The Making of a Musical Sensation:Shuffle Along

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Opening night pushed back to April 28, 2016

Full of verve and vigor, this bold new production of the making of the musical sensation Shuffle Along, currently in previews and scheduled to open just in time for Tony Award nominations this April 2016, will entertain and inform the theater goer. Prior to the buzz about this production, I had not heard of Shuffle Along. I had heard of Eubie Blake, the lyricist and composer of the music, in Shuffle Along when I was in high school, but I never knew that the 1920s produced the first successful musical featuring men and women of color. Accompanying the Playbill, is a booklet that provides biographical information on the original characters. I knew only of the successful musical Porgy and Bess and of Paul Robeson becoming the first African American to play Othello. Even after purchasing group tickets for my colleagues, I did not know the history behind the story. I thought that it was a typical revival, but its director, George C. Wolfe, concluded that the musical was better performed as “The making of a musical sensation.” Having read a New York Times Magazine article a week before seeing the show, I was prepared to see one of the controversial elements of the show -two of the characters in “blackface.” Although whites typically at that time performed during minstrel shows in black face, blacks also performed similarly because whites were not accustomed to seeing blacks perform. To facilitate their performances, they donned their faces in black, despite the hypocrisy of their actions. This musical makes brief mention of their contradictory actions, while withholding judgment on their conduct. Moreover, the musical pays tribute to some of the great African-American legends of Broadway and of the music industry who paved the way for subsequent people of color. Songs that we have come to know, originate from this show (“I’m just Wild About Harry,” and “Love Will Find a Way”). Accurately depicting the social fabric of the 1920s, Shuffle Along choreographs and dances its way into Broadway history, through an impressive cast greenlighted with the ever impressive singing sensation and sixth time Tony Award winning Audra McDonald, the seasoned Brandon Stokes Mitchell, the show stopping choreography of Savion Glover, and the comical and dynamic Tony Award winning Billy Porter. Audra McDonald plays Lottie Gee, the star of the original musical, Brian Stokes Mitchell plays F. E. Miller the original writer of the show, Billy Porter plays Aubrey Lyles, his writing-partner, Joshua Henry plays Noble Sissle the musician, and Brandon Victor Dixon plays Eubie Blake. Brooks Ashmanskas plays many notable characters including the railroad president and various celebrities. Ashmanskas, the lone white man in the show, is illustrative of the both financial and racial conflict that the actors experienced in the original musical. The threat of closure due to financial insolvency loomed large over the original show.

 

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From the archives of the original Shuffle Along. Used with courtesy.

Shuffle Along‘s retelling is the story of Lottie Gee’s performance in the original musical and her love affair with Eubie Blake, the married and famed musician. George C. Wolfe takes the extant, albeit scant history of some of the original performers to write the script, and through this revival underscores the difficulties that black artists had at that time staying financially afloat. The musical also pays tribute to another Broadway star, Florence Mills. Her voice rivaled Gee, who could not help but acknowledge her star power. At the end of the musical, we find out about the latter stages of all of the characters’ lives, many of whom had longevity.

The show starts slowly, but the action begins to build through the music and the dance halfway into the first act. Initially, I was worried because too much time was spent “telling the story” instead of letting the action tell the story. As time elapses, the musical begins to live and breathe through its star characters. It begins to pick up speed through the choreography that threatens to overshadow the rest of the musical. McDonald’s voice is seductive, sultry, and smooth as she draws the audience in with her silky movement. When she sings “Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home,”we feel the sexiness in her voice and her love for Blake. The caliber of her voice and its range draw the audience in when she sings “I’m Just Wild About Harry” (made popular by Harry S. Truman). The energy of the dancers as they tap dance elevates the mood in contrast to some of the somber issues presented in the play. The racial issues of the time and the cultural norms of the day were respectfully handled. According to the story in Shuffle Along, the Gershwins, musical powerhouse of the twentieth century, misappropriate a few “musical Bars” from one of the musical’s songs, “Who Could Ask for Anything More (I Got Rhythm).” The musical acknowledges the  Gershwins creative genius, but does not neglect telling and playing the music to illustrate the misappropriation. This practice of misappropriation is common today. (Ask Robin Thicke and the estate of Marvin Gaye). Brian Stokes Mitchell, via his character in conversation with Lyles, exclaims that “They (white establishment) can kiss my black ass.” He even shows us his rear end as he says it. Portions of the musical may offend some audience members who have not processed our country’s racial history.

Savion Glover’s syncopated choreography coupled with great costumes is resplendent. Shuffle Along was the first musical to use jazz and tap dancing together. Jazz and tap are like peanut butter and jelly; one is generally not seen without the other. In one of the musical numbers, “Syncopated Stenos”, the music and dance illustrate the concept of syncopation within the tap choreography. Syncopation is the temporary displacement of the regular metrical accent as the weak beat is stressed. The dancers tap dance on the syncopated beat or counterpoint and the rhythms flow effortlessly in time, providing the dancers with rhythmic freedom. They tap dance with fierce determination redolent of the roaring twenties in total choral rhythm, moving their feet with neck breaking speed, song after song. Their costumes are short and sexy and  razzle and dazzle the mind while lighting up the stage against backdrops that illuminate the Broadway scene as the alliterative Jazz Jasmines, the Dancin’Boys, and the Jimtown Flappers tap dance with great precision and with great wonderment. Both McDonald and Adrienne Warren as Florence Mills wear long dresses representative of the 1920s as they sing and saunter across the stage.

Both the talented Audra McDonald and the choreography of Savion Glover are not to be missed. Currently, Wolfe and his creative team are still making changes in content and in delivery.  If adjustments are made in the first half regarding the storytelling, and if unessential songs that do not add much to the story are cut, this musical will be a sensation. Audra McDonald and Savion Glover might be strong contenders for Tony nominations. Opening night is April 28, 2016. Tony Award nominations will be announced April 29, 2016.

I give special thanks to Monifa Kincaid, a fabulous tap dancer, who helped me understand syncopation in tap dancing.

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