How fitting that a play about putting on a play in order to better integrate the theatre world should arrive during a season which, to all intents and purposes, has done just that! Hamilton, The Color Purple, even The School of Rock . . . the shows are packing them in, and the faces onstage represent nearly every race and creed in American society. (I still see a dearth of Asian performers and Asian stories being told on Broadway). The theatre world has succeeded where television continues to struggle and where film hasn’t even tried. Even more exciting (and proof of the importance of this move) is that the audiences look more diverse than ever. Last night, sitting in the packed mezzanine of the gorgeous Music Box Theatre (and hoping that the supports of this nearly century-old building were strong enough to hold us), I beheld a mass of people of every shape, size, age and color gathered to enjoy an evening of live theatre. The famous were gathered with the riff raff. Spike Lee sat at the end of my row (I guess that makes me the riff raff . . . ),all in service to the ineluctable connection made between performer and audience that no other form of entertainment can really accomplish.
The best thing for me about Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed is that it is a meta-musical. Or, at least, it should be. I love meta- anything: the idea that one would write a novel about being a writer, the movies like Sunset Boulevard or The Player that play with our heads about what making a movie could do to a man or woman. I love that “insider” peek at the process through a captivating story.
And the true story of the making of Shuffle Along is pretty fascinating. Four black vaudevillians team up in 1921 to produce a musical that they hope will transcend the color barrier. They have everything going against them: financial issues, creative differences, temperamental stars – all the usual things that plague the process of making art – but also a whole world that wants to squash them down. Yet, despite running into debt, despite being booked in a theatre on 63rd Street for God’s sake!, despite the fact that the last time an African American couple had embraced on stage they were dragged out of the theater and tarred and feathered – despite all this, Shuffle Along became a huge success, running 504 performances, but more importantly integrating its audience and breaking one barrier after another.
The show itself was a lightly satirical comedy with songs and dances, although its satire dealt with the powerful subject of black voting rights. It created stars out of performers like Josephine Baker and Florence Mills, it basically introduced the female chorus line that was the mainstay of musicals for decades afterwards, and audiences embraced its jazzy score with hits like “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
The show we saw on Broadway last night is about the making of Shuffle Along. It was conceived and directed by George C. Wolfe and choreographed by Savion Glover, and to hear some of the dancers talk about it, as I was privileged to do after the show, it was a complicated and difficult process. I think that difficulty is evident onstage, unfortunately, in a book that was hard for this viewer, admittedly exhausted after a week of theatre-going, to follow. The first act, about the creation process and the slow rise to opening night success, is much stronger than the second act, which chronicles the sad break-up of the creative team and the acknowledgement that, after all its success, Shuffle Along faded into obscurity, along with much of its good effect.
Still, the problematic nature of its structure can be gently put aside as one savors the multitude of gifts that this production bestows upon us. First and foremost for me, there is Audra McDonald. I had no idea how big her role was or, given the fact that she is well into her pregnancy, if I would even get to see her. The fact is, she was there, her role is enormous, and she blew us all away. In addition to being in nearly every production number, she has eight featured numbers herself. She also reminded us of what an expert comedienne she is during her scenes with Brandon Victor Dixon (who, after this show closes next week, will take over the role of Aaron Burr in Hamilton) as Eubie Blake. These were the best scenes in the show, chronicling the madcap affair between the married Blake and McDonald’s Lottie Gee, an actress whose age has crept up on her without her yet finding that big break or that big love. The play would make her a star, but her love affair with Eubie Blake did not guarantee a happy personal life. A little note, after our performance was over, and I was standing with friends on the street, we saw Ms. McDonald ushered into her limosine on a quiet part of the street so as not to attract fans. Her utter exhaustion gave evidence to how generous this woman was with her talent and energy up on that stage.
The other major gift we receive in Shuffle Along is the almost supernatural choreography of Savion Glover, performed to perfection by an ensemble of dancers who are asked to perform miracles of tap dancing in virtually non-stop fashion for nearly three hours. (I know a certain dance teacher who, if she is reading this, is drooling!) Glover not only had approval of the floor and the shoes that everyone wore, he tried out all the shoes, including the women’s, himself, just to be sure that every dancer could perform the feats he demanded of them. Well, they could, and they did, and we screamed for nearly three hours.
Joshua Henry plays off of Dixon’s Eubie Blake perfectly as his partner Noble Sissle, and Brian Stokes Mitchell is a treasure as F.E. Miller, the third partner in this quartet of producers. (His number, “Swing Along” is a rare dramatic moment in the huge roster of musical numbers and a highlight of the show.) But my favorite of the four has to be Billy Porter, who plays Aubrey Lyles, the most contrary – and perhaps most politically aware – member of the team, who brought down the house with both comic timing and dramatic power. It’s significant that, in a finale that chronicles the subsequent timeline of every member of the company, including the ensemble members, Lyle’s career and life are the shortest. But along the way, Porter gives us moment after moment of pure pleasure.
I can’t say Shuffle Along came close to being my favorite theatrical experience of this season. But, unlike the original 1921 production, this one should remain in all our minds for a very long time, thanks to an embarrassment of riches in terms of talent and to the powerful message it sends to us. One can only hope that this show, and this season, will not be a fluke, but a harbinger of a time when we have no need for calling the diversity of the plays and actors we see onstage to anyone’s attention.