Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed is a long title. It is also a perfect title because it aptly describes act one, Shuffle Along, and act two, all that followed.
Conceived by George C. Wolfe, Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed tells the story of the groundbreaking musical, Shuffle Along, remarkable because it was New York's first commercially successful musical written, directed, produced by, and starring African-Americans. (It went on to play 504 performances, and throughout the run and subsequent tours, performers included Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker.)
The first act focuses on the show coming together. Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry) and Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon) are songwriters working the vaudeville circuit. F.E. Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter) are a comedy duo also making the vaudeville rounds. The pairs meet at a stop in Philadelphia, and decide to team up to create a show, with Sissle and Blake writing the score, and Miller and Lyles writing the book. Concerned that their voices will be dismissed by white producers, they insist on being co-producers and retaining creative control. With (shaky) financing in place thanks to a white manager and producer (both played by Brooks Ashmanskas; he's the only white person in the show and therefore plays all the white roles), rehearsals begin, introducing us to the cast, which includes Lottie Gee (Audra McDonald). After a try-out tour throughout Pennsylvania (depicted in the great "Graveyard Shuffle"), Shuffle Along lands in NYC at the 63rd Street Music Hall.
Act two opens and it's a hit. Shuffle Along is successful, but as another noted (though less venerated) songwriter said, mo' money, mo' problems. For instance, a "showmance" that developed in act one becomes complicated by the realities in front of them, not the least of which is that one of the partners in married. There are disputes over show credits, putting a strain on the creative foursome, and divergent artistic desires, putting a strain on each pair of writers. They struggle with what comes next and, maybe more importantly, what doesn't. As we see "all that followed," we see that in 1921, being black and successful—being black and a sensation—doesn't make racism or racists disappear. There will still be people who see you as being successful, but black. The white gossip columnist even warns, "no one will remember you."
That, combined with the closing tableau (and really the gestalt of the show), make it impossible not to think of the clarion call of Hamilton, another musical telling an under-reported story from our history. Indeed, as the incredible cast took their bows at the end of Shuffle Along..., I couldn't help but think to myself, "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?"
How lucky we are to be alive right now, in a time when these people are telling stories. Wolfe (The Normal Heart), who wrote the book for and directed the show, does a masterful job of balancing the two stories. Nothing feels rushed or packed in, and nothing feels pious or too precious. The entire jazzy, syncopated score of Shuffle Along... is made up of the songs from the original Shuffle Along, as well as other tunes from Sissle and Blake's catalogue. It is brought to life by an outstanding ensemble taking on tap living-legend Savion Glover's breakneck, pulsating, soulful choreography. (There's nothing like that sound; and watching what those talented dancers can do is astounding.)
One of the great things about using the show–within–a–show device (which is as old as Shuffle Along) is that it allows for fantastic, showy performances—it allows stars' entrances and exits, and gives the audience a chance to just worship these performers. It fully allows, nay, calls for six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald to stand center stage and sing. I've been lucky enough to see her in multiple shows (including Porgy and Bess and Lady Day, both of which netted her Tonys), so I know, intellectually, that she's an incredible performer. That doesn't stop me from getting chills every time she's on stage.
The device demands that Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell (Ragtime, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) do a Billy Flynn-esque solo to work through Miller's act two "I wants." It expects Tony nominee Brandon Victor Dixon (Motown, The Wild Party) to be affecting when taking stock of missed opportunities, and Tony nominee Joshua Henry (The Scottsboro Boys, Violet) to dazzle every time he sings or smiles. And it follows that Tony winner Billy Porter (Kinky Boots) would get a near-standing ovation for singing the blues during his time in the spotlight.
Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed is not a history lesson but a celebration of our history. Musical theatre is a beautiful, creative, sometimes complicated centuries–old American tradition, and with George C. Wolfe's vision come to life, even more history is happening in Manhattan.