When I heard the news that the Broadway tour-de-force, Shuffle Along, was set to close on July 24th — a full 2 months earlier than its original closing date in September — I, along with so many others, immediately shouted “Why!?” How can such a work of musical and historical brilliance be ending early? If anything, it should be extending its run.
Perhaps it’s because of powers beyond their control. Perhaps this grand production is too hot for casual theatergoers to handle? Perhaps it’s because there are no A-list Hollywood celebrities filling its marquee? Regardless of the reason, I am eternally grateful to have had the chance to not only see this amazing tribute to cultural excellence on the Great White Way, but to also have seen it with my mother.
Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, is the story of the little musical that could at a time when everyone insisted it couldn’t. Beginning in 1920, the tale revolves around to double acts — one consisting of actors/writers F.E. Miller & Aubrey Lyles, and the other of composers/lyricists Noble Sissle & Eubie Blake. All four men of color struggled to make it in show business during a time when vaudeville was the gateway to treading the boards on Broadway. And this delightful story tells us just how this talented quartet went on to create the hottest ticket on Broadway in 1921.
To translate that into modern concepts: This delightful story tells us just how this talented quartet went on to create the historical equivalent of Hamilton on Broadway in 1921.
I must confess my enthusiasm for this production is selfish on multiple levels. I have a fleeting connection to one of the creators of the original Shuffle Along — Noble Sissle is from my hometown of Indianapolis. I’m not only a theater geek, but a history buff, so the opportunity to see a little told story about a fascinating slice of America’s theatrical past certainly caught my attention. And the most selfish reason? … The chance to see Brian Stokes Mitchell perform on Broadway has been on my bucket list ever since I heard him sing on the original cast album of Ragtime: The Musical. Let’s just say he and Chita Rivera will forever hold a special place in this far less talented nerd’s heart.
The Music Box Theatre is the pitch perfect space to form this symbiotic relationship with Shuffle Along. The history of the theater melds beautifully with the drama, comedy, musical and fourth-wall breaking that makes Shuffle Along such a delight to the senses. The plot of our tale begins in 1920, where the team of Miller & Lyles is desperately trying to make their way out of the small “ghetto” of blackface-only roles available to many artists of color, and Sissle & Blake are trying to turn their few modest theater and radio hits into something that will elevate their status. Throughout the musical, these primary motivations continue to not only punctuate the highs and lows of mounting the first commercial musical love story with an all-black cast on Broadway, but they also play a roll in the unification and destruction of both duos.
Over the course of three hours, Shuffle Along manages to deliver on every feature of great storytelling any theatergoer could ask for. If you love drama, there’s plenty of that. If you love romance and heartbreak, it does not disappoint. If you love historical realism, it’ll punch you in the gut when you least expect it.
Many fans and critics of the show will speak to the exceptional musical aspects of Shuffle Along. And who could blame them? Between Mitchell’s delicious baritone to Savion Glover‘s award-winning choreography to Audra McDonald’s … well … everything, the music, dance and lyrical splendor is almost too sweet for consumption. Hell, if you don’t feel completely blown away by Billy Porter’s second-act blues solo, I question your appreciation for any form of art.
But what struck me as even more remarkable about Shuffle Along was the dynamic and subtle beats of drama that gave the story life. I love music and dance more than words can fully capture, but songs and choreography alone do not a great musical make. It’s the story, the characters, the hopes and tragedy of the tale that keeps the audience invested from start to finish. Without them, a musical is just a concert punctuated by moments of ennui.
Shuffle Along never leaves us feeling as if these characters are caricatures. Lottie Gee isn’t a diva of the Chitlin’ Circuit just because. She’s a brown woman striving to keep her head held high as she uses her talent — and her talent alone — to build a music career worthy of respect and praise. Whether it’s racism, misogyny, economic inequality, or a simple need to see their name in lights, each player from the ensemble to the marquee headliners is giving a voice, a personality and a motivation to be a part of this grand adventure.
Even poor Brooks Ashmanskas, the lone white performer in the cast, manages to give every character he plays — I stopped counting at 9 — a distinct weight and moment of ambition that drives them to behave just so. And can I say without qualification, Ashmanskas deserves his own standing ovation at the end of every curtain. He’ll effortlessly leave you in stitches one moment, and itching to knock him off his high horse the next. Kudos to you, sir.
Another feather in the show’s cap is how Shuffle Along never shies away from the truth about the bias of Broadway audiences, and subsequently, the lack of diversity in its theater selection season after season. Not coincidentally, a topic that’s been the spotlight of the 2015-2016 theater season. It is this reality and historical perspective that gives the musical its best moments of tension. From Sissle selling his father’s pocket watch to pay for everyone’s train fare to the first town on tour to Lyles’ refusal to kowtow and schmooze the would-be angels of black theater in exchange for his self-respect, we are treated to fully developed characters who compel us to empathize even when the orchestra is silent. It makes moments like Adrienne Warren’s boisterous “I’m Not Crazy” in the first act feel impressively vibrant, while ensuring that McDonald’s tearful second-act solo lamenting the end of her affair feel equally genuine and rich.
It may seem odd to praise a showstopping musical extravaganza for its drama and subtlety, but I think that’s one of the many reasons why the early closing of Shuffle Along is even more devastating. Many will come for the dancing, the singing and the laughs, but they’ll be pleasantly surprised by the depth of the characters and the scope of their grand undertaking. And the thought that not everyone who can get to see the production before it closes may be able to is truly a sad way to see this landmark theater season on Broadway end.
The only solution? Grab a ticket and make your way over to the Music Box Theatre where you can learn why everyone’s just wild about Harry … and maybe why shows like Shuffle Along are truly lightning in a bottle.