On the subject of success, George C. Wolfe has always been ambivalent. Wary.
”When I was little, I remember rehearsing starving, so that when I got to New York I would know how to do it,” he told me. “I came to New York to write and direct, and when I got here, a lot of my rage came out.” As it happens, he said that to me 30 years ago, shortly after the opening of his take-no-prisoners satire, The Colored Museum, at the Public Theater. In the three-decade interregnum, he has run the Public Theater, written and staged several of the landmark plays and musicals of our time — key among them Tony Kushner’s Angels In America and the musicals Jelly’s Last Jam and Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk — and paved the way for Tom Hanks’ Broadway debut in Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy. Re-united with Noise/Funk collaborator Savion Glover, Wolfe now stands nominated for two Tony Awards as the conceiver, author and director of Shuffle Along Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, also a nominee for best new musical.
Shuffle Along Etc. is, fundamentally, about success in general and the paradox of success for black artists in America. Like Jelly’s Last Jam, about the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz, Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, Shuffle Along starts with historic truth — the musical opened at a ramshackle theater on Broadway, became an instant
“Noble Sissle’s daughter said that when her father became very ill, he said to her, ‘I’m not scared of dying. I’m just scared no one will remember me.’ I find all of that very very moving. Surviving failure is one thing. Surviving success is…is challenging,” — George C. Wolfe
and influential sensation, and then all but disappeared — and then digs into the thorny consequences, tangled tendrils and infuriating outrages of that success. It remains a subject that finds Wolfe — 30 years older and wiser — no less eager to box with.
DEADLINE: Let’s start with how your Shuffle Along came about.
GEORGE C. WOLFE: Savion and I reconnected and I realized it was time to do this story, to figure out why I was fascinated by it. I wanted to live inside this Oh, gosh! Oh, gee! energy, which I had at the beginning of my career. You can’t live there, because you know, making shows is hard so you’ve got to get smart and tough. But I missed that, and I was curious to see if I could strip away a lot of who I’d become and reconnect with this 23-24-year-old person who came to New York and believed it was all possible.
DEADLINE: Shuffle Along starts out by showing how the artists came together to make the show. But then it becomes about the artists themselves.
WOLFE: I realized I was really writing about two phases of my career. Act I is about the innocence of discovery. I’m into digging the thing that’s underneath the thing that’s underneath the thing that’s underneath. I don’t think it’s that new, I’ve sort of always been doing it. At times I think you have to shove everything away so you can go on your journey. In Colored Museum it was, Let me blow up everything so I can go on a journey. Otherwise there’s something standing in the way of the journey you’re going on. If you level the landscape you can start to dig and build.
And then Act II is about success and this primal fear that I think we all have as we get to a certain age, that is: Will people remember the best of what I did? We all have it. Will my children remember the best of what I did? Will the people in whatever occupation I had, will they remember the best of what I did? You have these expansive dreams of possibilities and then they’re followed by concerns about being valued and remembered. On opening night, [Shuffle Along songwriter] Noble Sissle’s daughter said that when her father became very ill, he said to her, “I’m not scared of dying. I’m just scared no one will remember me.” I find all of that very very moving. Surviving failure is one thing. Surviving success is…is challenging, with the consequences and what you lose along the way.
DEADLINE: This was not your first experience along those lines.
WOLFE: It was true when I was working on Lucky Guy and Nora was writing her last essay, “Things I Will Miss.” The final one is “pie,” and I realized those essays and Lucky Guy were companion pieces. [Lucky Guy was about the late newspaper columnist Mike McAlary and Ephron’s own experience working as a reporter]. At the time I was working with her on it, I didn’t know she was sick. No one knew she was ill. But then she was giving all these clues, you know what I mean? It’s fascinating, finding where the secrets come from. You have to be open to them. You can’t smash things while you’re digging, you have to be very delicate and not throw anything away.
DEADLINE: What were the consequences for the original artists of Shuffle Along?
WOLFE: Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle [who wrote the songs] went for years where they only spoke on stage, and then you cut to the end of their lives and they present this story that they were always close and connected. I find that fragile and moving.
Lottie Gee [the role played in the show by Audra McDonald] – she was the star of Shuffle Along. And then Florence Mills came along. And then she was the star of Chocolate Dandies and Josephine Baker came along. And then she did this show in Berlin called Chocolate Kiddies and then Adelaide Hall. And I became intrigued by this talented, gifted, hardworking person who ended up standing next to someone with more charisma — just the brutality and the meanness of that. You’re really gifted…and then that person next to you is just a little bit more. That shit just happens. And it became a fascinating clue as to who she is. Lottie toured Europe earlier than the Twenties but Europe wasn’t ready for her. Europe was ready for Josephine Baker. Lottie arrived at the party too early. I’m fascinated by the cruelty of timing. It’s just the way it is. All the things that can happen to an artist regardless of how prepared they are and how smart they are and hard-working they are and attractive — doesn’t matter. There’s always somebody cuter. There just is.
DEADLINE: And what were the consequences of Shuffle Along for you?
WOLFE: The thing about Shuffle Along is that it was original. Who did they have to study? They were the first to achieve that level of success. How did they know how to stay in the room, how did they know that the rules change with success? How did they know any of that? I found the fact that they defied the odds so incredibly thrilling. They made something new and then everyone aped what they made because that’s what happens when you enter the popular culture. The dynamics of race are always in play with anything, ordering food in a restaurant, but I think this is about the consequences of what happens when you contribute something to the popular culture. People will eat it. I wrote Colored Museum so I could write any play I wanted to after that. That journey feels personal to me. Confidence comes in going on personal journeys in a public arena and feeling as though you have a right to do that. You have to give yourself permission to discover what you need to discover and not worry about how pretty the journey is. If you’re aware of the pretty, you’re not going to dig into the mess. You’re not going to find something startling for you and startling for the people who witness it.
DEADLINE: There’s a pretty compelling through-line from Jelly’s Last Jam to Noise/Funk to Shuffle Along.
WOLFE: I think in Jelly I was much more judgmental. ‘Cuz I was younger so when you’re younger you get to be judgmental. I’m fascinated by the revue structure but instead of the revue structure allowing you to coast on the surface of something, how does that structure allow you to go deeper? Early in my career I felt I had to indict the shallowness. As opposed to let it be, it’s got nothing to do with me. The doing of it is hard enough, who has time to indict anyone? I was exploring the vocabulary of how to make a musical my own. Part of my brain is a historian’s brain. I love finding things. I tell people I do projects based on being hit by a bus. If I’m working on a project and I walk out onto the street and I get hit buy a bus, am I going to be pissed because the last thing I was doing was this project?
DEADLINE: Is the story of Shuffle Along now finished?
WOLFE: Before opening night I became very nervous and very sad and I couldn’t figure out why. And then I realized it was because I’d really fallen deeply in love with the show. It’s done. But somehow I don’t think something is over about it in terms of my involvement. I have no idea what that means.