“Shuffle Along is jazzy, tuneful, full of pep,” says one of the rave reviews from 1921 printed on the curtain during intermission at the Music Box Theater, where George C. Wolfe has mounted a revival of the all-black musical that deserves far more exuberant praise than “full of pep”: It is cataclysmically entertaining.
That, however, refers to the musical numbers. The full title of the show is the (tellingly) awkward Shuffle Along Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, and there’s enough of the “making of” and what “followed” that the Tony Awards rules committee just rejected the show’s request to be classified as a revival, instead deeming it a new musical. (It thus must compete in the same category as Hamilton, the other stunning history lesson this season.)
Wolfe is one of the most accomplished and ambitious theater artists in America – Shuffle Along is the 18th show on Broadway alone that he has written, directed, or produced, or all three, as in the case of Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk, which showcased the talents of tap dancer Savion Glover. Glover’s thrilling choreography in Shuffle Along is enough alone to make the show worth seeing. But Wolfe has also assembled a dazzling cast, including the incomparable Audra McDonald as Lottie Gee, “the first black ingénue.” McDonald doesn’t just act with her usual miraculous grace and emotion, nor sing with her usual heavenly voice completely reoriented (as usual) to fit the part, but also tap dances effortlessly in a whole catalogue worth of styles.
Wolfe’s ambition is to tell the story behind the 1921 musical, which was created when composer Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon) and lyricist Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry), collaborated with book writers F.E. Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter.) The result was a game-changing musical that produced such enduring hits as “I’m Just Wild About Harry” (which decades later became the theme song of Harry Truman’s presidential campaign.)
Wolfe knows something about works that change the conversation in America: he directed Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. His passion to place Shuffle Along in that pantheon, however, quickly starts feeling as if he were a PhD student defending his thesis about the significance of this “sadly neglected” musical. In his effort to make the case that Shuffle Along was a landmark musical that broke barriers and had a lasting influence, he seems far too eager to share all of his research.
So we are not just taken step by step through obstacles overcome, rehearsals, out-of-town tryouts, negotiations in New York, until the opening night and the intermission curtain full of contemporary raves. After intermission, we’re also told (rather than shown) what happened to the individuals involved in the show, most of whom never had as big a success. (The one exception was Eubie Blake, who lived until the age of 96, long enough to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a pileup of honorary doctorates, and to see a hit Broadway show about him and his music, Eubie!) The cast and creators struggled with racial discrimination and cultural appropriation – the musical claims that George Gershwin stole “I Got Rhythm” from William Grant Still, whom he heard play the first notes of the melody in the Shuffle Along orchestra.
To Wolfe, the story of Shuffle Along is clearly in large measure the story of race in America. Yet, there is a perfunctory feel to much of what we’re told, in part because there are so many characters Wolfe wants to tell us about that we never learn much (nor learn enough to care) about any single one of them.
Wolfe’s libretto completely replaces the original book of the musical, which focused on a mayoral race in the fictional Jimtown. The plot is only briefly referred to on stage; there are no scenes or even snippets of dialogue from the original musical, only the songs. This omission makes sense when you read the description of the musical in “Black Broadway,” a history of African Americans in New York theater, which calls the plot of Shuffle Along “thin” comedy, and explains: “The characters were modeled after old minstrel-show stereotypes. They did not present the enlightened ‘New Negro.’”
It is worth noting that Wolfe has also omitted one of the original Sissle and Blake songs, entitled “Uncle Tom and Old Black Joe” – and the characters who sung them, Uncle Tom and Old Black Joe.
It’s intriguing to compare Shuffle Along Or … to another immensely entertaining show, After Midnight. In my review of that Ellington revue on Broadway three seasons back, which recreated the Cotton Club during the Harlem Renaissance, I regretted the lack of historical context, and the absence of the undercurrent of frustration and oppression that was widespread among African-American performers in the era. Wolfe’s musical provides that undercurrent and historical context – clumsily, excessively, but in many ways admirably.
Luckily, George C. Wolfe the savvy showman often wins out over George C. Wolfe the passionate pedant, and there are moments of Shuffle Along that are as electrifying and sublime as any this season on Broadway. Hamilton has a couple of rap battles; Shuffle Along has a couple of tap battles. The Color Purple has Cynthia Erivo singing “I’m Here.” Shuffle Along has Audra McDonald singing “Memories of You.” Waitress has Keala Settle belting out the soulful “I Didn’t Plan It.” Shuffle Along has Billy Porter’s astonishing “Low Down Blues,” a song that proves that the stardom that finally came to him from Kinky Boots was not just some lucky break.
Even Brooks Ashmanskas, who portrays all the variously nasty or begrudging white characters, is giving the performance of his life, including some terrific dancing.
The sets by Santo Loquasto, the glorious costumes by Ann Roth, the orchestrations by Daryl Waters, the lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer all show off theater artists at the top of their game. With so much talent on offer, is it really asking so much to sit through a few history lectures?
Shuffle Along Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed is on stage at the Music Box Theater (239 West 45th Street, New York, N.Y. 10036, between 7th and 8th Avenue) through October 9, 2016.
Tickets and details
Shuffle Along Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed . Book by George C. Wolfe; Original book by F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles; Music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake; Directed by George C. Wolfe; Choreographed by Savion Glover.Scenic design by Santo Loquasto, costume design by Ann Roth, sound design by Scott Lehrer, lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, orchestration by Daryl Waters, musical direction by Shelton Becton. Featuring Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry, Brooks Ashmanskas, Felicia Boswell, Amber Iman, Adrienne Warren, Phillip Attmore, Darius de Haas, C.K. Edwards, Afra Hines, Curtis Holland, Adrienne Howard, Kendrick Jones, Lisa LaTouche, Alicia Lundgren, J.C. Montgomery, Erin N. Moore, Janelle Neal, Brittany Parks, Arbender Robinson, Karissa Royster, Britton Smith, Zurin Villanueva, Christian Dante White, J.L. Williams, Pamela Yasutake and Richard Riaz Yoder. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.