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Remixing ‘Shuffle Along,’ a musical that brought new sounds and moves to Broadway

Almost everything has been forgotten about "Shuffle Along," the 1921 Broadway musical written, performed and directed by African Americans. But the production was hugely influential, altering the evolution of the art form. Now there's a new "Shuffle Along," a new musical about the original, starring Audra McDonald and choreography by Savion Glover. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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    Now: A new show is opening on Broadway that is part homage to an old musical with a historic role for black performers, and one that also included a very complicated racial legacy.

    That show is now being reinvented. "Shuffle Along" debuted to generally strong reviews last night.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story behind a show that was years in the making.


    Just one song, "I'm Just Wild About Harry," would last, largely because Harry Truman adopted it years later.

    Almost everything else about "Shuffle Along," the 1921 Broadway musical written, performed, and directed by African-Americans, was forgotten.

    And George Wolfe, one of today's leading theater directors, told us that he found that hard to accept. We spoke at the famed Sardi's Restaurant.

  • GEORGE WOLFE, Director, Shuffle Along:

    "Shuffle Along" was the first time there was a woman's dancing, hoofing chorus. And I went, why isn't this discussed?

    And then I went, so this altered the American musical. And then I realized it was the first jazz score, which then introduced syncopation into the American musical. We know about "West Side Story," but don't know anything — we didn't even think to include "Shuffle Along" in this conversation.


    Wolfe has now created a something new titled "Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed," a musical, that is, about the musical that Wolfe hopes continues a conversation begun by the original show's creators.


    So, it isn't just, how do we present blackness on the American stage? I think it's more interesting. How do we present who we are in our myriad facets, by being black, by being American, by being Southern, by being Northern?

    So, they're trying to figure out all these things not in a calculated way, but in a — in the most natural expression of who they are, which is their art.


    The new musical features an all-star team of talent, led by six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, who plays Lottie Gee, the actress who starred in the 1921 production.

    It's choreographed by Savion Glover, the renowned tap dancer and creator of the 1990s bring in "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk." He, too, took on the project with a sense of mission.

  • SAVION GLOVER, Choreographer, Shuffle Along:

    I don't think anyone has a choice to walk out of that theater not knowing something that they didn't come in with. There's so much information in the show, something we call edu-tainment. It's not just about putting on a show. It's about making sure that we continue to elevate the minds of this generation, and then of generations to come.


    Four men created the original 1921 play, composer Eubie Blake and lyricist Noble Sissle, writer-actors Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, and brought new sounds and moves to Broadway.

    The play introduced onstage romance between blacks, rarely, if ever, seen in the era. It also included older elements of Vaudeville and black actors in blackface.

    Tony award winners Billy Porter and Brian Stokes Mitchell play the comedy team of Miller and Lyles.

    BRIAN STOKES MITCHELL, "F.E. Miller," Shuffle Along: One of the parts of the show is that our two characters performed in blackface, as did many performers back then.

    And it's interesting, because it had a different context for African-American performers, because it was more like a — in a sense, a mime mask is. But then those characters and that style was usurped by white culture, who then didn't really understand, appreciate, honor that tradition that it came from, and it became a caricature then of black behavior at the time, and became offensive.

    BILLY PORTER, "Aubrey Lyles," Shuffle Along: You know, to be truthfully honest with you, just from reading the song titles on the album cover, me and my black friends, in our naivete, sort of rejected this show in the way…




    Because, you know, they had songs like "Pickaninny Shoes" and "Bandanna Land." And we heard that there was blackface. And, you know, without context, without historical context to sort of look at it through that lens, we immediately rejected it. And I think this has been such an amazing journey for me to understand.


    The original 1921 "Shuffle Along" was a Broadway sensation, bringing white audiences to a story of and performed by blacks, playing more than 500 performances, unheard of at the time.

    The likes of Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson appeared in it, before going on to international stardom. Leading white artists of the day, including George Gershwin and Florenz Ziegfeld, came repeatedly and borrowed or lifted riffs and moves, another part of America's cultural history.

    It was a great success, but a painful aftermath, as the four creators of the musical squabbled among themselves and never again worked together.


    I think it's what makes the material exciting and why you go on the journey. And I think the large idea that "Shuffle Along" is about is, will I be remembered? I came into this world with X-amount of equipment and X-amount of desires and dreams and frailties, and I tried to do the best I can.


    As opening night approached, though, Savion Glover, having created the moves the actors will dance to, had something more immediate on his mind.


    I'm going to sneak in there one day to tie somebody up. It might be Billy Porter.


    But we're not going to know when.


    You're not going to know when.


    Now, that would delight theater and dance fans.

    From the Music Box Theater on Broadway, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."

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