- Shuffle and Repeat: A Review of George C. Wolfe’s Shuffle Along
Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. Music Box Theatre, New York, April 28, 2016–July 24, 2016. Directed by George C. Wolfe.
The first act of Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 ends on a note of joyful expectation (fig. 1). By that time, the show’s creators and performers have paid their dues, laboring in an out-of-the-way studio uptown, securing funding through shifty white producers, and shuffling across the East Coast in an attempt to hammer out the kinks in their production and make enough money to stay afloat. They have finally begun to taste success. Their steady progress and inevitable triumph leave ample room for some of the most intricate and impressive tap routines to grace the Broadway stage in years, to say nothing of the magnificent vocal work of Audra McDonald and her colleagues. But that joyful promise is not met in act 2, perhaps foreshad-owing the fate of the historically significant musical itself.
The original production of Shuffle Along premiered in New York in late spring 1921 nearly twenty blocks north of Broadway, at Cort’s Sixty-Third Street Music Hall in what was then known as San Juan Hill. Relegated to a makeshift theater in an out-of-the-way neighborhood, news of the production slowly trickled into mainstream public consciousness. Since then, Shuffle Along has often been described as the first African American musical. It is not. That honor belongs to Bob Cole and Billy Johnson’s A Trip to Coontown (1898), “the first musical written, directed and performed by black artists.”1 But Shuffle Along shifted the landscape of American musical theater forever. Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy Miller wrote the book and Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle wrote the score. In doing so, the four veteran performers created a Broadway sensation that troubled the racial boundaries of mainstream American theater while launching the career of several notable black performers. Appearing in Shuffle Along became a rite of passage for several African American performing arts legends. Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, and Adelaide Hall [End Page 177] were all Shuffle Along cast members at one point or another. Tremendously popular at first, Shuffle Along was revived several times after its premiere, but eventually disappeared from the stage and public consciousness. And yet, traces of the musical remained. One of the show’s biggest hits, “I’m Just Wild about Harry,” wound its way so deeply into popular culture that decades later, when Harry S. Truman used it as his campaign song in 1948, Truman could (in)credibly deny that he knew where the song came from. The black love song was simply part of the ethos, like many of the permanent changes in popular culture Shuffle Along had wrought.
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The 2016 revival of Shuffle Along made its eagerly awaited debut this spring in the heart of Broadway. The legendary playwright George C. Wolfe’s Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed was an act of metadrama that became a catalyst for another conversation about racial diversity on Broadway (fig. 2). The grand-scale musical was preceded by an aggressive marketing campaign. The twelve-million-dollar production boasted the creative participation of Broadway legends like Savion Glover, McDonald, [End Page 178] Billy Glover, and Brian Stokes Mitchell. The reimagined Shuffle Along was the brainchild of Wolfe, and it would become his eighteenth Broadway show. The revival was met with warm enthusiasm from audiences and many critics. Yet The Making Of closed after only one hundred performances, while it was still taking...