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.
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 in revenues of nearly one million dollars per week.2 The decision to close the musical was precipitated by the imminent departure of McDonald, its main star, even though the show boasted an ensemble of black Broadway legends. In McDonald’s absence, The Making Of had promised the Broadway debut of the black folk musician Rhiannon Giddens in the lead role as Lottie Gee and the return of Savion Glover to the Broadway stage. How could this abrupt closure happen in a season in which Broadway openly congratulated itself on its unique ability to present ethnic diversity?
In The Making Of ’s closing we are witness to some of the paradoxes behind the seeming ascendance of ethnic diversity on the popular stage. The controversy surrounding the decision to close The Making Of demonstrates the unsteady role that race and ethnicity continue to play in popular entertainment. In that context, embodied performances of blackness and nuanced depictions of African American history are still at odds with audience expectations. In [End Page 179] short, Broadway audiences like seeing American history set to music. They have a deep appreciation for black performers, too. But they have not found a way to reconcile their love of the two.
The show’s success appeared to rest on the body of McDonald (fig. 3). To say that McDonald has a devoted fan base is to make an understatement. Her fans are obsessive in their devotion. My first attempt to see The Making Of in March was thwarted when McDonald fell ill the night of the performance. The show’s cancellation led to chaos at the box office. That night, prospective audience members claimed that they had flown in to New York just to see her. They listed the productions in which they have seen McDonald perform in a CV-like fashion. On my second attempt, I waited in line in front of two young women who gossiped about the production and its woes. Their primary concern was that it would be too long. They said that many bloggers had criticized the show’s length. I felt personally affronted. How could they talk about such a crucial work of American theater in this way? But they were there for Audra. In hindsight, I think that perhaps the production failed because we have not come so far, because there is less distance between the desires of 1920s audiences and contemporary theatergoers than we would like to imagine. A night in a Broadway playhouse still signals a willingness to be entertained by a certain set of cultural tropes, to be entertained but not riled too much. Without the spectacular talent of McDonald, The Making Of ’s producers had a right to be skeptical about the extent to which Broadway’s interest in black history could support the show.
The Making Of can be understood as a direct response to the mania for staged American history that propelled shows like the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2010) and, of course, Hamilton (2015) into public consciousness. The hip-hop musical Hamilton is an undisputed cultural phenomenon. But the show has been criticized for promoting a white hegemonic view of American history under the socially acceptable cover of racialized bodies.3 While its main characters are white, Hamilton has made a point of featuring performers of color in those roles under the rubrics of color-blind casting. This controversial practice has been seen as a boon for actors of color. Yet it has also contributed to what some consider an overly sanitized view of American history repackaged for predominately white audiences.
In The Making Of, Wolfe displayed a deft awareness of some of these issues surrounding race on the popular American stage and frequently exposed the devices involved in pandering to white audiences in a way that felt pointed. The actor Brooks Ashmanskas filled all the white male roles, taking on the [End Page 180] job of playing multiple villains and naysayers, including Carl Van Vechten. The literal interchangeability of white male characters in The Making Of underscored the centrality of blackness to the production, as did sharp jokes about the whiteness of the audience. Thus, the production continually resisted a framework for easy audience enjoyment. In staging their awareness of the dynamics of the popular stage and the limitations of its tropes, black performers in The Making Of appeared not just as consumable products but as cultural agents. The Making Of formed a sort of rebuke to Hamilton simply by being a show about black history, by black creators that featured black performers. The production did not use diversity to make mainstream history more palatable or guilt free. Instead, it brought previous marginalized histories and bodies to the fore.
In the 1920s Shuffle Along appeared to transcend the ugly racial politics that characterized the era. The historian Allen Woll reminds us that even “James Weldon Johnson credited Shuffle Along with breaking the rigid barriers of segregation in New York City’s legitimate theatres that restricted blacks to the balcony” and that “Shuffle Along marked the beginning of the end of segregation in New York City’s legitimate theatres.”4 Today, Broadway audiences are still remarkably segregated, but by de facto, not de jure. The Broadway League [End Page 181] reports that 80 percent of Broadway patrons are white and their average age is forty-four.5 Among Broadway theatergoers over twenty-five years old, “78% had completed college and 39% had earned a graduate degree.”6 From these figures one can surmise that the number of African American popular theater patrons who frequent Broadway theaters is small. Broadway’s diversity is unevenly spread across the boards, too. A recent HowlRound report on the actual figures behind #TonysSoDiverse Twitter campaign revealed that Broadway plays are actually “older and whiter than we may have realized.7 Broadway plays whose casts are of people of color are few and far between. Broadway productions about the lives of people of color are also rare.
When I saw the production in April, the audience for The Making Of appeared heterogeneous, but not too much, perhaps by color, and certainly not by any great variations in class. The Making Of was invested in bringing the history of black musical theater to light in a performance space where black lives and black bodies continue to be the exception. To underline its historic mission, The Making Of ’s program contained an insert that provided even more historical context. In that insert, we are told that the original musical’s lead, Lottie Gee, is “considered the first black ingénue to be featured in a Broadway musical” (even though she was thirty-five when Shuffle Along made its mark). We are given a brief biography of Gee, her position in black theater history as a protégé of the grand diva Aida Overton Walker, and a gloss on her professional connections to other major figures in the history of Shuffle Along. A list of the full original cast and a “Shuffle Along Who’s Who” is provided in the insert. Even the rarely recognized Broadway musician and composer Will Vodery is given his due. A number of photographs culled from the Billy T. Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts are also included in the insert. In a season in which historical musicals became the main attraction, this depth of historical detail on a program level was significant and signaled the extent to which this production had a greater educational mission.
The Making Of was not Hamilton, and that was both a measure of distinction and a challenge. In bringing the history of black musical theater to the fore, The Making Of shone a light on the contributions of black women and placed them in prominent positions on stage. In addition to McDonald, the musical featured relative newcomer Adrienne Warren as Gertrude Saunders / Florence Mills. Warren’s stunning performance, including her rendition of “I’m Simply Full of Jazz,” earned her a Tony nomination for best featured actress in a musical (fig. 4). The importance of black women performers to [End Page 182] the mission of Wolfe’s production was also made evident by means of plain geography. Shuffle Along was situated on a street corner dominated by black women performers—Eclipsed and The Color Purple played in houses directly opposite the Music Box Theatre. Of course, Eclipsed was the first Broadway play to be written, produced, and directed by black women. The Color Purple is based on Alice Walker’s tremendously popular novel and revolves around the lives of African American women in the southern United States. As McDonald herself noted, the racially diverse corner of Forty-Fifth Street represented a triumph of sorts for black performers.8 The site stood as a structural rebuttal to the kind of mainstream cultural practices that seemed to necessitate social media campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite.
But one thing that complicated the revised production for many theatergoers was, perhaps ironically, the heavy emphasis on African American theater history. The Making Of felt highly academic. A lot of stage time was spent charting “all that followed” and what preceded it. The main plotline revolved around an illicit love affair between Gee and the married Eubie Blake. But minor characters involved in the production during its rocky beginnings were also given their moment in the spotlight, as were tangential incidents in American music history. By contrast, the original musical’s uncomplicated book revolved around the Jimtown, USA, mayoral election and its hijinks. A number of theater historians have argued that Shuffle Along’s plot was mainly a vehicle for Sissle and Blake’s score, Lyle and Miller’s comedy routines, and the show’s elaborate chorus numbers. Jayna Brown claims that “women of the chorus ‘were the heart of Shuffle Along,’” and “multi-talented women formed the chorus lines in the waves of black revues that followed, framing the show’s skits and musical numbers.”9 Many of members of that chorus became stars in their own right. Elida Webb, dancer, choreographer, and originator of the Charleston dance, was one such person.10 Josephine Baker and the actress Fredi Washington were replacement chorus members in the original Shuffle Along, too.
Still, The Making Of ’s pace occasionally dragged, as characters who had relatively little impact on the plot were pushed to the forefront in various acts of homage. The Making Of ran for nearly three hours, which is unusual by current Broadway standards. By contrast, the original production of Shuffle Along is estimated to have run for only 104 minutes, or two hours with intermission.11 The score and choreography were the undisputed gems of the original show, which had a less overtly didactic mission. In Wolfe’s revival, the original plot of Shuffle Along is almost entirely ignored in favor of rich contextual and historical background, save for one scene in which Jimtown is displayed in all its [End Page 183] wisteria-covered glory. The extravagant chorus numbers that punctuated The Making Of were an homage to this black musical tradition.
Wolfe did not grant the audience a straightforward reproduction of the original musical, something frustrating to historians and critics of black theater, and it may been a calculated move. But audiences were also denied an immersive experience of the original musical sensation and an understanding of what past audiences may have found compelling. It is so rare to see any early black musical production staged that it felt like a missed opportunity. And yet, in bypassing the script, Wolfe avoided presenting a show with a potentially dated format with racist connotations that audiences may have found jarring and offensive. To wit, the 1952 revival of Shuffle Along, with a book by Paul Gerard Smith, was panned for being too faithful to the original. The show’s creators were chastised for being unaware “that humor in New York has changed, especially the taste for the dialect comedy” that the show displayed.12
Wolfe’s book is the product of meticulous research and details several contributors to American musical theater and popular culture who have long been forgotten. Wolfe’s documentation of the rich history of African Americans [End Page 184] to Broadway is admirable. But the histories Wolfe recounts are so numerous that they occasionally threatened to detract from the main plot. This sense of historical overabundance is certainly due less to the Tony Award–winning Wolfe’s ability to craft a smooth narrative than it is to the richness of the material he brings to the fore and the sense of urgency that surrounds this project. For instance, the work of James Reese Europe, his impact on American music, and his success in spreading his musical vision across the world seems powerful enough to stand on its own. In Wolfe’s production Europe’s tangential role in the life of the show’s creator is given a prominent place in the book. The Making Of includes an anecdote in which George Gershwin, a frequent audience member, steals a riff from William Grant Still and incorporates it into “I’ve Got Rhythm.13 The tale takes only moments to retell, but underscores the profound, and often unacknowledged, influence of Shuffle Along and its collaborators on the American musical tradition. And yet, it might have been both too much and too little.
We can think of these staged acts of remembrance as a form of theatrical reparations. Black theater artists who had been robbed of the spotlight, and whose artistic contributions were willfully unattributed, finally got their due in a beautifully staged and stunningly choreographed show on Broadway proper, where they always belonged. On yet another level, Wolfe has also written himself into history by writing another chapter for the legendary production. In the future, Wolfe’s production might be recognized for the way it resisted easy cultural consumption and thus subverted many of the expectations that continue to attend black musical theater. Because the revival closed before even a cast recording could be produced, that form of recuperative work might also be an uphill battle.
One cast member, the Tony Award–winning actor Billy Porter, claimed that The Making Of was “actually the dream” and that he was “living the dream” by taking part in the revival.14 Because of its focus on process and neglected theater history, the 2016 revival of Shuffle Along was a black cultural critic’s dream come true, too. I felt privileged to be able to see crucial episodes in the life of performers like Florence Mills and Gertrude Saunders played out onstage. These women performed important cultural labor and should be recognized for their contributions. But that form of recuperative, contextualizing work is not what one typically expects from a Broadway musical. It requires certain forms of consent from the audience and a willingness to explore some of the less brightly colored sides of American musical theater history. In a practical sense, it simply requires more time and space than most producers and investors [End Page 185] will allow. American history feels like a safe bet on Broadway right now, but this wager is subject to several caveats and does not appear to apply to black historical subjects. The success of The Making Of and its cancellation are a testament to this fact. Broadway is still a business not particularly well suited to the kinds of daring needed to foster diversity.
Kristin Moriah recently defended her dissertation in African American culture and English literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her work can be found in Callaloo, Theater Journal, TDR, Peer English, and Understanding Blackness through Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Her research interests include late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African American performance, including the circulation of African American performance within the black diaspora and its influence on the formation of national identity.
I would like to thank Donatella Galella for her formidable comradeship and for inviting me to see The Making Of with her in spring 2016. I would also like to thank the members of my dissertation committee, Duncan Faherty, Eric Lott, and Robert Reid-Pharr, for encouraging me to write about the show. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to be critical with them.
1. Allen Woll, Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dreamgirls (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), xi.
2. Michael Paulson, “Decision to Close Shuffle Along Is Debated along Broadway,” New York Times, June 24, 2016.
3. Donatella Gallela, “Racializing the American Revolution: Review of the Broadway Musical Hamilton,” Advocate, November 16, 2015, gcadvocate.com/2015/11/16/racializing-the-american-revolution-review-of-the-broadway-musical-hamilton/.
4. Woll, Black Musical Theatre, 72, 73.
7. Caitlin Cromblehome, “Broadway Plays Contradict #TonysSoDiverse,” HowlRound, September 1, 2016. howlround.com/broadway-plays-contradict-tonyssodiverse.
8. Joe Dziemianowicz, “Audra McDonald Brings Life to Jazz Age Production,” New York Daily News, March 12, 2016, www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/theater-arts/audra-mcdonald-recreates-jazz-age-shuffle-article-1.2562585. “It feels incredible to be a part of this season,” McDonald says en route to rehearsal at the Music Box on West Forty-Fifth Street. “Just our street alone—it’s a very diverse street” (ibid.).
9. Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 197.
10. Ibid., 198.
11. F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, Shuffle Along: A Musical Mélange, ed. Lyn Schenbeck, David S. Thompson, and Constance Valis Hill (printed by editors, 2005), 90, ecademy.agnesscott.edu/~dthompson/documents/shuffle_along_script_annotated.pdf.
12. L. F., “At the Theatre: New Version of ‘Shuffle Along,’ Negro Musical Comedy, Is Presented at the Broadway Theatre,” New York Times, May 9, 1952.
13. See Elliott Forrest, “Did Gershwin Get His ‘Rhythm’ from African-American Composer William Grant Still?,” WXQR.org, June 9, 2016, www.wqxr.org/#!/story/did-gershwin-get-his-rhythm-african-american-composer-william-grant-still/.