My best friends and I went to see Shuffle Along: Or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921, and All That Followed last night.
As you can probably surmise from the title, Shuffle Along was a show that opened on Broadway (well, on 63rd Street) in 1921. The book was written by Aubrey Lyles and F.E. Miller and the music composed by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. The show was the first to have a jazz score, the first to be written, directed, and produced by African-Americans and starring African-Americans on Broadway. It starred lots of famous entertainers like Lottie Gee, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, and Adelaide Hall, among others. It was the first major show to have black love interests on stage. The show’s popularity among white audiences contributed to the flourishing of jazz into what became the Jazz Age, influenced composers and performers such as George Gershwin and Al Jolson, and ushered in the Harlem Renaissance.
And yet, I’d never heard of this show until Shuffle Along: Or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921, and All That Followed opened on Broadway a few months ago. It’s the story of how the original Shuffle Along came to be–and what happened after.
Unknown or obscure bits of history? Something illustrating people of color in historical times? Theater? Audra McDonald?
Yep. You know this is exactly my alley, right?
Sadly, the musical is closing on July 24th.
Shuffle Along–the 1921, original version–began as a collaboration between F.E. Miller (played by Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter), who performed in vaudeville as a duo, and Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon, who is going on to be the next Aaron Burr in Hamilton) and Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry), who also performed as a vaudeville duo. The pairs teamed up and with the help of a somewhat shady producer, decided to produce, write, compose, and cast their own genuine Broadway-bound show.
Lottie Gee (played by a great–and very pregnant–Audra McDonald) is the star; she’s a veteran vaudeville actress and this show could be her great chance to launch her career further. She and the married Eubie Blake begin an affair during the rehearsal process.
The Shuffle Along crew tour the U.S with their show, stop after stop after stop, not making money, having creative conflicts, unable to pay the cast at times. Shuffle Along 2016 has amazing movement throughout–the story really kept zipping along, with fantastic tap dancing (seriously, amazing tap dancing), and intriguing character moments, even with as many characters as the book had to tell us about.
The show gets to a dilapidated theater in New York City with no orchestra pit and grows into a sensation. Celebrities come to see it. Stars are made out of its cast. The writers and composers grow successful.
Act Two is about what happened after Shuffle Along opened–about the following flops that Miller and Lyles and Blake and Sissle write, how the pairs fought and then their partnerships broke apart. Florence Mills, one of the cast of Shuffle Along, becomes a big vaudeville star playing in Europe, and Lottie, who has turned down jobs to stay with Eubie, is jealous. Eventually, the four men reconcile, but they wonder if anybody will remember them and their work.
The tap dancing was incredible, but so was the singing–I’ve heard several of these performers in other shows and I know they were singing in the style of that era as well as as themselves. Each of the leads had their particular moments: “Swing Along,” sung by Brian Stokes Mitchell, started off as a cappella and it was gorgeous. Billy Porter sang his heart out during “Low Down Blues” and of course, Audra McDonald killed it with “Memories of You.”
The music was a mix of songs from 1921’s Shuffle Along–I recognized “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” for instance, and you might know “Love Will Find a Way,” along with other Noble/Sissle songs.
The show felt like it whizzed by–nothing dragged, everything went along at a good clip, but I did feel like I wanted to be more familiar with the artists and the show mentioned so that I could feel the impact of the not-so-great stuff that happened to them all in Act Two all the more. But I’m definitely going to be looking more on the people mentioned, because they did amazing things and they shouldn’t be forgotten. They broke barriers.
Maybe because the show’s closing soon, the audience was hyped. There was a lot of clapping, some whooping, and the lady sitting next to my friend was having the time of her life, y’all. During Intermission, she stood up and danced. So awesome.
We need less divisiveness in the world and more joy and dancing.