On May 23, 1921, “Shuffle Along” opened in New York and made history. It was the first show to have an all-black cast, playwright, composer and lyricist present an honest-to-goodness musical—not a minstrel show or a vaudeville performance, but a show with a plot and, even more shockingly, a romantic couple in the lead, in the style of the operettas of the day. During its debut, the show was not booked into one of the standard Broadway theaters around the Times Square area, but in the 63rd Street Music Hall, almost 20 blocks north of the theater district. The biggest concern during its opening was whether the audience would approve of the sight of two African-Americans actually kissing on stage. Fortunately, it did, and the show went on to play more than 500 performances, which even today usually qualifies a Broadway production as a hit.
The composer Eubie Blake, a son of former slaves, and the lyricist Noble Sissle wrote songs together and eventually appeared in vaudeville as the Dixie Duo. They were encouraged to present African-American artistry to the American stage, and collaborated on this first black musical. The star of the show, Lottie Gee, considered to be the first black ingénue featured in a Broadway musical, was a singer and chorus girl dancer for several years. The cast eventually included stars like Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, Hall Johnson and Paul Robeson.
This season, this breakthrough musical has been re-visited in a production entitled “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.” It features some of the most successful African-American theater artists of our time, including the record-breaking, six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, the acclaimed award-winning leading man, Brian Stokes Mitchell, the two-time Tony-winning director and author George C. Wolfe and, as the choreographer, the tap-dancing genius and Tony winner, Savion Glover.
As its title promises, the show tells the story of the struggle to get “Shuffle Along” produced and the personal conflicts among the show’s creators. While the plot deals with many of the creative and personal conflicts of the company, the main story follows the affair between Eubie Blake, who is married, and Lottie Gee, the rambunctious star of the show. Late in the play, Lottie passes up the chance to tour Europe because she cannot tear herself away for Eubie for that long of a time. It results in a major decline in her career. At the play’s conclusion, the audience is told of the subsequent careers of the various performers, especially that of Noble Sissle, who went on to become a bandleader and a civic official and guided Lena Horne in her early years, and Eubie Blake, who was rediscovered in the 1970s, appearing often in concerts and on television, and died at the age of 100.
One of the many joys of this show is the chance to see Audra McDonald give a very funny performance at last. Of the six Tony Awards she has received, only one of the roles gave her a chance to show her comic talents as Carrie Pipperidge in “Carousel” about 25 years ago, and even that was a slight component of her personality. As Lottie Gee, she shows how a “red-hot Momma” behaves, with hilarious reactions and observations. In one particular scene she reenacts a moment in the rehearsals for “Shuffle Along,” when she sings “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” What was composed as a waltz in Lottie’s hands turns into the version that we are familiar with—an enthusiastic shout about the man who “fills me with ecstasy” and is “sweet as sugar candy.” And she can bump-and-grind with the best of them.
The show is greatly enhanced by the set design of three-time Tony-winner Santo Loquasto and the lighting design of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, who pull out all the stops in the lavish scenery and razzle-dazzle lights. The production team is composed of some of the most respected people in the business, including Daryl Roth, who alone has garnered eight Tony Awards and produced seven Pulitzer Prize-winning plays.
The one less successful element in the show is, surprisingly, the choreography. Savion Glover has amazed audiences as perhaps the greatest tap dancer of our time. The play seems to overdo the amount of tap by the large dance ensemble. A few other styles of dancing would add some variety and relief.
Finally, some more theater history is being made. Almost every appearance of Audra MacDonald on Broadway in the last 25 years has been honored with a Tony Award or at least a nomination. This year she was not even nominated. And in a season in which the very original and brilliant musical “Hamilton” dominated the field, “ Shuffle Along” tried to be considered as a revival. But the label could not stick because the book was not a re-creation of the 1921 show but an account of the show’s creation and struggle to make it to a New York theater, with some scenes and songs from the original.
“Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed” is a reminder of only one of the many difficult situations that African-Americans endured a century ago. But it is also a statement on the amazing progress African-Americans have made in Broadway. That is something we can all celebrate, maybe even indulging in a tap dance or two.