Look out, Broadway fans; three-time Tony nominee Joshua Henry is getting in touch with his inner meanie. “I do love a villain,” Henry says with glee. “I love playing villains because it’s so the opposite of me. I’m generally a pleasant, happy-going guy.”
The villain in question is the egotistical, misogynist jerk Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which is receiving a new TV special on ABC December 15, and streaming on Disney+ the day after. Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Celebration will feature scenes from the 1989 Academy Award-nominated animated film combined with staged, live-action performances featuring an all-star cast, led by R&B superstar H.E.R. as Belle and Josh Groban as the Beast.
According to Henry, this television event has something for everyone, from new behind-the-scenes features celebrating the artistry and craft of the beloved original film to live performances offering fresh, new interpretations of the classic Alan Menken-Howard Ashman score. Henry will join the company to lead one of the all-time great Disney villain songs, “Gaston,” a rollicking paen to toxic masculinity (among the traits celebrated in Ashman's lyrics are that "every last inch of [him]'s covered with hair"). “What really gets me going is these performers bringing their flavor of artistry to these iconic roles,” says Henry. “I’m excited for folks to hear [the songs performed] in a different way.”
And those differences go beyond what audiences will be hearing. While the animated world of the 1989 film is all white, that won’t be the case when the live-action cast is on screen. Carrying on a mantle started by Beauty and the Beast Broadway alums Toni Braxton and Meshach Taylor, the cast of this upcoming special is predominantly made up of BIPOC actors. For Henry, that makes the experience more than just a gig.
“As a Black actor playing this, I’m really grateful because I know that there are a lot of little Joshuas out there, a lot of chocolate Joshuas out there, who are thinking about their place in theatre and in TV and in film and music,” he says. “That’s what fuels me.” Among those “little Joshuas” is Henry’s four-year-old son, Samson. “I told him, ‘Daddy’s gonna be this superhero.' Gaston is this hunter. He’s fierce. He’s well-respected in the community. Yes, he’s got some other things, but he’s charming.”
As for those “other things” Henry hints at, Henry has no qualms about playing a villain as a Black man. It’s not his first time tackling such characters—Henry starred as the equally problematic Billy Bigelow in Broadway’s 2018 revival of Carousel, and got a Tony nomination for his work.
For Henry, it’s an opportunity to bring “nuance to a character that people see as just toxic and self-absorbed.” After all, Gaston may be villainous but he’s also fun to watch. “I’m focused on the fact that I’ve been very blessed to play different characters, that a lot of Black men have not been able to play,” he says. “What that means to me is a door is being opened, a new light is being shown. And there’s more access for people like me, for Black actors, for people who are non-white.”
Henry is aware that critics might not like seeing a Black man being the bad guy, but he’s not worried (something he has in common with the ultra-confident Gaston): “You can’t live your life for the haters. You have to live your life for what’s possible and what growth can come from what you’re doing.” My what a guy, Joshua!