When Shuler Hensley comes down the stairs of the administrative offices of Manhattan’s City Center, it’s hard not to notice this tall, affable man with a Southerner’s outreached hand. For those who’ve followed the Tony Award-winning Marietta native over the years, it’s virtually impossible not to notice, too, all he has accomplished in the last 12 months.
From starring in an Atlanta-based production for the first time (the Alliance Theatre’s world premiere of “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” last spring) to a string of shows in New York, Hensley has had a hectic but rewarding year. Since he moved back to Marietta in 2012, he has been much in demand back in the Big Apple. “Wanna work somewhere? Leave!” he laughs. “Leave and then they want you constantly! You can never work there when you live there.”
His latest musical, “Fiorello!,” opens tonight at the City Center as part of its “Encores” series. Part of the company’s 20th-anniversary season, the musical — about Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York from 1934 to 1945 — has a five-day run, closing February 3. Hensley plays Republican District Leader Ben Marino. “It’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, and the music is fun,” the actor says. “It deals with politics, corruption, what we seem to go through every year. It’s very topical.” The City Center also staged the musical as part of its inaugural season.
Hensley’s biggest role — in more ways than one — came in last fall’s “The Whale” at New York’s Playwrights Horizons, in which he played a 600-pound man. He did a reading of the new play in May, and the company decided to include it as part of its new season.
It was a role where Hensley had to wear a 65-pound fat suit every night. “That suit informed you of how a person would walk and move around,” he says. “Emotionally, it was written so nicely. It has an arc that leads to the emotional highlights naturally. There really wasn’t anything you had to think or worry about, just be available.”
Ironically, while playing an obese man, Hensley was able to lose 20 pounds during the show’s run.
After he accepted the part, he was pleasantly surprised to learn that director Davis McCallum is a graduate of Hensley’s own alma mater, the Westminster Schools. “I knew there was a reason I liked him,” Hensley says. “He was an Atlanta boy.”
The role in “The Whale” was important to remind people of Hensley’s range. The reviews were uniformly positive. The New York Times said that Hensley portrayed the lead character with “dignity and grace.”
“It was one of my biggest opportunities,” he says. “People want to put labels on you, especially in the arts. I have always considered myself an actor who can sing or dance enough. I studied opera, so I was thought of as an opera singer. I went into musical theater, so I was the opera singer who could do musical theater. Then I did films. It’s sort of full circle. I wanted to do a play that had nothing to do with singing. It kind of re-introduced me as an actor. That was a perk.”
The ambitious “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” penned by the unlikely tandem of Stephen King and John Mellencamp, received mixed reviews, but the experience was rewarding for Hensley. There was talk of trying to move the musical to Broadway, but so far those plans have stalled.
“Stephen King and Mellencamp, they had never written a musical,” he says. “They are from two different worlds. It is sort of an experiment. It is ongoing, I think. It is a learning process for them. It needs to find its own place, because it may be great as an artistic endeavor, but it can take time as a commercial thing.”
“Ghost Brothers” was only the second time Hensley had performed in Atlanta, the first being in the role of the Monster in the national tour of the Mel Brooks musical “Young Frankenstein.”
At an early age Hensley was a member of the Atlanta Boy Choir, and after graduating from Westminster he attended the University of Georgia. He was there on a baseball scholarship but also performed in the concert choir and glee club. After a year he moved to New York for the Manhattan School of Music, and he followed that by attending the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. From there he dabbled in roles here and there but eventually left New York for Germany, where he found himself in the lead role in “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1996. After that run, he found out about auditions for Trevor Nunn’s upcoming “Oklahoma!” in London and nabbed the role of Jud Fry, playing it there for 10 months.
While many performers get their first crack at Broadway as part of the ensemble, Hensley made his debut there with a bang, as Javert in “Les Miserables” in 2000. “That was a great show to do, especially being my first,” he recalls. “Oklahoma!” was originally scheduled to come to Broadway immediately after the London engagement but there was a delay, allowing Hensley time to do “Les Miz.”
When “Oklahoma!” finally arrived in New York, it won Hensley a 2002 Tony Award and accelerated his career. “It’s a constant evolving, no matter what stage your career is in,” he says. “Some shows create a quicker evolution in your career. After ‘Oklahoma!,’ that was a period where you could use publicity and the buzz. It helped me establish myself in New York. I had lived there before, but I was getting work regionally and outside the country. But ‘Oklahoma!’ helped me get work there.”
Marietta is considered his base now and he likes to come home at least once a month. He was recently appointed artist in residence at Kennesaw State University and will teach workshops there. He says he likes keeping local roots and is a big advocate of what the area has become. “All the regional theaters are so strong now, and the film industry is on fire. That’s what I tell some of these kids I work with now who want to move to Los Angeles and New York. You need to realize that Atlanta is one of those places that is untapped, a possibility for actors.”
Hensley will next appear as Jigger Craigin in the New York Philharmonic’s upcoming concert staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” Performances will run from February 27 to March 2. The staging will be broadcast on “Live from Lincoln Center” April 26 on PBS.
His pet project, the Shuler Hensley Awards, which acknowledge outstanding work in high school musical theater around Georgia, is now in its fifth year. This year’s awards ceremony will take place April 18 at the Cobb Energy Centre. “It’s an amazing experience for high school students and for me, seeing people experience theater,” he says. “Kids are coming out of the woodwork who are triple threats. This is a week they can come out and put on a performance and network and meet people. It’s a guilty pleasure for me. It’s about the pureness of why we got into this business in the first place.”