Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” opens a weeklong run at the Fox Theatre on Feb. 2.
MONTH AFTER MONTH, year after year, the touring versions of Broadway musicals move in and out of the Fox Theatre. It seems reasonable, at any given performance, to imagine a few playgoers watching with a what-if in mind.
Samuel Shurtleff faced his own what-if at age 48. He was a middle-school teacher in greater Houston until three years ago, then quit and moved to New York to see if he had what it takes. He had no contacts, no job.
He rented a room and worked as a private tutor to make ends meet. He took an acting class. A colleague asked him to be his scene partner at an audition for an agent. They performed something from Sam Shepard’s True West. The agent signed them both.
Now Shurtleff plays Cogsworth, leader of the castle’s domestic staff (in the form of a grandfather clock) in this national tour of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. It’s his second tour as Cogsworth in the stage musical inspired by a movie, inspired by a mid-18th-century French fairy tale.
Shurtleff made his New York debut playing the foolish Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a show called Bard at the Bar, a mixed bag of Shakespearean scenes. Roles such as Cogsworth and Bottom suit him. “They’re both uptight,” Shurtleff says.“The comedy that comes from both of them is right in my wheelhouse.”A Seattle reviewer said Shurtleff has “a vintage Hollywood comic character actor panache about him.”
“I love this show and this character,” Shurtleff says of Beast. “ And what I really like is being part of a production that tries to show people that your dream is worth chasing.”
[GO HERE FOR A MONTAGE OF SCENES FROM “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST”]
He also appreciates the musical’s central theme, “the overall idea that what you see on the exterior, the first impression of someone, is not the genuine person. When we stop with the first impression and don’t even look to the heart of someone, we not only do that person a disservice, we do ourselves a disservice.”
What is the trickiest part of playing Cogsworth?
“It’s not the easiest costume to move around in,” he says with a laugh. “I have these very large pants that are squared off at the bottom. The top half is so heavy it’s like I’m wearing five quilts. I’m a little klutzy to start with, so it’s challenging not to step on the bottom edge of the pants when they’re bouncing.”
In the scene preceding the big “Be Our Guest” number, he must quickly run up and down stairs. “So far I haven’t fallen,” he says. “When I get through that bit, I always breathe a sigh of relief.”
This tour of Beast takes Shurtleff back to Houston, where friends and family will see him. There are some people there “who thought I had lost my mind and told me I would fail miserably if I went to New York. They said I would return with my tail between my legs.”
They’ll see him with a swinging pendulum but definitely no tail.
Shurtleff says he hasn’t done this alone. He describes his fiancee, Terri Gresham, as his “muse and cheerleader for the past six years.” The two, who became engaged recently, plan to marry in April when the tour visits Vegas.
“To quit my job and go to New York — I just wouldn’t have done it without her complete support and faith in me,” Shurtleff says. “She said, ‘You are going to make it, and you are going to be great.’ I needed that, needed to hear how much she believed in me.
“I absolutely wouldn’t be up there without Terri,” Shurtleff says. “That is 100 percent true, and I want her to know that. It’s kind of amazing. It makes my heart overflow.”
[FIND SHURTLEFF ON TWITTER AND INSTAGRAM: @sambeaux64]