All around him, Tony Award-winning actor Shuler Hensley sees repercussions of two years of Covid-19 — colleagues who have not been able to return to pre-pandemic work levels; theater productions that have closed early or ones never able to open. In his new gig, the current Broadway revival of Meredith Willson’s 1957 The Music Man, he’s one of only four performers who has not tested positive for coronavirus during the musical’s run, even with the company applying safety protocols.
Hensley doesn’t know how or even why he’s been so fortunate, but he’s not complaining. These days the Atlantan spends most of his non-performing time in New York keeping to himself, walking everywhere and avoiding large crowds, as well as wearing a mask and washing his hands. “It’s everything my mom used to tell me as a kid,” he says and laughs. “She was right!”
His longtime friend Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster headline The Music Man, with Hensley taking on the role of former con man Marcellus Washburn. Announced in spring 2019 and originally scheduled to start previews in September 2020, the musical instead began rehearsals in October 2021 after the industry shutdown. It officially opened in February at Winter Garden Theatre, and has been the highest-grossing production in New York since its first previews in late December.
Jackman and Hensley first worked together in the 1998 Royal National Theatre version of Oklahoma!, which later went to Broadway and won Hensley a Tony as Jud Fry. The two hit it off immediately and have remained close. Knowing that playing lead character Harold Hill has been a dream role of Jackman’s since he was a teenager, Hensley was eager to collaborate again when the opportunity arose.
“Just like live theater, certain actors in your career make things invaluable for you as an artist,” he says, “and Hugh is one of them.”
Hensley has also appeared with Jackman in the films Someone Like You and Van Helsing and had a cameo in The Greatest Showman.
Like everyone working in Covid-era theater today, though, the actor is taking it as it goes. The shows that are back are learning on the fly, he feels. “With The Music Man, I am so fortunate to be in as stable a show as you can get with that cast, but still it’s a weekly adventure. It’s unnerving in a lot of ways because we don’t know the answers to things. It’s not a secure business to begin with. Add a pandemic to that and it’s about as insecure as you can get.”
Receiving a positive Covid test presents obvious health challenges but, under current Broadway policies, it also means quarantining and missing 10 days, which Hensley would dread having to do.
One of his goals throughout his career has been to diversify — to go from a play to a musical, to TV or film, and then to teaching. Before rehearsals began for The Music Man, he snagged a TV gig.
That part was in Dexter: New Blood, the continuation of Dexter, in which he played Elric Kane, a backwoods gun for hire. The Showtime series shot in Massachusetts, and Hensley drove there from Atlanta several times. It was a 17-hour trip but he had audiobooks to help him pass the time. Ironically, a self-taped audition he filmed in the woods of Marietta convinced the director to hire him.
Although there has been some talk of a second season of the series, it’s unlikely that Hensley’s chopped-to-bits character will be in the mix, after a run-in with the titular serial killer. “I think it’s pretty safe to say (he) is another realm right now,” Hensley says with a laughs.
Born in Atlanta, the performer, 55, left the University of Georgia, where he had been attending on a baseball scholarship, to study voice at the Manhattan School of Music. Although he was active in New York stages before, it was Oklahoma! that really escalated his career. Among his other signature shows are Young Frankenstein on Broadway (playing the Monster), an off-Broadway run of The Whale and a revival of Sweet Charity with The Music Man’s Foster.
He moved back to Marietta in 2012 and a lot is brewing for him back home now. Hensley has been part of City Springs Theatre Company since its 2017 inception, first serving as the assistant artistic director. He stepped up to artistic director last year after founder-artistic director Brandt Blocker resigned.
The company is fresh off a bravura run of A Chorus Line, directed by original cast member Baayork Lee, and will open a version of The Color Purple on May 6.
“City Springs is not necessarily trying to re-invent the wheel in terms of doing new, inventive projects,” Hensley allows. “It’s more about finding those standards we all know, making these productions seem like ones people will feel like they’re seeing for the first time.”
He promises a lineup of musicals that “everyone knows” for the soon-to-be-announced 2022-23 season.
Truth be told, Hensley never envisioned himself as an artistic director. His mother Iris Hensley was the founder and artistic director of Georgia Ballet, and what interested him in getting involved was wanting to use his connections and experience.
“I never wanted to stop as an actor because that is my bread and butter,” he explains, “but it does allow me to have a unique perspective on the running of a theater, the producing, directing and creating of seasons.”
The pandemic has also redrawn how some things operate in his life. Two years ago he was not familiar with Zoom; now much of the planning in his professional life takes place online. “Being involved as the artistic director is easier (because of that),” he says.
Another project special to him is the Georgia High School Musical Theatre Awards, also known as the Shuler Awards, honoring excellence across the state. The 14th anniversary event will be presented Thursday at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and telecast live on GPB. Hensley is still trying to determine whether his hectic Broadway schedule will allow him to attend.
Around 45 schools are participating this year, and one of the changes is the introduction of a non-gendered award category. The supporting actress and supporting actor fields will now be in a category designated as supporting performer. The Shuler Awards are the first awards program of its kind in the country to implement this policy.
The program’s continued success is a testament to the students who live and breathe musical theater. “There isn’t a week where I don’t meet someone who was involved in the awards. Every year I come back, the talent level has somehow evolved and is even more spectacular. It’s similar to the Atlanta theater community.”
Having directed City Springs’ The Sound of Music last year, Hensley would love to helm another production soon and act in more. Right now, he and his fellow performers are contracted with The Music Man until January. After the busy Tony Awards season is over in June, his goal is to get back home at least every three weeks and be physically present as part of City Springs.
He’s still figuring out logistics, but as he’s done the last few years, he’ll figure out how to make it all work.
“We are evolving where we are forced to adapt,” Hensley says. “I am preparing myself to go in several different directions when necessary. I am trying to do what I tell the (Shuler Awards) kids to do — putting your hand in many pies and knowing you’ll have to to roll with the punches when it comes to something like the pandemic. It gives you a flexibility that you wouldn’t necessarily think about if you were just doing the Broadway job and knew that you had that for the next year or so.”