George C. Wolfe owns a book, a handsome pictorial history of Broadway. In the section about 1921, there are 10 pages of photos and explanations of major shows of the year. “Shuffle Along,” surely the most important black show of its time and the season’s biggest hit, is nowhere to be found.
Wolfe, renowned for the speed at which ideas tumble from his brain into his words, talks even a bit faster as he explains where he located a mention of the little-known but historic milestone. “It was at the end, in a list of shows that also ran that season,” he says with contagious incredulity. “How could something so significant get turned into somebody else’s footnote?
“That is when I knew this was a story.”
And now the story is a musical called — deep breath now — “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.” The much-anticipated show-about-a-show, written and directed by Wolfe with the original Eubie Blake/Noble Sissle score, opens April 28, the last night before the cutoff for Tony Award consideration and the official end of the busy season.
The A-list cast and creative team are at least as head-turning as the name of their project. The actors include Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry. (McDonald will not perform June 20-Sept. 11, when she takes her 2015 Tony-winning performance of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” to London. No summer replacement has been announced yet, though Wolfe swears “she will be very exciting.”)
Choreography is by Savion Glover, the extraordinary dancer who became a major Broadway star in “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk.” Wolfe won one of his two directing Tonys for that one. The other was for “Angels in America,” which also won a Pulitzer, as did “Topdog/Underdog,” which he also staged while serving as artistic director of the Public Theater from 1993-2004.
Wolfe has been working on “Shuffle Along” for about a year and a half, but has been thinking about it a lot longer. In college, he says he became “obsessed” with Paul Robeson, who had been in a replacement cast of the original. The obsession extended to Florence Mills, another replacement during the show’s impressive 504-performance run. According to musical historian Gerald Bordman, Josephine Baker was originally hired to be a dresser for the road company, then got onstage when a chorus girl got sick.
“I became really interested in the musical,” says Wolfe, “that was this portal through which all these incredibly brilliant artists passed. It introduced jazz syncopation into the American musical. It had a silly book, but an astonishing score and unbelievable dancing. It had the first ‘women’s hoofing chorus’ ” — a real dancing chorus instead of women parading in fancy costumes. “It had innovations in the form that has influenced everything that followed it.”
As musical historian Robert Kimball wrote in his book “Reminiscing With Sissle and Blake,” Florenz Ziegfeld and George White even hired showgirls from “Shuffle Along” to teach jazz steps to white Follies girls. “White show people spread the word first,” writes Kimball about the special midnight performances that attracted everyone from Al Jolson to critic George Jean Nathan. “Then came politicians and other celebrities. And it soon became a society fad.”
Here was a musical written, performed and directed by blacks and presented at a dilapidated theater close enough to the big houses to qualify as Broadway. The show was a collaboration between two vaudeville teams — lyricist Sissle and composer Blake, plus comedy writers Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. As Bordman tells it in his book “American Musical Theatre,” money was so scarce that costumes were bought from a folded show called “Roly-Boly Eyes.” Scenery was minimal and, after one-night stands in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the thing opened with huge debts.
Then the reviews came in. “Nobody had time to explore an agenda,” says Wolfe. “No time to ask themselves how they can please this white audience or that African-American audience. They just needed to hold it together and stay above water.”
The show, mostly remembered now for “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and “Love Will Find a Way,” left what Wolfe describes as “tons of recordings.” But there is no footage of the production. Wolfe has seen the personal styles of Sissle and Blake from a filmed compendium of vaudeville acts, “but that’s about it for the visuals.”
It is impossible to talk to Wolfe without asking him to compare opportunities for black artists in Hollywood and on Broadway. While the movie industry endures public self-flagellation over the absence of diversity in the Oscar nominations, Broadway is feeling pretty good about its openness right now. In addition to the multicultural “Hamilton,” the Japanese-American “Allegiance” and the Latin-American theme of “On Your Feet!,” blacks are central in the revival of “The Color Purple,” “Eclipsed,” and, until its recent sad closing, “Hughie.”
“It would be nice to believe that everything’s changing,” he answers with thoughtful skepticism. “Things are changing. But if you’ve been around long enough, you see the cyclical nature of Broadway. Each season has a sort of magical arbitrariness. Each has its own circumstances. Sometimes you go, ‘Ohmygod, is every play going to be British?’ Other times, you think the musical is dying. I just think each season has its own story.”
He says that after the success of “Shuffle Along,” “producers all wanted their own African-American shows, but designed them to appeal to a white Broadway audience.” He jokes that they looked at the smash and just said “ ‘Give me one of those.’ ”
He plans to give us one of those — and most likely, a lot more.