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An Archeologist on a Musical Dig George C. Wolfe on Shuffle Along

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An Archeologist on a Musical Dig: George C. Wolfe on Shuffle Along

Devin Alberda

Back in 2011, when George C. Wolfe was on a panel of theater professionals tasked to pick the top 10 American musicals of all time, he made a special plea for Shuffle Along, an all-black musical from 1921. “It has a great score that brought jazz dance to Broadway and invigorated the form,” argued the award-winning writer and director. It wasn’t the best musical, he explained, but it should be considered for its status as a phenomenon of the musical theater. Shuffle Along didn’t make the cut on that occasion, but the Tony Award-winning director of Angels in America and Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk can be very persuasive when he’s impassioned about something. Fast-forward a few years to the present and Wolfe has gotten the opportunity to mount a new production of the long-forgotten musical on Broadway.

Now sporting a new title, Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, the trail-blazing musical gets a new lease of life this month with a stellar cast headlined by six-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald. Wolfe’s production retains the groundbreaking score by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, and features a new libretto by Wolfe which replaces the original book by vaudevillians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. The song and book writing teams who created the show have now become characters on the stage, portrayed by Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Joshua Henry. Wolfe talked to me recently about the legendary musical from 95 years ago and what fires his enthusiasm for this current Broadway production.

What first got you interested in Shuffle Along?

To this day it’s fascinating to me that Josephine Baker auditioned for this show when she was 15. She couldn’t get in until the following year because the legal age for working was 16. Paul Robeson joined the cast as a replacement during the run. Then you had the singer and performer Florence Mills, who was at the time probably one of the few international stars of American, British, and French theater. The show’s orchestrator was a man named Will Vodery, who orchestrated Florenz Ziegfeld’s shows, and who later did the orchestrations for Showboat. It was fascinating to discover that all these incredibly significant people from last century, who had such a far-reaching influence, walked through the doorway to the backstage of Shuffle Along.

Would you call it a landmark in American musical theater history?

The Sissle and Blake score is just extraordinary. I’m obsessed, driven by it. Blake wrote stunning, smart, energetic songs for the theater. Intrinsic in his sound is an incredible theatricality, but also the storytelling of the turn of the century: rags and waltzes and stomps and early jazz. So he becomes this very monumental transitional figure in the evolution of the American musical theater. Remember Show Boat [1927] hadn’t happened yet, and Oklahoma! [1948] didn’t exist. So, I think, in its day, Shuffle Along was a landmark piece—not flawless, but in terms of the various components and what it did theatrically, musically, culturally, it was phenomenal. It was also the first time that there was a dancing, hoofin’, women’s chorus. They were paraded out in beautiful, expensive costumes, with a chandelier on their heads or whatever, but this was the first time there was a chorus as a dynamic, sexy entity in the telling of the story. So, the more I found out [about the show’s history], the more intrigued and excited I became. And when I found out how significant the show was when viewed in its day, and how insignificant it is when viewed today, I just felt there was a story there in that discrepancy. It would be the same thing if 40 years from now nobody knew anything about A Chorus Line.

How does your new book differ from the original?

Well, Shuffle Along is like a 1920s musical. It had a whimsical silly little plot: a three-way mayoral race, a young couple in love, and a girl who’s a flapper. There’s the story of Shuffle Along and then there’s the history of the making of Shuffle Along. I was intrigued about the people who made the show. Nothing is being invented, because that history is extraordinary—and things are being mined. It’s not so much how Shuffle Along reflected on the lives of the people who made it, but in many respects how the lives of the people who made it informed the plot of Shuffle Along. For me, Miller and Lyles and Sissle and Blake were fascinating men. Three of them played characters in Shuffle Along. Blake didn’t, because he was the conductor. The dynamics of who they were as people, creators, and entertainers in 1921 New York City—when the city, America, and the world were changing very rapidly—is rich and compelling to me. It was fun going on an archeological dig on Shuffle Along, and then on the people who made the show, and figuring out how they reflect each other.

So you must have done a lot of research into this. Tell us a little bit about what you discovered.

There’s a lot of digging. Blake lived longest, so there’s a lot about him. Sissle also lived long, and so did Flo Miller, but who celebrates the book writer, really? The composers, yes—everybody sings their songs. I just kept finding stuff. You read interviews with Sissle or Blake in the 1970s and they say they were forever partners, but then you read an interview in 1927 where you learn that they broke up and Blake says they don’t speak at times. Or you read that Lyles at one point bought a 1,500-acre plantation in Liberia and you wonder how someone who was touring on the Keith Albee circuit was able to do that. You find a document where Lyles’s wife sold her rights of Shuffle Along after her husband died for $1. What is that? I guess it all depends on who’s telling the story.

Florence Mills actually was a replacement. There was a woman named Gertrude Sanders who got rave reviews when the show opened and then left the show for another which never materialized. Then there was this woman named Lottie Gee, who was a prima donna opera singer. That’s who Audra is playing. She ended up having a very prolonged relationship with Blake. There’s a biography about Blake written by Al Rose, but Blake was married to this woman at the time who forbade Rose from putting too many details about his relationships prior to her. But then, in another book he wrote about jazz artists, Rose includes three pages of stuff that he couldn’t put in that biography about Blake. So all of a sudden you have all these details about Blake and Lottie. If I didn’t make theater, I would probably be a historian. I love digging and finding things.

 

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