New York

It’s 5:30pm on the first day of Fall here in Times Square. The calendar says it should be cooler, but the only chill in the air is generated whenever a street-level door opens and conditioned air rushes out to mix with the balmy evening air.   

Outside the newly-renovated Henry Miller’s Theatre, the cast and crew of Bye Bye Birdie have answered their dinner bell by pouring out the Stage Door and scattering to the four winds, yet still close enough to return in time for their 7:30pm call.

Among their number is Tim Shew, who’s playing the mayor of Sweet Apple, Ohio, in the first Broadway revival of this iconic 1960 musical. Birdie — in previews for the past several weeks ahead of its scheduled Oct. 15 premiere — tells the story of rock-and-roll idol  Conrad Birdie, who gets drafted, records a farewell song and gives a publicity stunt “one last kiss” to a member of his fan club before heading off to the Army.

The first Broadway musical to weave rock-and-roll into the theatrical mix, the original Birdie production was a smash, winning four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

During this particular dinner break, the Presbyterian News Service joined Shew as he dined al fresco on a home-made salad in one of New York’s vest-pocket parks. He’s happy to be a “working actor” and a Broadway veteran during his more than 20 years in New York.

“I’ve been very, very fortunate, especially in the midst of the lack of work, the numbers of people who want to work, the numbers of folks competing;”

He’s been a part of more than two dozen shows, including lead or featured roles on Broadway in Disney’s King David, Wonderful Town, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Sunset Boulevard, the acclaimed 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls and as Santa in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

For nearly a year and a half in the late 80’s, Shew sang the lead role of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, an extra-special Broadway experience early in his career since he was promoted from understudy to lead. He’s reprised Valjean four times, most notably in 1998’s Tenth Anniversary company in Australia. 

Shew has also been part of the unfortunate flip-side of the business — the Broadway-bound flop — when the huge London hit, Whistle Down the Wind, became Whistle Down the Drain when it closed in Washington before ever getting to New York.

But Washington also holds a good memory: while performing at the Ford’s Theatre in The Civil War last Spring, Shew was invited to audition for Birdie’s musical team — composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams.

This first audition coincided with his son, Jonathan’s, graduation from Syracuse University, `so he spent a good part of that weekend in the car. Following the Saturday night performance, he drove through the night from DC to Syracuse, attended the ceremony, then headed to New York for his Monday audition, with a return drive to DC for that evening’s performance. A further audition some weeks later among a smaller group of hopefuls led to an offer to join the Birdie cast.

Aside from the opportunity to work, Birdie — scheduled for a limited run until mid-January 2010 — gives Shew the chance to live in his New York home for an extended period of time. Last year, he was on the road for nine months, including a month in Pennsylvania with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers opposite his wife, Jane Brockman (“A nice way to catch up, finally” says Shew), two months in Vermont reprising Valjean plus four months in D.C. with The Civil War.

Tim Shew chuckles when reminded that Mayor Garfein is the second mayor he’s portrayed on Broadway.

“That’s right — Inspector Javert finds Valjean while he’s the mayor of his town.”

In Birdie, Shew is a featured player rather than a front-and-center lead.

“There’s no heavy lifting for me in this show. I help support a song, Talk to Me, a barbershop-style number set in a bar where my character is among those commenting on John Stamos’ character (Albert) talking to his fiancée, Rosie (played by Gina Gershon).

“I also have a sweet little scene talking to the whole town and presenting Conrad Birdie with ‘the 14 karat solid gold key to the city’ cause the town is thrilled to have him,” Shew adds.

As an older actor among a cast largely comprised of young actors — many younger than his son — Birdie provides the opportunity to be a mentor of sorts.

“Passion” is the first force that comes to Shew’s mind when asked how to have good fortune as an actor.

“Whose passion is going to win out? Also: talent, longevity, experience, reliability — it’s a huge part of the equation! They know I’m going to show up.” He wryly adds, “They know where I live…”

As he’s matured in the business, he’s become a known quantity.

“If a producer or director wants this type of a [tenor] voice and spirit at least I’ll get an audition. I may not get the job but at least I’ll get a foot in the door, be seen,” he says.

The lively, youthful, exuberant Birdie cast reminds him of his childhood, some of it spent in Grand Forks, N.D.

His father, the Rev. John Shew, was a Presbyterian pastor there for a time, and the church and manse provided numerous possibilities for the imaginations of Tim, his brother, David, and his sisters Kathy and Sarah.

“We were always putting on shows.” His mom, Sue, and his dad were their biggest fans. The possibility of doing this for a living presented itself when he was a ninth-grader in Cedar Rapids, IA, performing in a High School production of Birdie.  

When they grew up, David joined his father, grandfather and an uncle in the Presbyterian ministry, while Tim headed off to seek his fortune as a New York actor. He began like all actors: gaining some initial acting work while bartending to help pay the bills.

He also met and married his first wife, Marcia. Their son Jonathan was born in 1987, but in 1992, Marcia was diagnosed HIV-positive, the virus apparently contracted during a blood transfusion following her son’s birth.

A lesser woman would have simply bemoaned her fate. Instead, Marcia became an advocate focusing on the care and nurture of what became known as “AIDS babies.” In conjunction with then-pastor the Rev. Bill Pindar and the session of New York’s Central Presbyterian Church, where Tim served as an elder, she established the Marcia Shew Fund for children infected or affected by HIV and AIDS.

Utilizing Tim’s Broadway connections, Marcia created the Broadway Sings on Park Avenue series of benefit concerts to raise monies for playgrounds and other comfort features within the city’s pediatric AIDS care centers. Presented in the Central Church sanctuary, Broadway Sings featured many Broadway stars — some reprising their Tony-award winning performances — and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In December, 1993, Marcia passed away. Tim and family members were by her side, as were  Pindar and his wife, the Rev. Sue Bouder, also a Presbyterian minister.

The Broadway Sings benefits continued for another decade in her memory and honor, including a memorable performance at the 1996 Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference.

Shew pauses and becomes reflective.

“They say when you sing you pray twice. There certainly was a lot of ‘twice-praying’ during those benefits. Today, every once in a while, someone will hear about the fund and hand me a check.  But, with the economy being the way it is, and with the progress in HIV and AIDS treatment, it’s not a ‘front-burner’ issue.”

But, to quote a song from Birdie, Tim Shew’s still “got a lot of livin’ to do.”  For one, keeping up with the schedules of his wife and son: she’s currently rehearsing a show that’s scheduled to tour Japan, he’s a singer and musician in his own right setting out on his own show biz career. For another, keeping up with the inevitable “tweaks” to Birdie that the preview period provides ...

Which prompts a look at his watch,  meaning it’s time to get back to the theatre and back on stage.

Jim Nedelka is a radio news reporter in New York and an elder at West-Park Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. He is a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.