Saturday, May 14, 2016

Shuffle Along reconstruction? reconsideration?...of the 1921 hit show Shuffle Along, currently at the Music Box Theater (which, by the way, also opened in 1921), has some of the best dancing you'll see on a Broadway stage this season (or any), and a top-notch cast featuring some of the most well-known and beloved stars of the genre. There are some truly stunning production numbers, some laugh-out-loud gags, and a lot of warmth. I couldn't stop smiling through the entire first act, and while I struggled more with the second, I'd hardly call it a crashing bore by any stretch. I have studied the original show and thought enough about it that I think my reaction to the current production is tainted by my own ideas about what it should have been and what it should have focused on. Which is, in the end, my problem--a really weird occupational hazard befitting one with a really weird occupation--and hardly that of the production, which is fun and moving, maybe more so without preconceived notions.

Here's the thing: The original production of Shuffle Along is enormously important--a landmark musical that served, too, as a humbling reminder of just how hard it was for black artists to find success in overwhelmingly white entertainment realms (which at the time was basically every realm). While not the first Broadway show to feature an all-black cast and creative team (that was In Dahomey in 1903), it was certainly one of the biggest and most influential. Its enormous success was a bigger deal considering just how much it was up against. Shuffle Along was created and developed after Broadway's earliest black pioneers--a previous generation of performers and creative artists like Bert Williams, George Walker, Ida Overton Walker, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Will Marion Cook, Robert Cole, and James Rosamond Johnson--had died or quit Broadway, leaving behind a bunch of white producers who collectively decided, against ample and repeated evidence to the contrary, that all-black productions were not much worth backing, anyway, since the middle and upper-class whites who made up (and continue to make up) the majority of Broadway audiences wouldn't be interested in black productions.
Shuffle Along was the result of a partnership between four men. Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles met as students at Fisk University, where they developed an act featuring rapid-fire malapropisms, jokes about Southern rural life, and clownish, broadly physically comic fighting matches that were apparently really fucking hilarious. Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle met at a party in 1915 and found quick success as songwriters when their number "It's All Your Fault" (not in the current production) was picked up by Sophie Tucker for use in her act. After World War I, which Sissle spent abroad with James Reese Europe's orchestra, he and Blake went back to writing and performing together, and Miller and Lyles approached them with their idea for a musical.

Musicals then were very, very different than they are now. More like extended vaudeville acts, they were comparatively loose and unstructured, and had lots of songs, dances and comic bits in them that had nothing to do with the plot, if there was even was a plot at all. Shuffle Along did have one--basically an elongated version of Miller and Lyles's vaudeville act--but it wasn't fluid or terribly deep. A twisty, turny story about a mayoral race in a small southern town was interrupted throughout by specialty acts, song and dance numbers, and a little mini-concert by Sissle and Blake. I suspect one reason so little of the original show made it into the current production was that the material was too scattered--not to mention too racist--for contemporary audiences. Still, I admit I was disappointed that the current production chose not to attempt to recreate even a teeny, tiny little bit of a Miller and Lyles routine. Come on, now. Take a listen. The men were funny.

The white Broadway producer John Cort was a fan of Miller and Lyles, so he backed Shuffle Along, but barely: he booked it into his recently-acquired 63rd Street Theater, a venue built to be a lecture hall, with a skinny, narrow stage and no orchestra pit. The house was so far north of Times Square that calling it a Broadway house was laughable. The timing sucked, too: Shuffle Along was to open in late May after a brief tour of the northeast, and theaters back then had no air conditioning. Cort had little to lose, since the house would have probably stood empty without Shuffle Along; he hedged his bets further by budgeting no cash for costumes, scenery, or props.

When the show opened in New York, in deep debt from its road tour, many of the reviews were typically, virulently racist. Some critics bitched about how "crude" (read: black) the show was; others felt it failed to be "conspicuously native" (read: not black enough). But a few critics--and many spectators--loved Blake and Sissle's brilliant jazz-, blues-, and ragtime-infused, score, which also touched on operetta, barbershop, and balladry. Shuffle Along became the hottest ticket in town. It ran for 504 performances, went back on tour, and got imitated all decade long. Cort suddenly found money to extend the stage, build a pit, and scrounge up things like costumes and a set. The musical raked in $8 million dollars, and helped spur the Harlem Renaissance (or at least make it more intriguing to white people). And during its run, the 63rd Street Theatre broke with stubborn tradition by becoming the first Broadway venue to seat interested black patrons in the orchestra, instead of immediately and without question up in the balcony.

Shuffle Along also resulted in other all-black musicals, which Broadway's white producers were once again reminded could appeal to broad audiences. Yet the musical's success was in many ways seriously constraining: the white critic corps constantly compared every subsequent all-black Broadway musical to Shuffle Along, attacking those that attempted to stray beyond its formula for trying too hard to "aspire" to white productions, while attacking others for seeming somehow too black for white tastes. Broadway producers continued to cry poverty when they backed black productions; all-black shows were continually booked into the worst theaters and given the lowest possiblt budgets and salaries. When the Depression hit, funding dried up for all-black shows--except for the occasional one written by well-established all-white creative teams, who were typically deemed more knowledgable about black lives and black representation than black artists were.

Still, Shuffle Along was ultimately cause for celebration, which the current production chooses to emphasize. It started or helped perpetuate careers. It broke down barriers on Broadway and beyond. It made the world a teeny bit less racist than it was before it came along. So screw my preconceived notions: even in a Broadway season as steeped in Americana as this one is, audiences don't flock to Broadway for historical accuracy. They go to be moved and delighted, and on this front, Shuffle Along delivers. It features a cast of brilliant performers who are dancing up a storm in a venue built to serve the purpose. So long as they have the bucks, its spectators are allowed to sit wherever the hell they please. And its cast and crew are protected, well-compensated, appreciated. It might have less of the original production than I'd hoped, but it still works well to remind us of some important and long-overlooked Broadway pioneers; to imply that we still have a ways to go; to celebrate how far we've come. And also? Not for nothing, but holy moly, the dance numbers kick serious ass.

No comments: