Those of you lucky enough to have gotten a sneak peak of Speaking Is Easy, book one of my Harlow Ophelia Jackson mystery series, know that I left Lucien Cordova, heartbreak, and Europe to try out for a part in the original Shuffle Along musical in 1921. Of course, spunky gal that I am, I was going for the lead part of Jessie Williams. I didn’t make the cut. That plum part went to Lottie Gee instead. Fair is fair, Miss Lottie was much better known than me at the time and was widely considered the first colored ingénue to be featured in a Broadway musical. Hell, despite a wide-flung career across this crazy country and beyond, I hadn’t even put foot to pavement in the Big Apple before tryouts! So Miss Lottie played the daughter of Jim Williams, proprietor of the Jimtown Hotel and I ended up in the chorus. Now, don’t think I’ve got sour grapes about that. I don’t. My bitterness comes later and is a tale for another day. No, I ended up a chorine in one of the largest choruses ever to hit a Broadway stage—three, count ‘em, three separate corps with lovely monikers such as Jazz Jasmines, Happy Honeysuckles, and Majestic Magnolias, in a musical that broke expectations and box office records. I tested my strength, honed my skills, met some of my dearest friends, and even found my husband during the historic 504 performances at the 63rd Street Music Hall!
Shuffle Along (SA) was good to me, which is why I am so thrilled to see it get the royal treatment. Curtesy of the powerhouse trio Audra McDonald, George C. Wolf, and Savion Glover, SA is back on the boards! This time, messieurs Blake, Sissle, Lyle and Miller didn’t have to go hat in hand all over hill and dale to drum up the money or costumes, or even a house. This time SA didn’t have to rip out seats to build its orchestra pit before it stopped traffic. Redesigned as a musical within a musical SA, now called Shuffle Along or The Making of The Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed (SA2016), gets the gang back together again but this time, instead of simply reviving the jokes, outlandish plot, fanciful costumes, and songs destined to change the American songbook, the new team shows us how the first ever all Negro Broadway hit show made it to the stage. And boy do they put on a show!
We’ve got the incomparable 6-time Tony winner Audra McDonald stepping into Miss Lottie’s shoes and not only does she treat us to THAT voice, we also get to see her fancy footwork, her pitch perfect comedic timing, her heartbreak, and her pure joy of performing. She is a revelation and a true torch bearer for the likes of my hero Aida Overton Walker, who never received her due as an artist and an innovator.
And speaking of artists and innovators, my old pals Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle are wonderfully embodied by Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry and when they put their heads, feet, and chops up against the seasoned veterans Brian Stokes Mitchell (Flournoy E. Miller) and the wondrous Billy Porter (Aubrey Lyles), it is truly a gas to behold!
The troupe brings us the passion, the pathos, the laughter, and the music that American fell in love with 95 years ago! The songs like “Love Will Find a Way”—the first depiction of colored romantic love in the theater—“Gypsy Blues”, and of course “I’m Just Wild about Harry” (which became President Harry S. Truman’s campaign slogan in 1948) are just as fine as the first time around. And of course, the choreography, the much celebrated syncopation, again seen for the first time in a Broadway show in SA1921, is just as glorious as I remember.
The show is long as it strives to showcase for even a few beats the names and talents of folks, who after the razzle dazzle of the original SA’s unexpected success, labored in obscurity for most of their careers. For every Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson who went on to huge, mainstream careers, there are a dozen Adelaide Halls, Gertrude Saunders, and Will Voderys whose skills were poached before they were discarded. The show is gorgeous as it highlights the highs and lows of the creative process and the importance of sticking together and team work in the face of insane odds. And the show is heartwarming, energizing, and fills me with a wild sense of pride as it returns Shuffle Along to its rightful place in the American musical cannon. 1921’s Shuffle Along’s plot may have been thin, the jokes bawdy, the employment of black face a little too liberal but the music, the innovation, the deep, deep desire of the company to Put On A Show! was as genuine and deserving of celebration as An American In Paris or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, or Hello Dolly! Shuffle Along or The Making of The Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed (SA2016), not only gives a new audience a glimpse of what life and art was like for African American performers of yesteryear, it also gives us, in the powerful production and performances of the descendants of Florence Mills, William Grant Still, Gee, Blake, Sissle, Miller and Lyles something to celebrate today!