The 2015-16 Broadway season couldn’t have found a more fitting end than “Shuffle Along.” Following a year of work that seemed a celebration of contemporary Broadway diversity, here came “Shuffle Along” to cap it all off with a look back at the roots of that diversity, unearthing a little-known 1921 musical and tracing its significant but often overlooked influence as the first successful all-black production on Broadway.
But even after a 2015-16 season that’s included everything from “Hamilton” to “Eclipsed” to “Allegiance” to “The Color Purple,” “Shuffle Along” — nominated for 10 Tony Awards including best musical — also sounds a cautionary note, warning today’s Broadway not to forget the current moment’s inclusiveness the way the achievements of “Shuffle Along” were forgotten.
Conceived and directed by Tony winner George C. Wolfe (“Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk,” “Angels in America”), “Shuffle Along, Or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 And All That Followed” tells the backstage backstory of 1921’s “Shuffle Along,” a musical created by an entirely African-American team that included songwriters Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle and book writers by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles. The first act culminates in the creative team’s work becoming the toast of Manhattan’s artistic set, while the second act chronicles the quartet’s sad dissolution.
“Shuffle Along” was, among other landmarks, the first Broadway show to put such a prominent spotlight on syncopated jazz. “It represented a confluence in interest in African-American culture that had begun in 1919,” said theater historian and New York University professor Laurence Maslon. “It led a charge of all these shows that followed, until about 1930, including ‘Hot Chocolates,’ the Fats Waller musical that introduced the song ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’. ‘Shuffle Along’ was definitely a cultural marker that the Harlem Renaissance, and the people behind it, were here to stay.”
Why, then, did it fall into obscurity? Maslon theorized that it was due to several factors: the creative team never had a follow-up show; none of the songs became linked with a popular performer of the era (like Paul Robeson) who might have helped the title live on; and it wasn’t optioned in Hollywood.
Part of the project of the new “Shuffle Along,” then, was to raise the musical back into Broadway’s consciousness again. That end goal, Wolfe said, definitely fueled a passion in the rehearsal room, which contained a team of all-stars including choreographer Savion Glover and actors Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter.
“But that’s a reason to write a paper, that’s not a reason to do a full production of a musical,” Wolfe said. “You do a musical because there’s some intimate truth inside the material you have to confront. For me, I was very intrigued by how brave these people were, how fearless they were. They didn’t let the smallness of the world they were living in at the time limit them. I found that really empowering.”
The show Wolfe came up with incorporates Blake and Sissle songs, plus some snippets of the original text, into a larger history compiled by Wolfe after a “rigorous, exhausting, overwhelming” period of detective work, piecing together scraps of history he found in places including the Flournoy Miller archives at Emory and the Baltimore Afro-American Archives.
At the new production’s center is a 1921 show full of outmoded elements — as exemplified by the use of blackface, or by a song called “Pickaninny Shoes.” “It’s a very odd piece of material, but most material from the 1920s is really odd,” Wolfe said. “It has melodrama, it has vaudeville, it has minstrel, it has operetta. They were figuring something out. They were figuring out this new form of musical theater.”
That was the show that became a hit in 1920s New York — and was soon forgotten, as detailed in the second act of the new “Shuffle Along.” “You’d have to be made of stone not to see the second half as a pertinent story about cultural appropriation and what people choose to forget,” Maslon noted.
While Wolfe tips his hat to the modern-day producers backing the 2015-16 season’s diversity, he also acknowledges that season slates are largely the product of the arbitrary Jenga of theater scheduling. “There’s always more work to do,” he said. “So let’s throw ourselves a party on Sunday night, but then get back to work on Monday.”