What makes the 1921 “Shuffle Along” worth discussing? It was a groundbreaking musical revue written by four African-American men – Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, F.E. Miller, and Aubrey Lyles. Not only was it the first musical for all four writers, it was the first major production in a long time to be created and produced entirely by African-American, like at all. That it played in New York of all places, and that it had an incredibly successful run for its time, shows how important a cultural milestone it was.
So the original “Shuffle Along” stands as a vital moment in theatre history, yet so few people know about it. George C. Wolfe, legendary Broadway director, decided to bring its story back to Broadway, but not the story the original told (some forced plot about a mayoral race that no one really cared about because the score and the dancing was really what they were after). Instead, he wanted to tell the story behind the mounting of that show and how it came to be and what happened to those four creators and all those stars they made after all the success of the musical sensation of 1921. Naturally, to tell this story, you hope to gather the most incredible African-American performers there are today. You hope to get Audra McDonald, queen of everything, to play the diva Lottie Gee. You hope that Brian Stokes Mitchell, Broadway’s longtime beloved leading man, will join you as one of the four creators, along with other Broadway stars Billy Porter, Joshua Henry, and Brandon Victor Dixon. You even have the pipe-dream that Savion Glover, the best tap dancer in the entire world, will choreograph the whole thing and attract the most incredible dancers to the ensemble. And then that all happens! And you get “Shuffle Along 2.0 or the Show That Could Have Been Amazing But Is Really Just Very Good”.
Yeah, not joking. All those amazing parts came together, but yet you are left feeling a little unsatisfied. You expect the show to really hit you and resonate with you, but it never fully makes that emotional connection. No matter how far I put out my feelers, the ones coming from their end never made contact. “Shuffle” is wonderfully exciting to watch for the most part, but it’s more like the original than it wanted to be: The score (the same score as the 1921 one) is great, the dancing is out of this world, but the book is a bit of a mess. Such a mess that, unlike most shows, “Shuffle” wisely took advantage of its preview period, making necessary changes night after night until the show was frozen. Unfortunately, this is one show that definitely could have benefited from an out-of-town tryout so it was in even better shape before the move to Broadway. Then it could have used previews to hone and tighten rather than reimagine and rewrite as much as it did. Because of the wattage of all the stars involved, an out-of-town tryout was nigh impossible, but I wonder what could have been possible if they made it happen. As it is now, “Shuffle” has a fine story in the first act, and you pull for them to make it to New York and have success and be able to buy train tickets and stuff. It is positively magical when Audra, one of the greatest divas of our time, sings as another great diva; when BSM sings because oh my god that voice (and they didn’t make nearly enough use of it); and when the ensemble dances to Savion’s insane choreography. I say insane both in the way I describe things that are amazing, and also in the way that means actually insane. Some of the dancing is almost manic, all maniacally energetic and so fast and disjointed and trippy that you can’t believe they aren’t falling down or convulsing but somehow they are still dancing. The ensemble really deserves as much credit for doing these moves as Savion deserves for making them do it.
But then much of it feels blank. My mind wandered a little in the first act and then a lot in the second, when they tell you how important everything that happened in the first act was and how monumental the original “Shuffle” was and how it affected all their lives, but they kind of just tell you. Repeatedly, yet nothing sticks. I know some people are still confused at what Joshua Henry’s Noble Sissle talks about in a monologue about how his former military officer was killed and made Noble promise to continue what he was doing by creating opportunities for black musicians…I think. It was obviously a really important moment, but it didn't come across very strongly. There’s a lot of talk about how these men had such an important job to do and how meaningful what they did was, and it was of course, but this show didn’t do much to make you believe it and know it for yourself. Without any background about the original “Shuffle”, it’s not easy to jump in accepting how significant it really was. It’s a difficult task this show took on, and they do a good job, but not great.
The big dance numbers are the best parts of the show, by far. My favorite featured the ensemble split into two groups, facing each other, kind of having a dance-off but using crazy tap-as-weapons that looks like their feet are falling off. It was crazy fun. I wanted more of those kinds of numbers to fill the holes in the book. Luckily, the entire cast is terrific. Of course Audra and B(d)SM are phenomenal, and it’s really special, beyond special, to see them onstage together again after starring in “Ragtime” so many years ago. One of my favorite facts is that Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Eubie Blake (one of the few creatives who had success after “Shuffle”), said his first Broadway show was “Ragtime”, starring his now his costars (and Audra plays his love interest). I love that! Hooray for this community! I also loved Billy Porter’s big number, “Broadway Blues” (I think). He gets a big bluesy number to bring the house down, and he does. It’s tailored to his talents – overdoing it, but in a fun way. It’s the perfect opportunity for him to let loose, because it works as this huge and exaggerated number, and it’s not bad if Billy overacts, which he sometimes does but we love him for it. And Adrienne Warren, Tony nominee for this show, was really fantastic pulling double-duty as Gertrude Sanders & Florence Mills. She really performed the two characters so distinctly and was truly lovely. Sadly, I don’t remember Joshua Henry getting to really shine on any song. He’s solidly good but has the smaller role of the four men, so his beautiful voice doesn’t get enough airtime. I loved loved the train station song that had Brian lifting the spirits of the ensemble, leading to some impeccable dancing, but I wanted Brian to sing more too. That voice is just velvet and I would have been happy if he (and Audra) just started singing the phone book (or “Ragtime”). I wish I could speak specifically on each song, but weirdly, there is no song list in the Playbill. This made sense during previews when the show was changing every night, but now it’s been frozen for a while so I don’t get it. I can say of course that "I'm Just Wild About Harry" was phenomenal, as sung by Audra, because that is the most famous song Sissle & Blake wrote so I'm pretty sure it was in there. RG.
The surprising thing to me, though, is that if "Hamilton" wasn’t around this season, “Shuffle” would be winning the Best New Musical Tony Award (it has already won the lead-up awards that Ham was eligible for last year). I'm kind of like whoa about it, because the book is a mess - which makes it all the more upsetting that some pundits think it should win the Best Book Tony over Hamilton just to spread the wealth. And, without this current cast, I have some doubts about how it will hold up. Audiences will get an answer to this sooner rather than later, as Audra’s preggernancy will bring in her replacement Rhiannon Giddens. I don’t know her, and I’m sure she is wicked talented, but a lot of the magic of this show came from knowing you were watching Audra, the greatest musical theatre actress maybe ever, play another famous singer. And a lot of the magic from watching the men’s scenes came from knowing you were watching a group of beloved Tony winners and nominees shine. Without a strong second act and with the importance of the original cast, it would be a winner on the weaker side. Still, as it is now, it’s a solid show with an all-star cast that I would jump at seeing onstage together again if I could. I am so lucky I saw it before Audra got preggers. She's leaving soon, and I've heard reports that in the meantime she is sometimes a bit scaled back, probably because the alien inside her is making her nauseous. And it’s the best tap dancing you’ll see maybe ever. The story they are trying to tell is one of great importance, and I wish it was told a little more clearly, a little more cleanly. But you know, it did get me interested enough in the original “Shuffle” to do my own research into it. If other audience members do the same, and if a lot more people now know about the original show and what it did for African-Americans and for theatre, then that is a big success.
I think fine. One night when I didn’t have to yell at anyone! OH important note - this is a Scott Rudin production, and he famously does not allow late seating in his shows. If you miss the very start of the show, you don't get to come in from the lobby until Act II, no joke. This is really great to stop all the shitheads who don't think live theatre is important enough to stop them from hanging at the bar a little longer or stuff like that, but I do worry about the very few people who will be negatively affected who don't deserve to be for reasons out of their control (read, I worry that one day I will be late). But for the most part it's a good idea. I did hear from a few people that ushers at his shows don't let you bring water bottles in, but that shit should be illegal and if anyone tried to take mine away I would have starting railing about all the amendments. ALL OF THEM.
No one came out boooooo. I wanted to ask Brian to record my outgoing voicemail. Just kidding. Not really. #velvetteddybear