UPDATE Friday morning: Eubie Blake was 95 years old when Eubie! opened on Broadway in 1978. Julianne Boyd, who conceived and directed the show, writes:
[The show] featured most of the songs from Shuffle Along plus others written by Eubie. We did a birthday party at a Shubert theater (forget which one — they donated it) to celebrate his 100th birthday 5 years later. He was in frail health and died a few days later. Some historians say he was actually born in 1887 (making him 91 when we did Eubie!), not 1883 but he swore (and so did everyone who knew him) that he was born in 1883.
PREVIOUSLY: I’ve written here before that there is no artist in the theater today I admire more than George C. Wolfe, a writer and director blessed with the sharpest mind, the quickest wit, the wildest imagination and the fastest mouth in town. Without him, the theatrical landscape of the past 25 years would be inarguably flatter, whiter and duller.
Consider his Broadway résumé alone: 1992’s Jelly’s Last Jam, the groundbreaking musical biography of nearly forgotten self-described inventor of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, which Wolfe wrote and directed. 1993 and ’94’s Angels in America, the most influential and, in strong measure a result of his staging, entertaining play of the past quarter-century. Bring in ‘Da Noise/Bring in ‘Da Funk — his idea, script, staging and lyrics of a show that compressed the history and influence of African-American dance into yet another dazzlement of sight and sounds. Caroline, or Change, his second collaboration with Angels playwright Tony Kushner, this time a musical that spoke at the most profound, personal level to the fraught affair between African-Americans and Jews in the South during the first tremors of the Civil Rights era.
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This is a selective list and there are others, each ambitious and exploding with ingenuity, talent and risk. And one more essential ingredient, which is anger. I don’t know any other artist of Wolfe’s stature who has channeled rage into so brilliant and identifiable a catalogue raisonné. More often than not, that unsettling need to make a case, argue a point, declare and defend an unorthodox view has produced shows with energy, beauty and staying power.
Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, falls squarely within that body of work and inspiration. Wolfe has taken the story of an all-black musical that became an enormous and influential hit in the early part of the last century and made of it a parable not only of African-American invisibility but of the soul-draining process of making art itself when so much of it is ephemeral.
Shuffle Along, or The Making… is an angry musical, its solid outrage sublimating not into bitterness or brutality but instead into a kind of suffusing sorrow over the cultural loss that is as fundamental to the legacy of racism as its more violent aspects. “They won’t remember you,” says the all-purpose white observer of this otherwise black enterprise. “But…” says one and then another of the artists. “They won’t remember you,” the refrain comes before the protesters have even finished speaking.
Of a piece with Jelly’s Last Jam and Noise/Funk, Shuffle Along, or The Making… filters the true story of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s show, which opened in 1921 at 63rd Street and Broadway — near the slums that decades later would be bulldozed to make way for Lincoln Center. Desperate to get a show on, Sissle (the lyricist played by Joshua Henry) and Blake (the composer played by Brandon Victor Dixon) formed an alliance with vaudeville stars F.E. Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter). Miller and Lyles were taken with the Sissle and Blake sketch “The Mayor of Jimtown” and felt they could build a full musical around the story of a small town and its mayor’s race.
They enlisted Lottie Gee (played by Audra McDonald), a Kentucky-born singer ready to graduate from chorus girl to star — and star she became in the show, which introduced the Sissle and Blake standards “(I’m Just) Wild About Harry” and “Love Will Find a Way.” The road to opening night presented more than the usual tribulations of getting a show on its dancing feet, but when it opened, Shuffle Along became an instant draw for café society, Fifth Avenue swells and an ever-changing roster of talent that would include Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, Florence Mills, Paul Robeson and musician-turned-composer William Grant Still, among others.
The professional “let’s put on a show” struggles of Shuffle Along‘s creation makes up the larger share of Act I, though there’s no attempt to re-create the musical even in part, beyond the musical numbers. If you can explain the story of the Mayor of Jimtown, drop me a line. I don’t think it’s relevant to Wolfe. His heart is in the aftermath. The creative quartet would fall apart. Sissle and Blake followed up with another successful show, Chocolate Dandies, before going their separate ways over long and fruitful careers. (Blake lived to see Eubie!, a hit musical biography, open on Broadway when he was 95 years old.) Miller and Lyles tried to mount a couple of sequels to Shuffle Along, but they failed and eventually ended up in the admittedly striated ranks of the Hollywood film business.
Unlike Jelly’s Last Jam, Shuffle Along, or The Making… lacks a complex hero whose genius is thwarted by social roadblocks and raging ego. Wolfe’s subtler concern is with the co-optation of the show’s musical and theatrical achievements by white artists who would find wealth and fame from ripping off black inspiration. (In this regard, Shuffle Along, or The Making… recalls Dreamgirls.) The strongest case Wolfe makes is against George Gershwin, an acknowledged fan and frequent visitor to Shuffle Along. The composer William Grant Still was oboist in the pit on West 63rd Street; a four-note riff he frequently played (and later incorporated into his own orchestral work) is also heard in the first four notes of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” Debate over whether Gershwin swiped the earworm phrase seems to me overblown; composers have stolen from one another since the beginning of music.
The more serious problem is that an idea is not a focal point, and so Shuffle Along, or The Making… never resolves into a story. Instead, it’s a series of historical scenes that tell, rather than show, and that’s deadly for a musical. It’s unquestionably entertaining to watch the five principal actors here at work, none less than consummate (though, brilliant as she is, McDonald has long since aged out of ingenue roles).
The show has the confident, polished look of a no-expense-spared endeavor, from Santo Loquasto’s blink-and-you-missed-one series of elegant sets, splendidly lit by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, to Ann Roth’s period-perfect clothes. And yet Shuffle Along, or The Making… struck me as both rough and unfinished. It falls or flies on its kinetic energy, but the tap dancing is muddy; the great choreographer and tap-dancer Savion Glover might simply have needed more time with the company.
More important, the show is conceptually flawed, and it’s hard to tell whether that ever can be resolved. This conudrum is part of what makes Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed such a compelling part of the puzzle that is George C. Wolfe. I want to see all of his work, for all of it engages and challenges and even entertains me, even when, in the end, it doesn’t come together.
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