|Book||F. E. Miller
1933 Broadway revival
1952 Broadway revival
Shuffle Along is an African-American musical revue with music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, and a connecting plot about a mayoral race, written by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. The piece premiered on Broadway in 1921, running for 504 performances – an unusually long run during that decade. It launched the careers of Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall and Paul Robeson, and became such a hit that it caused "curtain time traffic jams" on 63rd Street.
The four writers were Vaudeville veterans who first met in 1920 at a NAACP benefit that was held in Philadelphia. After finding a small source of funding, Shuffle Along toured through New Jersey and Pennsylvania. However, with little funding, it was difficult to pay travel and production expenses, and the cast rarely got paid. When the show came back to New York, about a year later, the production owed $18,000. In the end, however, the show turned a substantial profit.
Instrumental version of "I'm Just Wild About Harry" recorded 17 May 1922. Duration 3:54.
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The musical was a big hit with audiences due to its jazzy music styles, which were a modern, edgy contrast to the mainstream song-and-dance styles that audiences had seen on Broadway for two decades. The sixteen-girl chorus line was one of the main reasons why the show was so successful. It also introduced musical hits such as "I'm Just Wild about Harry", "Love Will Find a Way", and "In Honeysuckle Time". The musical boosted the careers of Josephine Baker and Florence Mills, who became "instant stars". The show also contributed to the desegregation of theaters in the 1920s, giving many black actors their first chance to appear on Broadway. Once the show left New York, it continued touring for three years and was, according to Barbara Glass, the first black musical to play in white theaters across the country.
Sam and Steve both run for mayor in Jimtown, USA. If either one wins, he will appoint the other his chief of police. Sam wins with the help of a crooked campaign manager. Sam keeps his promise to appoint Steve as chief of police, but they begin to disagree on petty matters. They resolve their differences in a long, comic fight. As they fight, their opponent for the mayoral position, Harry Walton, vows to end their corrupt regime ("I'm Just Wild about Harry"). Harry wins the next election as well as the girl and runs Sam and Steve out of town. One character remarks that the lighter the skin, the more desirable an African American woman is.
The show premiered on Broadway at the Daly's 63rd Street Theatre on May 23, 1921, and closed on July 15, 1922, after 484 performances. It was directed by Walter Brooks, with Eubie Blake playing the piano. The cast included Lottie Gee as Jessie Williams, Adelaide Hall as Jazz Jasmine, Gertrude Saunders as Ruth Little, Roger Matthews as Harry Walton, and Noble Sissle as Tom Sharper. Gertrude Saunders was replaced by Florence Mills. Josephine Baker, who was deemed too young at age 15 to be in the show, joined the touring company in Boston, and then joined the Broadway cast when she turned 16. Bessie Allison's first professional performance was in Shuffle Along. The orchestra included William Grant Still and Hall Johnson.
- Other productions
- Road versions toured successfully throughout the country up to 1924.
- The show was revived at the Mansfield Theatre, New York City, from December 26, 1932, to January 7, 1933, closing after 17 performances.
- In 1933 Blake, Sissle, Miller and Lyles reunited but the production was not met with critical success.
- A 1952 revival, starring Sissle and Blake, Avon Long and Thelma Carpenter and choreographed by Henry LeTang, was also unsuccessful. It opened at the Broadway Theatre on May 8, 1952, and closed after four performances, but was recorded in an abridged form by RCA Victor, combined with selections from Blackbirds of 1928.
- An excerpt of the show, the musical fight between the two leading characters, was made into a short talkie film by Warner Bros in the early 1930s. It, and another similar short featuring Miller and Lyles, were found in the Warner Bros archives in 2010, where they had been misfiled. The titles are "The Mayor of Jimtown" and "Jimtown Cabaret".
Historical effect and response
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The show was "the first major production in more than a decade to be produced, written and performed entirely by African Americans." According to the Harlem chronicler James Weldon Johnson, Shuffle Along marked a breakthrough for the African-American musical performer and legitimized the African-American musical, proving to producers and managers that audiences would pay to see African-American talent on Broadway. Black audiences at Shuffle Along sat in orchestra seats rather than being relegated to the balcony. It featured the first sophisticated African-American love story.
According to theatre historian John Kenrick, "Judged by contemporary standards, much of Shuffle Along would seem offensive ... most of the comedy relied on old minstrel show stereotypes. Each of the leading male characters was out to swindle the other." Nevertheless, the African American community embraced the show, and performers recognized the importance of the show's success to their careers. "Shuffle Along was one of the first shows to provide the right mixture of primitivism and satire, enticement and respectability, blackface humor and romance, to satisfy its customers".
After Shuffle Along, nine African-American musicals opened on Broadway between 1921 and 1924. In 1928, the first edition of Lew Leslie's Blackbirds featured Bill "Bojangles" Robinson as the first black dance star on Broadway. In 1929, Harlem, a drama by Wallace Thurman and William Rapp, introduced the Slow Drag, the first African-American social dance to reach Broadway. However, the success of the show set limits on the black-themed shows that followed. "Any show that followed the characteristics of Shuffle Along could usually be assured of favorable reviews or a least a modest audience response. Yet, if a show strayed from what had become the standard formula for the black musical, disastrous reviews became almost inevitable. ... The result of this critical stranglehold on the black musical was that ... black authors and composers prepared shows within extremely narrow constraints.
Nevertheless, scholar James Haskins stated that Shuffle Along "started a whole new era for blacks on Broadway, as well as a whole new era for blacks in all creative fields." Loften Mitchell, author of Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the Theatre, credits Shuffle Along with launching the Harlem Renaissance.
- Kenrick, John, "History of The Musical Stage, 1920s Part III: Black Musicals", musicals101.com, accessed August 22, 2009.
- Glass, pp. 176–179
- Hill, Errol (1987). The Theater of Black Americans. Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 0-936839-27-9, p. 132.
- Sutton, Allan (August 29, 2007). "Black Swan's Other Stars". Articles. Wilmington, Delaware: Mainspring Press. Retrieved 8 March 2010.
- Jessie Carney Smith, ed. (1996). Notable Black American Women 2. Detroit Michigan: Gale Research Inc. pp. 73–75. ISBN 0-8103-9177-5. Retrieved 8 March 2010.
- Wintz, pp. 7–8.
- Krasner, David. A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1927, Palgrave MacMillan, 2002, pp. 263–67
- Woll, Allen. Black Musicals: From Coontown to Dreamgirls (1989), Da Capo Press, p. 78
- Haskins, James (2002). Black Stars of the Harlem Renaissance. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 0-471-21152-4, p. 31
- Glass, Barbara S. (2012), African American Dance, an Illustrated History, MacFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina, and London. ISBN 978-0-7864-7157-7
- Williams, Iain Cameron (2003). Underneath a Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall, Continuum. ISBN 0826458939
- Wintz, Cary D. ed. (2007). Harlem Speaks: A Living History of the Harlem Renaissance, Naperville: Sourcebooks. ISBN 978-1-4022-0436-4