Born and raised in a musical family on the South Side of Chicago, award-winning actor, singer, and recording artist Darius de Haas has far surpassed Andy Warhol’s proverbial “fifteen minutes of fame” with a flourishing career in theater, television, and concert stages around the world – and no end in sight! His Broadway credits include Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Carousel, Rent, The Gershwin’s Fascinating Rhythm, Marie Christine, Shuffle Along, and the anniversary concerts of Dreamgirls and Hair (both for the Actors Fund). Among his notable off-Broadway and regional performances are his Obie-winning lead role in Running Man with the Music Theater Group, the US-premiere production of Children of Eden at NJ’s Papermill Playhouse, and As You Like It at the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte. And on television, the star of stage and screen has been seen in Dietland and In The Life, and provided the singing voice of Shy Baldwin on the hit series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
As a critically acclaimed concert and recording artist, de Haas’s solo appearances include The Lincoln Center’s American Songbook, Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and The New York Festival of Song at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, and he’s appeared with such renowned orchestras as the National Symphony, Cincinnati Pops, and The Boston Pops. He has also performed and/or toured with popular artists like Marvin Hamlisch, Oleta Adams, Roberta Flack, Elvis Costello, Deborah Harry, and Vanessa Williams. Numbering among his top musical releases are his debut album Day Dream: Variations on Strayhorn, Quiet Please (a duo with pianist Steven Blier), and many original cast and soundtrack recordings. In addition, he is a founding member of Black Theatre United, which serves to educate, empower, and inspire through excellence and activism in the pursuit of justice and equality for all Black artists.
Currently, de Haas is in rehearsals for his starring role in the world-premiere jazz musical Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For, opening this month at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Co-written by Rob Zellers and Kent Gash (who also directs), with a nine-piece jazz band led by Matthew Whitaker and Tony, Emmy, and Grammy Award winner Billy Porter on the producing team, the show features the music and lyrics of the legendary composer, lyricist, and arranger, who grew up in Pittsburgh, graduated from high school in 1933, then moved to NYC, where he settled in Harlem, joined the Duke Ellington orchestra, and went on to create such classics as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Something to Live For,” “Day Dream,” and “Lush Life.” Facing the challenges of living as an openly gay Black man in mid-20th-century America, Strayhorn, who died of cancer at the age of 51 in 1967, was also deeply committed to social and charitable causes, a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement, and a personal friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Darius graciously took the time during his busy rehearsal schedule in Pittsburgh (where, like Strayhorn, Andy Warhol and Billy Porter were born and raised) to take our Pop quiz about the show, his career, and his own personal taste, so fans can get to know him a little better.
- What is it about the music of Billy Strayhorn?
Darius: It’s some of the best music ever written!
- What three qualities do you most admire about him personally?
His openness, his genius, and his bravery.
- Do you have one favorite Strayhorn song that you always look forward to performing?
That’s a very tough question. Interestingly, it’s a song that’s not in the show, called “Pretty Girl.”
- What do you love most about being live on stage?
The immediate interplay between yourself and the other actors and the energy exchange between you and the audience. This show allows me to do both.
- What’s the most memorable reaction you’ve ever gotten from an audience member?
A number of years ago I did a retelling of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Alliance Theatre, called Jesus Christ Superstar GOSPEL, rearranged as a gospel work. I played Jesus and had a song called “Gethsemane,” in which he sings, “All right, I’ll die.” Because of the way it was arranged, the audience and I started singing the line back and forth, many times – and it was even nicer because my mother was in the audience.
- Who, or what, has been the biggest inspiration in your career?
There are so many people – the list would be too long! – but it begins with my family. I come from a musical family, including my uncle Andy Bey and my mother Geraldine de Hass, and it was my great privilege of seeing them on stage and listening to the recordings we had of their songs.
- What’s your first creative memory?
The first thing that pops into my mind is at six or seven I was a huge fan of Sesame Street and I used to sing the song “Sing” from it all the time. My father Eddie de Haas was a jazz bassist and the quintessential sideman, and when I would go to his shows, the band would warm up with a jazz version of it and I would sing along.
- Are you more like Angel from Rent, Duke Senior from As You Like It, or Billy Strayhorn in real life?
I think the uniting factor of those three very different characters is that they all had a great generosity of spirit and heart, as conduits showing how much good there is in the world, so it was a privilege to step into those characters, to learn the great lessons of how to be generous and how to open up my humanity more.
- What three words would you use to describe yourself?
At the moment, very vulnerable, very humbled, and for the third word, I can’t decide between excited and grateful [That’s fine, Darius, you can have four!].
- What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
I actually enjoy relaxing by listening to all different kinds of music, so it’s really still related to the work that I love. And I love great food, and being in the company of great friends, my husband, my family, and my dogs.
- Do you have a “must-do” while you’re in Pittsburgh?
I’ve been so sequestered for this very demanding show, but I love museums and am looking forward to visiting the Warhol Museum, the August Wilson House, and anywhere dedicated to the great jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, who was also raised in Pittsburgh. My mother was given the Mary Lou Williams Award at The Kennedy Center in DC, so I need to have Billy Porter take me around to see all the sights!
- What do you miss most about NYC when you’re away?
Oh, I miss being able to access food anytime I want! I live in NJ now; it’s beautiful, but it’s a very different pace. I love being in New York to work and I love the energy. I also love the great bookstores, where I can sit, read, and have a coffee.
- What three things do you always take with you when you’re on the road?
I gotta have my music, so I always take my little portable speaker with me. If I have time and can get into a nice groove, I also like to take a book or my Kindle, so I can get into the world of the story. And good walking shoes because I love to walk and to explore.
- What’s the biggest reward of being famous?
I don’t think I’m famous [Yes you are!] and this is going to sound corny, but when people find out that I’m the voice of Shy Baldwin on Mrs. Maisel, I love their enthusiasm. It was such a widespread phenomenon, and I took delight in being on the set and seeing people at the top of their game, so it’s great to see how much people appreciated that show. I wish the same for this show; Billy Strayhorn’s songs are beloved by people around the world and he contributed so much to the culture of the world at large. He poured his heart and soul into his music and, being a gay Black man, made the conscious choice of being himself, so it’s extremely exciting and rewarding to bring him this recognition. As Brian Stokes Mitchell told me, “We are the bringers of joy!”
- Are there plans in the works to bring Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For to NYC?
Oh, my goodness, I’m not the one to ask, but if it’s meant to be, I think there’s a lot of hope and anticipation for that. I think the time is right for telling the story of Black people in a major venue on Broadway, and I think he absolutely deserves it. We’re launching it in Pittsburgh and we’ll see where it lands!
Many, many thanks, Darius, for sharing a fabulous fifteen minutes with us; it was such a pleasure to talk to you! All best wishes for a blockbuster debut of the show in Pittsburgh.
Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For plays September 19-October 11, 2023, at Pittsburgh Public Theater, performing at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA. For tickets (priced at $35-93, plus fees), call (412) 316-1600, or go online.