George C. Wolfe's 'Shuffle Along' and the musical that 'electrified' 1920s New York
“Shuffle Along” was a massive commercial success in the 1920s, but the musical and its origins have been largely lost to Broadway history. Until now.
On Broadway in 1921, the musical “Shuffle Along” became the first commercially successful hit show with an all-black cast. It also brought jazz syncopation to Broadway, featured the first love scene between two black characters and had a cultural significance that rippled throughout New York.
Written by composers Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, with a book by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, “Shuffle Along” became a massive commercial success. But the musical — and the story of its creation — has been largely lost to Broadway history. Until now.
Writer and director George C. Wolfe tells the story behind the scenes of the show in a new musical called “Shuffle Along: Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.”
In Wolfe’s production, the main characters are the creators and cast of the original production of “Shuffle Along.” It becomes a musical within a musical — we go backstage with the 1920s artists as they write music, perform routines, try to make history and not let their success destroy their friendships.
The production has earned 10 Tony nominations, including best musical.
Wolfe is one of the most acclaimed directors in American theater. His credits include “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk,” “Angels in America” and “Jelly’s Last Jam.” He also served as the artistic director of the Public Theater from 1993 until 2004.
When Wolfe spoke with The Frame's John Horn, he explained how “Shuffle Along” first captured his interest and why he thought it was ready to be revisited.
Can you begin by painting a picture of what Broadway was like in the 1920s when “Shuffle Along” first opened in New York?
Broadway was very vital, back in the '20s. There were probably close to hundreds of productions that opened up through the course of the year and through the course of a Broadway season. Of course, the Broadway season generally ended in May because there was no air conditioning. Then along came this weird show that, when it came into town, was $18,000 in debt, which was like $200,000 in debt [today]. They had an all-black cast, a jazz score, and it was introducing syncopation and jazz to Broadway. It was up on a weird little theater on 63rd Street, which was sort of a theater and sort of a lecture hall. It electrified the town because they had never seen anything like it. It substantively and culturally altered the landscape of Broadway and it was called "Shuffle Along." I find it really fascinating that, even in its day, in the '20s, it was a reference point and a lightening rod for so much of what happened on Broadway a hundred years later, and [yet] nobody knows that it happened. So that dynamic of not just its success, but its invisibility, became really intriguing to me and I wanted to explore that in a musical. And not just because it's a fascinating subject but because the show had Paul Robeson in the chorus. Josephine Baker tried to get in when she was 15, but she couldn't get in until she was 16.
It integrated Broadway and it changed New York City. 63rd Street was a two-way street, but because of the demand and so much traffic, it became a one-way street. It just kept on altering and changing the fabric of New York City. A lot of scholars believe that because of the curiosity that "Shuffle Along" provoked in downtown audiences, it started the phenomenon of slumming and signaled the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. So it was this tiny little, almost-didn't-happen show that became so culturally significant that it just fascinated me until I said, Well, why don't you do something about your fascination, George. So that's how I started working on "Shuffle Along."
I studied theater in college and I had never heard of this show before. You talk about its invisibility. How did you come to find out about it and how much is known or was written about it at the time? What kind of research were you able to pull from?
A lot was written about it because it was landmark. F.E. Miller, Aubrey Lyles, Eubie Blake, Lottie Gee and Gertrude Saunders, and then later Florence Mills, became huge stars so it was covered extensively. There were three touring companies and it made $9 million in its day, which is a phenomenal amount of money. The prior year there had not been any speaking of diversity. I think it would have been since the 'teens before there'd been another black show on Broadway, something called "Bandanna Land." Then nothing happened.
And then right after "Shuffle Along," in its success, for the next 10 years right up to the Depression, there were five, six or seven, at times 10 different shows celebrating black culture on Broadway. So it changed everything. The information exists but you have to go digging for it. There was a revival that they did in 1933 that didn't [succeed]. Then they did a really uninteresting and not very good one in 1952 that closed after three performances. That's what I found really fascinating, was that something so significant in 1921, by the time we get to it now, it didn't matter and it wasn't significant. I love and I'm intrigued by what history does to people and to subjects that matter. Something that can be so vital at one point can be inconsequential at another. I'm just intrigued by that phenomenon.
Your "Shuffle Along" is as much about the original musical as it is about its creators and the struggles of mounting a show and how success can change, if not ruin, careers and friendships. As you're writing the book, are you thinking about your own career in any way and the joys and perils of working in a creative business?
Very early on, I wanted to explore the kind of stupid, glorious naiveté that one has to have at the beginnings of one's career. Particularly when you have no support and you have no money and you have no career. You have to have this blind, stupid faith that it's all going to work out. It's a little bit like, Hey, Mickey and Judy, let's put on a show! You need that energy. You need that foolish energy when you come to New York and it's a big city and you're a small person. I wanted to live inside that energy but at the same time as I started working on the piece, what became emotionally very clear to me is that it was also about the ephemeral nature of theater. Therefore, theater becomes so interesting because it becomes this intense metaphor for our life. We're there, we're vibrant and existing. People are acknowledging it and then it's gone and it only lingers as long as the people who saw it remember it.
There is no permanent record of theater and we have that same frailty as human beings. We are remembered and loved and valued when we are productive. And as time goes on and we become less productive, we count on the memories of those who remember us when we were in our peaks to tell great stories about us. What was very interesting is that on opening night, Nobel Sissle's daughter was there and she said to me, "My father, when he got very old, said that he wasn't scared of dying, but that no one would remember what he did."
That's terrifying! That for someone who was a creative genius like Nobel Sissle, his concern was that his creative work would be forgotten.
I think all creative people do that. I think all creative people are operating from the fear that, of the best of what they did, will anybody remember it? Will anybody tell stories about them? Will anybody keep those pictures on the mantle long after they are gone? It's why people write stories. It's peoples' grave markers. It's why people write their own autobiographies so that therefore they will be remembered.
A notable thing about the show is that, in the 1920s, it was the first all-black show on Broadway.
There had been black shows on Broadway. What there hadn't been was one that was monumentally, commercially successful.
But it was also one of the first where women were dancing on Broadway rather than serving as ornamental chorus girls. It was the first jazz score and — this is something I find interesting that you focus on in the show — it was the first time that two black characters shared a romantic moment in the song "Love Will Find a Way." There were concerns that there would be riots in the audience, right?
They weren't concerned, they were terrified that there would be. There were various incidences that happened mostly in the south where if traditional fragile human behavior was exhibited on the stage by black characters, the audience would go crazy. [Previously] any time any love pairings between two black characters was presented on stage, it was done in a mocking tone or a playful tone or with a sense of ridicule. This was the first time there was a sincere, delicate, emotional relationship embodied. When they performed the number, one of the stories was that three of the creators were hiding at the stage door ready to run in case something violent happened. They were shocked when the audience sat rapt, listening to this beautiful song.
When you look at the original show there are a number of songs you preserve, but what did you change because they didn't work in the scheme that you were telling?
[The creators] were trying to figure out the form. Most books for '20s musicals are sort of like collages of every single thing that was available to them. They're part vaudeville, part operetta, part tent shows or minstrel shows. They're messing around trying to figure out this new form. They're trying to figure out how simple and basic the stories need to be and how ambitious and sophisticated the stories can be. So "Shuffle Along" is sort of like a lot of '20s musicals. It's a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
At one point in the show, which is one of the things that I find really fascinating, they would tell the story of a three-way mayoral race in a Southern town called Jim Town. At one point, they just stopped the story and Eubie Blake, who was conducting and playing the piano, would come up on stage. He and Nobel Sissle would do three songs, the audience would cheer, then they'd go back down into the pit and the story of the mayoral race would just continue. I found that sort of chaos really appealing because you can see what they're trying to figure out. Everybody was trying to figure out this American thing that was black and white and influenced by European immigrants who had come here and were now calling themselves Americans. I love all of that. I love the creative mess that was fermenting inside of the '20s musical because we wouldn't be where we are today without that.
You preserved a lot of songs from the original show, but were there some songs that just wouldn't work in a modern setting?
I used a lot of the score because the score is incredibly smart and inventive. At one point, we had a song in it, which was actually one of my favorites, which is "If You've Never Been Vamped by a Brownskin." Some people would go, Oh that's so shocking! I completely disagree with them because at a time when the disproportionate amount of chorus girls in black entertainment were light-skinned, here's this number that came along that was celebrating the diversity of skin colors that exist within black performers. I think there is a song where they sing an ode to Old Black Joe, but at the same time, it's in the middle of the song where you can go, Oh, what's that? Because it's also referencing voting and it's referencing the Civil War. I think one has to be aware of the fact that when you go back and start dissecting a show from another era, chances are it's not going to pass the test of our barometers that we operate from, just in terms of race or sexual identity. But it's also very interesting trying to figure out what they were wrestling with back then as well.