If you hear a strange sound walking down West 45th Street in Manhattan, you might be able to blame Joshua Henry. After all, that’s where—eight times a week!—the Tony-nominated actor is starring in Shuffle Along, which requires not only acting but some of the most vigorous tap-dancing that might have ever graced a Broadway stage. The show tells the story behind the real-life 1921 musical of the same name, which boasted a then-unheard of all-black creative team, and how it brought together and tore the people who created it. In the show, Henry plays composer Noble Sissle, opposite Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter and under the direction of George C. Wolf. (Tap impresario Savion Glover choreographed.) Here, the actor shares his experiences making the show.
Your show’s been open a few weeks now and it’s getting great reviews. How’s it treating you?
The show is great. We just got 10 Tony Award nominations, so it’s wonderful to be honored by the community that you’re so blessed to be a part of. Audiences have been really loving it, too. For me personally, it has been a huge learning experience as an actor; I have never done anything like it, and that’s exactly what I wanted in a role. Also, being able to work with the legendary George C. Wolf and Savion Glover has been an incredible experience. The only problem now is what do I do? I’m living in this moment, but I’m thinking about whatever’s next and that’s kind of intimidating. It’s hard to think about what happens after this. I won’t think about that right now. I’m just enjoying this moment.
Maybe the next project is one that isn’t so cardio heavy?
Maybe just a straight play where I’m sitting at a desk, playing an accountant.
What was it that initially drew you to this part?
Originally what attracted me to this whole thing was George C. Wolf. He’s just one of the top directors in my field. I didn’t know what the role was coming in—it wasn’t even written fully, George had this idea in his mind and we discovered it in the room as we went along. The real attraction was just the ability to just work this incredible team and these amazing actors.
How did the character develop?
His name is Noble Sissle, and he’s incredibly pulled-up, very debonair; his use of language is second to none. His vocabulary is in a different stratosphere. Every word is a fifty-cent word. He uses language as a weapon because as a African-American in the 1920s who is an artist and trying things that have never been done before, he had to speak a certain way and understood that was the way he was going to infiltrate this world that he so desperately wanted to be a part of. Though, that something’s that I haven’t had to deal with to the degree that he had to—getting where he had to be emotionally and just the way that he navigated the world is very different from the way I have to—that was the biggest challenge. I have a lot of admiration for him. And because he pushed himself in the way that he did, I’m able to have these opportunities here today because it’s actually a real character in history.
What do you think it is that makes this story approachable today?
One of the things George really investigates in Shuffle Along is the idea of leaving a legacy. That’s a question that these artists have to grapple with, and so seeing these people who are so incredibly complex and who have dreams and aspirations, that’s a question that I just think is universal.
It’s also a tap dancing tour de force. Did you all start out as good as you are now?
You would not have wanted to see the first rehearsal! It was a lot of embarrassment. Though, there were cameras on, so maybe eventually you’ll see what happened. Everyone came in there ready to give their all, and when people are ready to give their all and are not quite equipped with the tools to do so, embarrassing things happen. I personally had dance training four years of tap, jazz, ballet in a conservatory setting, so I guess I’m familiar with steps. But the way that Savion works in an organic way with his tap vocabulary, he might as well have been speaking Japanese those first couple of rehearsals. Much later I think we got it and we’re continuing to get it more and more.
You must have the most muscular legs in Manhattan at this point.
There’s a number at the end of the first act, “I’m Wild About Harry,” and I dance for maybe three-and-a-half minutes. Even now, my lungs still burn when that curtain goes down. I’m like, am I ever going to get used to this?
Is there anything else on the horizon for you?
I have a really exciting movie coming out January called The Lake. I’m one of the leads in that film, along with J.K. Simmons and Sullivan Stapleton. A big action film, a huge-budget action film where I get to play a navy seal who’s extremely good at math. It’s all about these five navy seals in this moral dilemma: should they do the mission what they’re there to accomplish or should they do another mission to possibly have a greater impact? I think it’s going to be a really good movie and I got to shoot for 5 months out in Croatia, Malta, and Berlin. I got a lot of weapons, military, scuba diving training with actual Navy SEALS. So basically I got to live my ten-year-old dreams. So I’m really excited for that to come out in January.