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  • Shuffling Roles:Alterations and Audiences in Shuffle Along
  • David S. Thompson (bio)

On May 23, 1921, a new musical opened in New York at Cort's 63rd Street Music Hall near the intersection with Broadway. While Shuffle Along was not the first show to feature an entirely African American cast, it has been hailed as the first to extend such a company to include the creators of the book and score while boasting an impressive roster of additional innovations. Perhaps most significantly from the perspective of the confluence of art and society, the score featured a non-burlesqued love song between an African American couple, a rarity for any venue at the time and the first such moment in a musical performed in a Broadway theatre.

Despite featuring a plot so paper thin as to be nearly transparent, the winding machinations of Shuffle Along proved overwhelmingly popular with audiences. The unlikely central premise concerns a pair of ne'er-do-well business partners who hatch a convoluted scheme to rig a mayoral election by running against one another in the hopes that the winner will appoint the loser to a position of prominence, thereby ensuring a favorable concentration of power in the city of Jimtown. Subplots feature a collection of crooks and cops, spouses and lovers in various comedic bits and musical interludes. The structure proved sturdy enough to support an additional assortment of vocal ensembles, musicians and dancers forming a lively and eclectic chorus. The resulting "musical mélange," as its creators termed it, proved popular enough to run for over five hundred performances in its initial Broadway run.1

The development and performance history of Shuffle Along contains many noteworthy features. The show paired two renowned vaudeville teams: musician-songwriters Nobel Sissle and Eubie Blake and comedians [End Page 97] Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. Typifying the swings of fortunes of the production, the collaborators found it necessary to chip in $1.25 each in order to afford the cost of treating a potential investor to lunch. Prior to bringing the show into New York, the two duos had amassed a debt of $1,800. However, brisk ticket sales and low operating costs quickly transformed the modest investment into receipts topping $1.4 million.2 The score created a sensation in sheet music sales for many of its songs, but particularly for the signature tune "I'm Just Wild About Harry," a song that worked its way into nearly folk-song status through subsequent applications as varied as the Harry Truman presidential campaign and Warner Bros. cartoons. In addition to opening doors for Sissle and Blake as well as Miller and Lyles, it introduced several of its performers, including Florence Mills and Josephine Baker, to wider acclaim.

In the years that followed, but particularly during the remainder of the 1920s, Shuffle Along exerted tremendous influence, as one might readily understand the desire of producers to duplicate its financial formula. As a result, the production set styles of music, particularly for musical theatre songs, combining elements of ragtime, blues, and jazz. The ensuing decade also witnessed a vogue for African American shows, even if such productions simply used the style as a theme or starting point. The development of dance, especially tap, for Broadway performance also accelerated after the success of 1921.

Although one may measure success according to many standards, for theatre artists such standards must include the ability to reach an audience. Just as conversation may involve adjustments between message and feedback, reaching an audience may involve shifts in approach. The development of Shuffle Along represents three distinct relationships with the audience. The first phase offered a means of counteracting and subverting expectations of the time. The second phase attempted to change audience dynamics while shifting audience perceptions. The third reflected a moment of cultural exchange and expansion of influence.3

Vaudeville: Counteracting and Subverting

Even before the duo of Sissle and Blake met the team of Miller and Lyles, each pair had established an approach to their presentation and a relationship with the audience that served to counteract or subvert expectations. Rather than entirely embrace the lingering vestiges of minstrelsy or the images of Plantation life...


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pp. 97-108
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