tailored suits and strut around?

DE SHIELDS: Absolutely. In 2019, after 50 years of sowing my seed, I finally was able to reap my harvest when I received the Tony Award for best featured actor in a musical. You get 90 seconds to deliver your acceptance speech. So I thought, let me drop a little wisdom bomb on the 9 million people watching. And the first thing I said was, Baltimore, are you in the house?

SAGAL: (Laughter).

DE SHIELDS: Because I am making good on the oath I swore to you when I left in 1964 that someday I would do something to make you sufficiently proud that you would claim me as your native son. And that was that night.

SAGAL: And did Baltimore respond? Do they have an Andre De Shields Day, for example?

DE SHIELDS: The then-mayor invited me back to Baltimore and gave me the key to the city.

SAGAL: There you go.

DE SHIELDS: Yeah, yeah.

ROCCA: Now, can I just say, Andre, when I fell under your spell in 1988, I was an usher over the summer at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. "Ain't Misbehavin'" was - came through - a revival of the show. So I got to watch you 40 times. And I looked at you, and I thought, I want to be your understudy in this show. Will they ever take a look at me for that?

DE SHIELDS: Well, that time is coming. I would love to see you play "The Viper" in "Ain't Misbehavin'."

(LAUGHTER)

ROCCA: I just don't know that I could actually sing the role. It would just be too - I don't know. It would be too challenging.

DE SHIELDS: But, Mo, you'll remember my tour de force moment in "Ain't Misbehavin'" is...

ROCCA: (Singing) I can't give you anything but love, baby. It's the one thing I got plenty of, baby. Talk about dreaming awhile, scheming awhile (ph).

DE SHIELDS: Next.

(LAUGHTER)

DE SHIELDS: That ain't reefer song - "Viper's Drag." Now that's the tour de force.

ROCCA: Wait. Start it. Start it.

DE SHIELDS: (Singing) I dreamed about a reefer, five feet long, a might immense, but not too strong.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: No offense, Mo, but I'm really glad I got to see Andre De Shields do that role.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Well, Andre De Shields, what a joy to talk to you. But we have asked you here today to play a game that we're calling...

KURTIS: The great narrow way.

SAGAL: You're a star of Broadway, so why not ask you three questions about narrow ways, specifically canals? Answer two out of three questions correctly, and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners, the voice of their choice on their voicemail. Bill, who is lucky enough to have Andre De Shields playing for them right now?

KURTIS: Phil Kennedy of Portland, Ore.

SAGAL: All right. Here's your first question. You probably noticed that the Suez Canal was blocked for about a week by a ship that got stuck there last month. Well, that is not the only time that happened. On another occasion, the Suez Canal was blocked by what - A, a sign a prankster put up right at the entrance saying, do not enter - shark-infested waters; B, a whole fleet of ships that were stranded in the middle of the canal for eight years; or C, a very, very fat whale?

DE SHIELDS: It's B.

SAGAL: Yes, it is B.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: It is.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE SOUND EFFECT)

SAGAL: A whole fleet of ships got stranded in the canal when it was closed during the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, and they stayed there for eight years.

Next question - the Suez Canal was supposed to feature something that ended up being used elsewhere. What was it? Was it, A, the Statue of Liberty; B, the Mall of America; or C, the Rockettes?

DE SHIELDS: The Statue of Liberty.

SAGAL: That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: The sculpture of the Statue of Liberty. Monsieur Bartholdi first conceived the big lady statue to be put at the entrance of the Suez Canal, and the Egyptians said, yeah, no. So he just kind of redesigned it and said, America, how would you like it? And now we have it. So there you go.

All right, last question - the most famous canals are probably those in Venice. It was while filming on the canals in Venice that Katharine Hepburn changed her life forever. What happened - A, she decided that she had to have canals of her own and spent 30 years digging them around her house in Connecticut; B, she insisted in all her contracts going forward that she would only travel to and from set by gondola; or C, she jumped into the canal, which was so filthy it caused an eye infection that lasted for the rest of her life?

DE SHIELDS: I think it's the eye infection.

SAGAL: You're right, Andre.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: That's what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE SOUND EFFECT)

SAGAL: She insisted on doing her own stunts, so she jumped into the canal three times - three takes - got some sort of conjunctivitis, and it just pestered her for the rest of her life. So remember, everybody, don't do your own stunts.

DE SHIELDS: Or do your own stunts, but don't do it in a canal.

SAGAL: Right. Do your own stunts unless the stunt involves jumping into the canals of Venice.

DE SHIELDS: Right, right, right.

BURKE: That's wonderfully specific advice.

SAGAL: Yeah, exactly. Bill, how did Andre De Shields (laughter) do on our quiz?

KURTIS: He got three out of three. And, Andre, that means you're the biggest winner we've ever had here.

DE SHIELDS: Yay. How did I do...

NEGIN FARSAD: Yay.

SAGAL: Andre De Shields is a Tony Award-winning actor, writer, choreographer. In June, if you are lucky and make plans, you can see him as King Lear at the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival and then, God willing, back on Broadway. More at stlshakes.org. Andre De Shields, thank you so much. What an absolute joy to talk to you.

DE SHIELDS: It's been my pleasure. Thank you very much.

ROCCA: Bravo.

KURTIS: Thank you, Andre.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDRE DE SHIELDS AND HADESTOWN ORIGINAL BROADWAY COMPANY SONG, "ROAD TO HELL")

HADESTOWN ORIGINAL BROADWAY COMPANY: (As characters, vocalizing).

DE SHIELDS: (As Hermes, vocalizing).

HADESTOWN ORIGINAL BROADWAY COMPANY: (As characters, vocalizing).

SAGAL: In just a minute, Bill gets chummy with the gang at Jurassic Park in the Listener Limerick Challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR.

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