Broadway legend André De Shields sat on stage at Meyerhoff Hall wearing a gray quilted sweatsuit, white combat boots and a red scarf. His eyes focused on the sheets of music before him.
De Shields was about a mile away from Division Street in West Baltimore’s Upton neighborhood where he grew up. But he was a universe removed.
Behind him, members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra prepared to play the musical accompaniment to his life story. Backstage, the student choir from Baltimore City College, where De Shields graduated in 1964, rehearsed the songs that would place his journey alongside theirs.
A slight smile crept across De Shields’ face as the orchestra played the exuberant opening piece, a tribute to Eubie Blake.
This weekend, the 75-year-old performer is back in his hometown, bringing to life a concert that revisits his youth in Baltimore and the obstacles he overcame on his path to stardom. It pays tribute to Black entertainers who paved the way for De Shields, including Blake, a fellow Baltimorean and the composer of “Shuffle Along.”
“The story you are about to hear is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” De Shields said during a rehearsal Wednesday at the Meyerhoff.
From Baltimore to New York, De Shields has asserted his place in white-dominated spaces — using his diehard work ethic and talent to win critical acclaim in one of the world’s most competitive industries.
In the 1960s, he took two buses from his home in an all-Black neighborhood to attend City College, then predominantly white. He went on to become a Broadway legend and one of its biggest stars, known for roles in musicals like “The Wiz,” “Hair,” “The Full Monty” and “Hadestown,” as well as off-Broadway productions.
“He’s a major figure in Broadway musical history,” said Adam Feldman, national theater and dance editor for Time Out New York. “He’s loved and revered here in the theater world.”
But success didn’t come easily on Broadway, where Black stars have historically had little space.
One of De Shields’ grandfathers was born into slavery and was the son of his enslaver. His parents had yearned to become entertainers but were shut down by their families.
“My maternal grandparents and my paternal grandparents said to their son and daughter, ‘We’re not going to allow you to shuffle your way through life. We barely shuffled our way off the plantation,’” De Shields said.
Their son inherited their talents — and aspirations. Starting Friday at the Meyerhoff, he’ll recount a childhood epiphany at Pennsylvania Avenue’s Royal Theater in the 1950s. While other filmgoers chomped on popcorn and Milk Duds, De Shields said: “Everything went silent around me.”
The movie was “Cabin in the Sky,” in which the Black actor John Bubbles tap dances while wearing a three-piece suit and bowler hat.
As the black-and-white images flickered across the screen, De Shields saw a vision of his future: “I wasn’t going to allow my dream to be deferred as my parents had done.”
The dream required dedication. As a teenager, De Shields enrolled at Baltimore City College. As he traveled north near the Johns Hopkins University, the scenery became greener, the people who got on the bus became whiter.
In retrospect, his daily journey into an uncomfortable world was transformative, teaching him the persistence and courage he would need later in life.
“I use that same effort now that I’m 75,” he said. “Nothing is too hard. It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible.”
In turn, he’s inspired generations of Black performers to come.
“Myself and so many others like me wouldn’t be here if we were not standing on his shoulders,” said Sean Mayes, an associate director of “Hadestown” and orchestrator and arranger of the Baltimore show.
Though his career on stage has spanned 50 years, recognition came later in life for De Shields. After several nominations, he was 73 when he received his first Tony Award, in 2019, for his role as the Greek god Hermes in “Hadestown.” His acceptance speech, which went viral, shouted out Charm City.
“Baltimore, Maryland, are you in the house?” De Shields said. “I am making good on my promise that I would come to New York and become someone you’d be proud to call your native son.”
Months later, then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young presented him with keys to the city. That event, said De Shields, helped plant the seeds for this weekend’s show.
“I thought, ‘This is such a huge honor. ... I must express my gratitude, because that’s the fuel of the universe: generosity and gratitude,” De Shields. “That’s what makes the world go round.”
He began working on a show to bring back to Baltimore, collaborating with Mayes, who said he’s continually inspired by De Shields’ work ethic and endurance. “The ongoing joke is, ‘How many hours can you possibly sleep if you’re doing as much as he does at his age?’”
In September, “Hadestown” became one of the first shows to return to Broadway after the pandemic. De Shields still performs six days a week — sometimes multiple shows a day. Afterward, he returns to the studio apartment in Hell’s Kitchen he’s called home for the past 25 years.
The space is lined with posters from previous productions, the books he’s devoured, the good luck charms people have given him. And of course: some amazing clothes. De Shields is known to be a fabulous dresser.
“Well, you know,” he said, “I have a reputation now, people expect things.”
Despite so many years in Manhattan, he often reminds people: “I’m born and bred in Baltimore. I’m Baltimore-made.”
This past week, De Shields returned to Baltimore City College, his alma mater, and met with students during rehearsals for the show. It was, said Mayes, who joined him at the school, a surreal experience.
“Seeing him in the halls at BCC and knowing that he was having the experience of returning to a sacred place that set him forth on his journey, it was kind of unreal,” Mayes said.
For many of the student singers at Baltimore City College, Wednesday’s rehearsal marked their first time seeing the inside of the Meyerhoff. To say they were anxious was an understatement.
Marcus D. Smith, the choir’s director, tried to calm the students’ buzzing nerves as they rehearsed with the orchestra, their voices only slightly muffled by their face masks.
“We put in the hard work. We are pressing forward. We’re standing tall,” Smith said.
Alexis Scott, an 18-year-old City College senior, first became familiar with De Shields after seeing him play the title role in “The Wiz,” a part he originated in the 1970s.
“Honestly, as young Black people, it’s really inspirational to see a Black man who’s been working so hard for so long in this industry,” she said.
Back on stage, De Shields sang in a voice so clear and strong it was hard to fathom it came from one person.
“Believe in yourself,” he sang, “Like I believe in you.”
If you go
“An Evening with André De Shields,” with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and City College Choir at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Charles Street. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $80. Proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test is required. Baltimore indoor masking rules apply.