Shuffling Back to Broadway: The Tap Musical That Helped Break Down Racial Barriers in Theater Returns-With a Twist

By Gold, Sylviane | Dance Magazine, April 2016 | Go to article overview

Shuffling Back to Broadway: The Tap Musical That Helped Break Down Racial Barriers in Theater Returns-With a Twist


Gold, Sylviane, Dance Magazine


If you call it a revival, you'd be half wrong. If you call it a new musical, you'd still be half wrong. Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed is something of a mongrel, both a new staging of the famous Jazz Age show and an account of how lyricist Noble Sissle and composer Eubie Blake created it. The new material is written by Tony-winner George C. Wolfe, who conceived the whole project and brought Tony-winner Savion Glover on board to choreograph.

The stellar cast brings even more Tonys to the table: Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter, just for starters. When "CBS Sunday Morning" looked in on an early rehearsal, a buoyant young ensemble was busy trying to absorb Glover's distinctive tap style. "I haven't tap-danced in decades," McDonald told the camera. "They do it different now," she said with a smile. Porter concurred, comparing it to learning a foreign language. Mitchell noted that he would have to blow the rust and the dust off his tap shoes.

Glover has joined forces with Wolfe several times, most notably for the 1996 Tony-winning Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. (And they have both worked before with Mitchell.) When Shuffle Along opens this month at the historic Music Box Theatre, it will become part of the celebrated history of the game-changing 1921 musical, even as it retells that history.

For those not up on their musical theater lore, Shuffle Along was a critical stop along the path to the Broadway musical we know today, beholden to black music and dance and culture and unthinkable without the musical contributions of African Americans like Sissle and Blake or without the pizzazz of legendary African-American performers like Josephine Baker and Lena Horne. They are hailed now, but when Sissle and Blake created the original show, they were pioneers, daring to bring a black cast to Broadway in a musical they had written and produced themselves with their pals, the comedy team Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. The black performances familiar to white theatergoers of the time were stereotypes concocted for minstrel shows or vaudeville bits. But the Broadway musical remained the province of showy revues and stodgy, European-style operettas, as theater historian Robert Kimball and composer William Bolcom recount in their wonderful book Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake.

Packed with archival photos and reproductions of promotional pieces--"Musical Knock-Out," blares one--the book traces how this daring gamble paid off for Sissle and Blake, and the rest of us, too. It credits them with being "among the few writers who refused to go along with the crushing stereotype imposed on them by the white man." Shuffle Along, a comic take on crooked politicians in the American South, was a winner at the box office, and it awed critics and audiences alike, running for more than a year in New York and generating successful touring companies in Boston, Chicago and London. …

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