In the Jungle: André De Shields

In the Jungle: André De Shields

Posted by: at 06/21/2013 03:13 PM

Throughout the run of The Jungle Book, we’ll be getting to know the cast through a series of interviews with the people that make up this crazy talented ensemble. Check back weekly for new posts, and if you haven’t already, buy your tickets to The Jungle Book now, before it’s sold out!


Andre De ShieldsWhat drew you to the role of King Louie in The Jungle Book?

Through my agent I learned that Mary Zimmerman had asked if I would come sing for her, and I took that as an opportunity to persuade Mary that I was the man for the gig. Four packets arrived that included audition sides for Bagheera the panther, Shere Khan the tiger, Kaa the snake and Louie, King of the swingers. Of those four characters I was most impressed with King Louie’s mature and savvy nature, his hip lingo and his gusto for life.  Louie is a jazz cat. And the song [“I Wanna Be Like You”] is so animated, driven and improvisational.  It resonates with the ebullience of my chosen profession. I want to have great, serious, unequivocal fun. And that's what the character King Louie offers me: tremendous fun.  


What has it been like to become King Louie during the rehearsal process?

Playing King Louie is a smorgasbord, a banquet, a buffet of the tastiest morsels of the art of performance. King Louie is described as King of the Monkeys, but Louie’s actually an orangutan. And of the great apes, the orangutan apparently is the animal most like the human being. So when King Louis sings, “I Wanna Be Like You,” it reveals itself as the richest of puns.  It is an appeal to the young Mowgli the man cub, the young boy who’s been raised by the wolf pack. King Louie negotiates this deal with Mowgli that Louie will make sure that Mowgli stays in the jungle, which is his fondest wish, if Mowgli will show him how to be more like a human being. What ensues is intended to be one face-paced, raucously exaggerated, flamboyant, over-the-top, I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing treat for the audience. I see the number as a paean to America’s classical music—jazz. In the Disney film the song is sung by Louie Prima, the prince of swing; however, I’m taking my lead from the king of swing, Louis Armstrong.  That’s a delicious trifecta, and I'm having a blast.


What is it like to work with Mary Zimmerman?

Working with Mary Zimmerman is an arduous task with deeply rewarding results—now that’s really the best of both worlds in the theater. I'm discovering that Mary is one of the most frugal directors I’ve ever worked with, but at the same time she is provident. And that's a potent combination because there’s no waste; the process is succinct, but also expansive and inclusive.


Now, imagine that you have to assemble a 500-piece puzzle of the sky. Everything’s blue. How do you know when the different pieces of the puzzle fit? This is what I mean by “arduous task.” And if you know the word arduous, you know that its root is “love.” It's hard, but it’s an act of tough love. It’s a process that demands your unwavering focus until it’s finished. And when that puzzle—those 500 pieces—is complete, you have this phenomenal canopy of blue. That’s the reward! So the invitation is for the audience to join us on this mysterious, arduous journey knowing that at its end something very rewarding and enjoyable is going to be your gift.  


Question: Were you a fan of the original Disney film?

I saw the film many years ago; my research has not included going back to the Disney film. What I do remember about the film, and that I hope I can carry into our production of The Jungle Book, is this idea that music does indeed calm the heart of the savage beast. The music that is the bed of King Louie’s song, “I Wanna Be Like You,” comes directly from America’s delta, Louisiana, the birthplace of jazz.  In terms of the hard road we’ve walked in the United States of America toward a more integrated culture, a more accepting society, a more tolerant relationship among the many races that make up this country, jazz has played a significant part because the music was so infectious, allowed the individual to invest himself in what became a force of integration in this country.  If you wanted to play the music, you had to put aside your biases, you had to forget your prejudices, you had to let go of your predispositions. If you wanted to play this music, then the cat sitting next to you might be black, or white, or Indian, or Italian or Arab.  It’s not the color of the player that matters; it’s the blush of the music.  

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