A Broadway Star’s UW Roots

Here’s how we uncovered the story of André De Shields’s fabled stint on campus.

De Shield sunbathing with two friends in 1970

Chicago 1970, during De Shields’s run in Hair. UW friend Hilary Richardson ’71 (left) helped buy André (right) the bus ticket to the audition. Courtesy of Hilary Richardson

André De Shields ’70 cultivated his theatrical talent at UW–Madison en route to becoming one of the greatest Broadway actors of our time. But no one has written the definitive story of his campus years until now. And what a story it is, marked by setbacks, breakthroughs, and an appearance in the legendary “nude Peter Pan.”

Author Jenny Price ’96 used her formidable sleuthing skills to track down De Shields’s campus friends, who loyally supported him during a challenging era for African American actors. She also dug up rare photos and materials, including a touching IOU from 1969. De Shields gave this scrap of paper to one of the fellow students who bought him a Madison-to-Chicago bus ticket for a crucial audition for Hair. He got the part, launched his career, and never forgot his friends’ kindness. The scribbled IOU is reproduced in the story.

“The friendships André formed in Madison were incredibly powerful,” says Price, a former coeditor of On Wisconsin. “That part of his campus experience is one that I think a lot of UW alumni will identify with. The people we meet here often end up playing such an important role in our stories.”

Price also scored an interview with De Shields himself. Even while performing eight shows a week in the hit Broadway musical Hadestown, he made time to reminisce about his productive — and sometimes painful — experience at UW–Madison. Hard to believe, but the man who won a 2019 Tony Award lost out on a part in a student production of The Trojan Women.

Luckily for all of us, he bounced back. After reading Price’s story, you’ll understand how — 50 years ago on a Madison stage — a star was born.

Published in the Winter 2019 issue

Tags: Alumni, Arts, Campus history

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