Sheet music for "Love Will Find a Way", a song from the show
F. E. Miller|
1921 Broadway |
1933 Broadway revival
1952 Broadway revival
2016 Broadway adaptation
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, Florence Mills, Fredi Washington and Paul Robeson, and became such a hit that it caused "curtain time traffic jams" on West 63rd Street. It had brief revivals in 1933 and 1952. A 2016 Broadway adaptation, Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, has a book by George C. Wolfe about the challenges of mounting the original production and its effect on Broadway and race relations.
The four writers were African-American Vaudeville veterans who first met in 1920 at a NAACP benefit that was held in Philadelphia. None of the four had ever written a musical, or even appeared on Broadway. Promoters were skeptical that a black-written and produced show would appeal to Broadway audiences. After finding a small source of funding, Shuffle Along toured through New Jersey and Pennsylvania. However, with little funding, it was difficult to meet travel and production expenses, and the cast rarely got paid. When the show came back to New York, about a year later, during the Depression of 1920–21, the production owed $18,000 and faced strong competition on Broadway in a season that included Ziegfeld's Sally and a new edition of George White's Scandals. It was only able to book a remote theater on West 63rd Street that had no orchestra pit. In the end, however, the show earned $9 million from its original Broadway production and three touring companies, an unusual sum in its time.
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Miller and Lyles wrote thin, jokey dialogue scenes to connect the songs: "The plot of ... Shuffle Along was mainly to allow an excuse for the singing and dancing." But the musical drew repeat 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 show's dancing and sixteen-girl chorus line were more reasons why the show was so successful. According to Time magazine, Shuffle Along was the first Broadway musical that prominently featured syncopated jazz music and the first to feature a chorus of professional female dancers. It introduced musical hits such as "I'm Just Wild about Harry", "Love Will Find a Way", and "In Honeysuckle Time". The musical launched or boosted the careers of Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Florence Mills, Fredi Washington and Adelaide Hall. 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 toured for three years and was, according to Barbara Glass, the first black musical to play in white theaters across the United States. Its appeal to audiences of all races and celebrities such as George Gershwin, Fanny Brice, Al Jolson, Langston Hughes and critic George Jean Nathan, helped to unite the white Broadway and black jazz communities and improve race relations in America.
Two dishonest partners in a grocery store, Sam and Steve, both run for mayor in Jimtown, USA. If either one wins, he agrees to 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, virtuous Harry Walton, vows to end their corrupt regime ("I'm Just Wild about Harry"). Harry gets the people behind him and wins the next election, as well as the lovely Jessie, 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. The musical toured successfully throughout the country up to 1924.
Historical effect and response
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 was the first Broadway musical to feature a sophisticated African-American love story, rather than a frivolous comic one.
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, Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1928, starring Adelaide Hall and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, became the longest running all-black show on Broadway (up to that point), running for 518 performances. 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 at 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, credited Shuffle Along with launching the Harlem Renaissance, as did Langston Hughes.
The show was revived at the Mansfield Theatre, New York City, from December 26, 1932, to January 7, 1933, starring Sissle, Blake, Miller, Lyles, Mantan Moreland and Bill Bailey. This production was unsuccessful and closed after 17 performances.
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 Shuffle Along, 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".
A stage adaptation, titled Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, featured the original music from Shuffle Along and other songs by its creators, with a book written by George C. Wolfe based on the original by Miller and Lyles and historical events. The show focuses on the challenges of mounting the 1921 Broadway production of Shuffle Along, its success and aftermath, including its effect on Broadway and race relations. The production opened on Broadway in April 2016 at the Music Box Theatre, directed by Wolfe, and choreographed by Savion Glover. The cast starred Audra McDonald as Lottie Gee, Brian Stokes Mitchell as Miller, Billy Porter as Lyles, Brandon Victor Dixon as Blake and Joshua Henry as Sissle. The adaptation received ten 2016 Tony Award nominations but won none. The production closed on July 24, 2016.
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