For most people, 74 years of age is a good time to start taking it easy and relax a little. For dancer, singer, actor, director, choreographer, and Tony Award-winning entertainment legend André De Shields, it’s just middle age.
From choreographing Bette Midler concerts and starring in The Wiz on Broadway in the ’70s to recently singing the “Algebra Song!” in Netflix’s off-the-wall children’s special John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, De Shields has done it all. The out performer hasn’t let his nearly three-quarters of a century on the planet slow him down one bit—or the fact he’s been living with HIV for the last three decades.
“That’s what you have to understand about HIV,” he told The Body in a recent interview. “You can’t be fatalistic about it.”
Still, De Shields is no stranger to the devastation of HIV. His life partnership with playwright and mentor Chico Kasinoir lasted 17 years before Kasinoir died of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1992. Another partner died in 1995. De Shields himself has been living with HIV for over 30 years now and is in great health. He’s just your average 74-year-old youngster doing eight Broadway shows a week, as well as consistently lending his legendary presence to numerous other projects.
De Shields titled his autobiographical stage show Confessions of a P.I.M.P. For him, the acronym P.I.M.P. stands for “positive individual making progress,” which pretty much sums up his approach to life. For De Shields, life is not as much about the destination as it is about appreciating and making the most of the ride, and he says he wasn’t about to let the ever-reaching tentacles of racism and racial stereotyping stand in his way. Whether it was in the early gay bar scene or dealing with deeply entrenched Broadway beliefs and practices, De Shields was going to shine as brightly as he could.
De Shields’s résumé is the stuff of legend. His Broadway debut came in 1973 in Warp!, which was followed by performances in such hits as The Wiz, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and Play On! He originated the role of Noah “Horse” T. Simmons in the musical adaptation of The Full Monty. His film and television credits include Law & Order, Another World, Sex and the City, and many more.
He is currently appearing as Hermes in Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown at the Walter Kerr Theatre, for which his performance earned him his first Tony Award last year for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical. The show won in eight categories overall. De Shields had previously been nominated for Tony Awards for his performances in Play On! and The Full Monty.
Younger audiences or those not familiar with his stage work might recognize him as the musical math tutor donning a sequined red suit and black eye patch who sings and dances his way through a song about how algebra caused the loss of his eye in the Netflix children’s comedy special John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch. The song is intentionally silly, and the long-awaited revelation about how his character lost his eye is perfectly in sync with the off-the-wall vibe of the show. And, of course, De Shields is absolutely fantastic in the number.
Today, De Shields sees no reason to slow down. Death may be inevitable for us all, he says, but he sees himself as barely getting started. His current goal is to break the “Methuselah Code” and live past the 969 years of the biblical character. Otherwise, he’s shooting for at least another 74 years.