Mixing It Up

Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed

a musical written and directed by George C. Wolfe, with songs by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, at the Music Box Theatre, New York City, opened on April 28, 2016
Audra McDonald with Brandon Victor Dixon at the piano in Shuffle Along
Julieta Cervantes
Audra McDonald with Brandon Victor Dixon at the piano in Shuffle Along

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…

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