In the arts big changes are often wrought not by the person who introduced the new thing but, sadly, by a person who came after, and copied it, and, thanks to greater luck or talent, made of it something that a lot of other people, too, wanted to try, thus creating an entire style or tradition, rich and various and streaked with different tastes, different sensibilities. It is now widely known, but once wasn’t, that the interior monologue technique that so many twentieth-century novelists proudly believed was their inheritance from James Joyce’s Ulysses was not invented by Joyce. As he willingly acknowledged, he copied it from a modest novella—Édouard Dujardin’s Les Lauriers sont coupés, about a Parisian dandy in love with an actress—that was published in the Symbolist journal La Revue Indépendante in 1887, a half-century before Ulysses came out.
Likewise, at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, a number of all-black musicals played on Broadway, but the one that created the fashion for all-black shows, and spawned hundreds of descendants, in Europe as well as the United States, and left its mark—notably, syncopated (off-the-beat) music, with all the joy it brings—on the entire enterprise of musical theater, white and black, up to this day, was an ill-favored, underfunded little show called Shuffle Along from 1921, the creation of the comedians F. (Flournoy) E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, the lyricist Noble Sissle, and the pianist-composer Eubie Blake. All four men were vaudevillians, creators of short acts for variety shows. None had ever done a musical before, but somehow they stumbled into this one. Soon, as they found themselves stranded in train stations (the producer failed to deliver the tickets), as they got booked into a house with no orchestra pit, as they were forced, week after week, to miss payroll, they learned to curse the day they became involved in it.
Meanwhile, slowly, almost behind their backs, their show became a hit. For a few people in the cast, it supplied a career-making breakthrough. Florence Mills, an ingenue with a pretty voice who came in at the last minute to replace someone who’d left, went on to become a big star. And it was on the strength of Shuffle Along that Josephine Baker, an unknown girl from St. Louis who liked to cross her eyes and make funny faces at the end of the chorus line, got a job in a show in Paris, La Revue Nègre, and went on to become Europe’s idea of the Black Venus. But the crucial point was that Shuffle Along ran for 484 performances, a near record for an all-black production. Within months, black shows were popping up on every corner. Brian Seibert, in What the Eye Hears, his recent history of tap, tells how, a year after Shuffle opened, the Ziegfeld Follies’ shimmy queen, Gilda Gray, was singing a song, “It’s Getting Very Dark on Old Broadway,” in that popular review.1
It is no surprise, then, that George C. Wolfe, famous as the director of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America but more famous for writing and directing some of the most important black shows of the past few decades—notably Jelly’s Last Jam (1992), about Jelly Roll Morton, and Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk (1995), about the history of African-Americans as told through popular entertainment—should want to revive Shuffle Along. But in a bold move, Wolfe decided that he wouldn’t try to reproduce what was there before. The original show had a silly little plot about a small-town mayoral election. Actually, I don’t know how silly it was. We see it in the new show for only a few minutes—a couple of top-hatted politicians shaking hands, a gaggle of chorus girls singing “I’m Just Wild About Harry” (Harry’s the candidate)—to establish that the 1921 Shuffle Along actually made it onto the boards. Otherwise Wolfe’s Shuffle Along takes place entirely on the periphery of the ur-Shuffle—in the dressing rooms, in the rehearsal halls, in the tryout houses, at the nearby nightclubs—and its subject is the travails of getting the show produced. Accordingly, the title of the musical that opened at the Music Box in April is not Shuffle Along, but Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.
With that change comes the show’s one big trouble: dispersal, atomization. However stupid the mayoral race story was, it no doubt had some unity. Harry decided to run, then ran, and then won or lost. Wolfe’s show, by contrast, is a bag of pieces. Of course, it has a master narrative—four people trying to mount a show—and an under-narrative: how, everywhere those men turned, in everything they did, they were given fifth-best, sixth-best, because they were African-American. But that’s basically all the show has to offer by way of cohesion. What happens again and again is that something onstage reminds one of the actors about something related to black musicals or black life or black something else, whereupon that person turns to the audience and fills in background.
We see Sissle (Joshua Henry) and Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon) at the piano. Do they deliver a number, or do something to advance the plot? No, or not yet. First they tell us about their families. Sissle came from a middle-class home, whereas Eubie got his professional start at age fifteen playing piano at Miss Aggie’s whorehouse. That’s interesting. Did Eubie’s humble beginnings have any effect on the way he wrote music? Don’t ask George C. Wolfe. By then, he’s gone on to something else, namely the introduction of the leading lady, Lottie Gee (Audra McDonald).
Now we get a little of what you’d expect in a show—a song, some jokes, a bit of plot—but not for long. Sissle needs to tell us about the band leader James Reese Europe, who doesn’t even appear in Shuffle Along, 1921 or 2016, but who seems to have introduced the creators of Shuffle to one another, and encouraged them to put on a jazz show. Sissle relates the story of James Europe’s death. Apparently, one of his drummers thought Europe was pushing him too hard, so one night, at intermission, this man ran backstage and stuck his pen knife into the conductor’s neck. You never saw so much blood! But never mind, because that part’s over now, and we’re in Penn Station, where the company is catching a train for an out-of-town tryout.
It all goes by so fast, and so this-way-and-that, that you can’t keep it straight. (The only reason I can tell you the James Reese Europe story is that I called the press representative and he kindly read to me from the script.) The scattershot narration also plays hell with the character development. A person who is a dear soul one minute is a mean bastard the next, because that’s what the differing stories about him at those junctures need him to be.
Most damagingly, the speed and get-everything-in nature of the storytelling can create serious confusion. At one point, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles put on blackface to go into the 1921 show. Blackface on black people is a strange and upsetting sight even if you know the historical reasons for it. (The black actors were copying white actors who blacked up to put on minstrel shows, in which they appeared as black people. But as black people blacked up, this of course became a critique, or a “meta” action—in any case, something perverse and subtle and complicated.) Miller says a few words of explanation, but fast and casually. I’m sure that nobody who went into the Music Box Theater ignorant of black performers’ practice of corking up understood much about it upon exiting either. Everything’s catch as catch can. If you don’t get this bit, don’t worry, maybe you’ll get the next. It’s like vaudeville.
Except that the show is quite polemical. I have the sense that Americans are living, right now, in something like a second civil rights movement. Arguably, we needed one. In any case, Wolfe gives us plenty of historical material, most of which I’m sure is true. One actress in the show says of black theater, “Anything that makes us heartfelt and hopeful instead of beastly and buffoonish is forbidden.” She tells of a black man and woman who were tarred and feathered for holding hands on stage. (Love between black people was not to be represented physically. That was disgusting.) Likewise—for what sin I don’t know—Bert Williams and George Walker, a famous duo, had their clothes torn off as they came out a stage door.
Wolfe should be thanked for telling us these things. But how about “We’re not going to complain, we’re going to fight to make it right,” or “You feel the hope and the loss pushing you to give all you’ve got…. For one night out of so many where you dare not to, you believe”? This kind of stuff, of which there is a lot, out-Hallmarks the soupiest anthems of Rodgers and Hammerstein, out-pep-talks the corniest speech by Coach, and lays an icky little coating of goody-goodyism on people whose pride, in part, is to be cool. You may answer that there’s nothing wrong with hoping and believing and making things right. I say amen to that, but you can choose your words. This is art we’re talking about.
Loose as the show is, it has a secret center: Eubie Blake, the composer of the 1921 show, and Lottie Gee, its leading lady, fall in love. This plot point, invented, it seems, by Wolfe, drove the casting. That is, it made the role of Gee rich enough to tempt Audra McDonald, the most admired black woman in American musical comedy today. (She has won six Tony awards—a record in the performers’ category.) She accepted, and her voice is one of the show’s central pillars.2 As for Brandon Victor Dixon, you can certainly see why Lottie Gee falls in love with his Eubie Blake. He’s handsome and witty and sweet. He plays the piano like a dream. I congratulate his mother. He is also a man of powerful feelings. When he looks at Lottie, he has to mop his face with a handkerchief. Everything he does is natural, and that goes for McDonald too. She can talk and sing and rub Dixon’s neck all at the same time and make this seem like the normal thing to do. At the end of their best number, “You’re Lucky to Me,” she sits on the piano and slaps her thighs with joy when she hits her high notes. You want to die of happiness.
There are some other fine performers, notably the young, pure-voiced Adrienne Warren as Florence Mills. There are also some performers who are not so fine, such as, depressingly, Brian Stokes Mitchell, a hero of the Broadway stage, so touching as the Man of La Mancha, so sexy and funny as Fred Graham (Petruchio) in Kiss Me, Kate, so boring here. Perhaps that is how Flournoy Miller’s role was written—that he moves stiffly and has an accent that hails from nowhere and can’t dance worth a nickel—but if so, Mitchell shouldn’t take any more roles like that.
To me the star of the show was not one of its performers, but its choreographer, Savion Glover. Glover has been working with George C. Wolfe since he was a teenager, when he played the young Jelly Roll Morton in Jelly’s Last Jam. He was also the star, and choreographer, of Bring in ’da Noise. His mentor Gregory Hines said of him that he was possibly the greatest tap dancer who ever lived, and even those who don’t like him (he can be a charmless performer) would have to agree that he is the most remarkable tap virtuoso alive today. He is a be-bop artist—a man of complicated, straying rhythms—and at the height of his inventiveness, his dancing can stun the mind. At his last New York concert—OM, a mostly solo show, an hour and a half long, at the Joyce Theater in 2014—some spectators actually walked out. I think they couldn’t take it; it hurt their brains. For these reasons, I was worried when I heard that Glover would choreograph the dances for Shuffle Along. Could a choreographer who was that sophisticated create dances such as the ones done by a chorus line in 1921? Could Paganini play “Goodnight, Irene”? Yes.
And the next award should go to the eight chorus dancers themselves. They were wonderfully capable—no surprise; imagine how many women auditioned for this job—and, at the same time, very relaxed, shaking their ruffled panties and having a great old time. They always seemed a little bit in disarray, their garters at different heights, the bows on their shoes a little askew. (The costumes were designed by Ann Roth.) As with Lottie Gee on the piano, smacking her thighs, you love them for this. It seems a token of truth and happiness.
Most of the rest of the cast were clearly chosen for their ability to sing, not dance, and this would have been okay if the score had been better. As with almost every new show on Broadway at the moment, it was only passable, and that was after Wolfe did substantial work on the 1921 song list. Some items had to go. (There was a song about how light-skinned African-American women were more desirable than dark-skinned ones.) Then a lot had to be imported from other shows, including, if I’m not mistaken, most of the really good songs in the show, such as “You’re Lucky to Me” and Lottie’s big ballad, “Memories of You.” (Both had music by Eubie Blake, though.) The only 1921 song familiar to 2016 ears, or mine, was “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” and that’s not because of its tune or lyrics, which aren’t much beyond a cheerful bustle, but because Harry Truman used it as a campaign song in 1948 and thus stamped it on the national memory.
The ending of the show is curious, as if, at the last minute, Wolfe and his colleagues doubted the value of what they had done or of what the 1921 Shuffle had done. All the main characters drift back onto the stage and, as in Our Town, speak to us from beyond the grave, telling us what happened to them after Shuffle. The collaborators broke up. Miller and Lyles went off to make a show called Runnin’ Wild (1923). Sissle and Blake wrote the score for the 1924 Chocolate Dandies. Both shows were successful (Runnin’ Wild is said to have given birth to the Charleston), but not like Shuffle Along. Then all the principals went on to lesser fates. Lyles died young; Miller got involved in films, including negro westerns such as Harlem on the Prairie and The Bronze Buckaroo. Sissle became a bandleader. Lottie Gee returned to vaudeville. (“I went to Los Angeles,” she says, “and died. Then I died.”)
Eubie Blake is the only one whose star really shone again. In the midcentury, he was rediscovered by the tireless jazz producer John Hammond, and in 1969 he released the two-LP Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake. In 1978 there was a Broadway musical, Eubie!, that celebrated his work. He also made appearances on the Johnny Carson show and Saturday Night Live. (Imagine: a man whose parents were born slaves appeared on SNL.) He died at ninety-six, swearing he was a hundred. In the last moments of Shuffle, he and his colleagues speak of their lives with mixed sentiments: some pride, some irony, some elegiac feeling. They seem bewildered by what happened to them. No wonder. Good for Wolfe for trying to get some credit for them. Still, it should have been a better show.
McDonald goes on maternity leave after July 24 and will not return to the show until the winter. By way of compensation, Savion Glover will join the show, as a performer, starting on July 26, though it has not yet been announced what, exactly, he will be dancing. ↩