Theatre yesterday and today



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If you have yet to see George C. Wolfe's brilliant Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, what are you waiting for? By that I don't mean rushing to see Audra MacDonald before she exits for maternity leave. Yes, she's wonderful, but I've visited the show twice; once with her and once with her understudy, Darlesia Cearcy, and they are both well worth seeing, as is the entire musical. It's sensational.

This dramatic recreation of the behind-the-scenes goings on of what was the first all-black Broadway musical written and directed by an all-black team tells an extraordinary story. Shuffle Along was the biggest hit of 1921, with its leading actors, the comedy duo of F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, also serving as its co-book writers. The composers were Noble Sissle (who also appeared in the show) and Eubie Blake, who would go onto fame (and some degree of fortune) as the songwriters of such hits as "Affectionate Dan," "Memories of You" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry," which they wrote for Shuffle Along.

I saw Shuffle Along twice in one week. After seeing it on a Saturday afternoon, I returned again to see it the following Friday night, something I haven't done in a long time. I mean, I would have done it for Hamilton, but well... you know. So with Shuffle Along on my mind these past few weeks and with this being June 20th, rifling through some theatre history led me to discover a certain incident from this date that was shared by the men and women of the original Shuffle Along, who toiled in the shadow of its significance.

By 1910, the enormously popular Bert Williams was one of the most famous names on the vaudeville circuit. Though African-American, he almost always appeared in blackface, which was the norm for its time. Essentially the Jackie Robinson of show business, Williams was the first person of color to share the bill with white performers on Broadway, but more importantly, he was the first black American admired by people of all races. That said, the mingling of the races was still something which made many Americans very nervous

Audiences of 1910 might not have been so shocked if a black performer appeared on stage with white performers, as they were always in blackface. How could they really tell who was who? But the idea that anyone buying a ticket to The Ziegfeld Follies didn't know of Bert Williams was next to impossible. Not only couldn't he be hidden, but Florenz Ziegfeld fully intended to showcase Williams and bill him as a star attraction alongside Lillian Lorraine and Fanny Brice. Ziegfeld's biggest problem wasn't whether or not this might go down with the public, but more about whether members of his company would go out on stage with him. Several cast members demanded Williams be fired. Standing tough, Ziegfeld told them, "I can replace every one of you, except [Williams]."

Ziegfeld alone made it possible that Bert Williams could take his place where he belonged, and so it was on this date he appeared in the cast of the opening night of The Ziegfeld Follies of 1910: side by side with the other great vaudevillians of the day. Beloved by those who saw him on the stage, his masterful comic timing, pantomiming and singing can now only be glimpsed by bits and pieces of film. But the genius is all there.

One of those Williams shared the stage with was the comedian W.C. Fields, who is quoted as having said of his friend: "He was the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever met."

Williams left this earth too soon, from what many reports have indicated was a life of overwork. He couldn't bear disappointing his audiences if he was too sick to go on, and often performed when ill. One night, fighting a serious case of pneumonia, he collapsed on stage and was said to have remarked after being taken off into the wings, "That's a nice way to die. They was laughing when I made my last exit.”

His life ended within a week. He was forty-six years old.

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