While growing up in Marietta, Ga., Shuler Hensley now on Broadway playing Jud Fry in "Oklahoma!" bounced between team sports and helping out in his mother's ballet classes.
"I went from baseball to ballet ... and it didn't seem odd," says Mr. Hensley, the son of Iris and Sam Hensley, a ballet teacher and a former All-America football player.
"Guys are very hard to find in the regional ballet world!" Hensley laughs, recalling his first foray into performing, as 4-year-old Fritz in his hometown production of "The Nutcracker."
The talented actor and singer now is playing one of theater's most famous bad guys, and was recently nominated for a Tony Award. The winners will be announced June 2.
"My first introduction to this musical was in high school, playing Curly," the romantic lead, the broad-shouldered actor recalls in his dressing room. "But I always had an interest in the character of Jud because I didn't think he was explored as much as the other characters, other than being 'the villain.' "
Following years of formal vocal training, he headed for New York, "going to school during the daytime and [taking] random acting classes at night."
He attended the Manhattan School of Music and graduated in 1989 with a degree in vocal performance. He earned his master's degree in 1993 from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. "I knew from a young age that I could sing," he says, "and it was impressed upon me that if I got a classically trained education in voice, it would serve as a foundation for whatever I chose to do."
His journey to playing Jud came by way of a detour. "My wife is British, and two years ago, when I was finishing up a job doing musicals in Germany, we decided to spend some time in London with her family on the way back to New York."
While there, Hensley heard that Tony Award-winning director Trevor Nunn, the artistic director of England's Royal National Theatre, was planning a revival of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II classic.
"I quickly got an agent, went in for an audition, and it felt right. Maybe it was destiny," he says.
Matched with Mr. Nunn and an otherwise all-British cast, Hensley discovered new dimensions to the role of hired hand Jud Fry, who brings a dark cloud over the sunny optimism of the landmark musical. His portrayal won him an Olivier Award, Britain's equivalent of a Tony.
As Curly's rival for Laurie's hand, Fry stumbles through a series of rough interactions with farmers and cowhands. "There's that brightness [in the show], and when Jud enters, he's imposing himself on that sense of good feelings. His first two entrances are very quick, as though he wants to leave.... It's wonderfully written that way."
Hensley says, "the whole history of our perception of Jud has to do with the power of film. Even though there are some 600-plus productions [of 'Oklahoma!'] in this country every year, people can't remember a theater version. They remember the film."
Rod Steiger played the part in the 1955 movie musical, and his moribund, confrontational approach, coupled with the decision to eliminate Fry's solo number "Lonely Room," part of the original 1942 score, has shaped people's perceptions.
"The whole concept of that character is based on an incomplete telling of who he is," Hensley explains. "I'm a big guy, with a fairly dark voice, so I don't need to push that side of it. I chose to look at ... when he confesses to Curly that he feels lonely, that what he really wants is for the woman he loves to hold him. When he finally plucks up the courage to act on that, he's rejected." Bringing the character's sensitive side out makes audiences feel sympathy for this famous villain. "His story is a tragedy someone who is uncomfortable in social situations, who was not brought up right."
Despite several leading roles in operas and musicals, Hensley is also playing a recurring character on the CBS TV series "Ed." "I'm really an actor first," he says. "I'd love to do more straight plays." But not now: He's booked in "Oklahoma!" for another year.