The wonderful thing about show business is how it makes something out of nothing. Somebody gets an idea, and before long a production company provides work for a raft of people and pleasure for many others. It’s a sustainable industry in the best sense of the word.
The wonderful thing about Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, which just landed ten Tony nominations and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle’s award for best musical, is that it’s about working, about creating jobs for folks who couldn’t get good ones. Director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover took an old idea — the first all-black show to make it to Broadway — and resuscitated it for a new century, providing a book transplant, a fine design team, and a dream cast, contributing to the prospects that the current theater season will enter the history books as a slam dunk for diversity.
The talent keeps coming at you. There’s strong music and movement by a crackerjack ensemble; the big personalities and
exquisite timing of actors like Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter playing F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles (the black performers who hatched the original musical nearly a hundred years ago); enduring songs by
Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (who scored the 1921 production and here are played by Joshua Henry and Brandon Victor Dixon); and blizzards of Glover’s tap choreography, historically on point and inventive. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s alchemical lighting of Santo Loquasto’s subtly shifting scenery — some actual, some digital — takes the breath away. After a few minutes I stowed my notes and surrendered to the sensory overload.
There’s not much of a book — the original show had a bad one, and Wolfe’s replacement doesn’t triumph — but there’s enough to speed through several years and thousands of miles of train travel, helped by Ann Roth’s constantly changing costumes and the cliffhanger fortunes of the intrepid production-within-the-production. The structure is a picaresque: one crisis after another, a chronology rather than a web of connections between people with real feelings. The grand exception is, of course, Audra McDonald as Lottie Gee, the first black ingénue to be featured in a musical (she was over 35 at the time). McDonald, with both her body and her voice, takes up space with the authority of one who absolutely deserves it.
Act I re-creates the historical events, as the team of gifted black theater artists — songwriters Sissle and Blake, vaudevillians Miller and Lyles, and the singers and dancers who hang in through thick and thin — defy very long odds, and a string of white shysters, to workshop their show across the country and guide it toward New York. When defeat appears inevitable, the deep spiritual roots of the troupe, grounded in the black church and community, keep body and soul together.
Act II unspools with a dying fall, documenting, in the manner of a Vitaphone newsreel, “all that followed” after the show’s Broadway run. The vogue for black musicals runs its course; the colleagues feud and fumble, die too young or last for decades in Hollywood or New York. Brooks Ashmanskas’s cameo as Carl Van Vechten, a vituperative critic who generally championed black artists but didn’t love this show, is a high point. Essentially a lecture-demonstration with spectacular production values, Shuffle Along should claim a berth on Broadway for at least as long as The Lion King.
Shuffle Along, or, The Making of
the Musical Sensation of
1921 and All That Followed
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th Street