Yesterday afternoon, I attended the 100th and final performance of George C. Wolfe and Savion Glover's glorious Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. It was one I didn't want to miss even if it would be my third time seeing the show. When I first saw it at the end of April, I did something I hadn't done in thirty years: I went back to the box office and bought a ticket to see it again right away. This musical had an effect on me that's difficult to put into writing. But since that's what composing these columns is all about, I'll give it a try.
Taken July 24th, the last time the Music Box marquee
would offer a performance of Shuffle Along
To start with, the show had me at "Hello." From the first orchestral riff, with a dark, bare stage that slowly comes to life by the dim glow of a ghost light stage right, one by one, actors file in to fill the space. A touch of narration from the pen of George C. Wolfe sets the time, space and tone, and then the opening number "Broadway Blues" begins. Magnificently choreographed by Savion Glover, by the end of it, I was as caught up as anyone with an eye and an ear for talent can be. Every member of this acting, singing and dancing chorus is as good as Broadway gets. It's impossible to imagine an ensemble better than this one, especially with the high level precision required of their dancing. After the ovation, the chorus entered to go into the next number and was greeted with an ovation that stopped the show—all of it occurring in the first five minutes.
The show's story is of a time, but is timeless. Even with the literary license the show takes with the characters, there's nothing dishonest about it. It's a play, not a documentary. How these African-American actors, writers and composers put together a breakthrough musical like Shuffle Along back in 1921, is a tale worth telling, especially as it's now been forgotten. The penultimate number in the show, "They Won't Remember You," makes its case only too well.
The show's five equally billed stars are also very close to being equally compensated with stage time. One or two get their one or two showstoppers (Audra McDonald and Billy Porter, this means you), but everyone is perfectly cast and all have moments to shine. Brian Stokes Mitchell, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry are all superb. And make no mistake that Adrienne Warren is on a path to a major career in the musical theatre, unless film and television snatch her up first. For a singer-actress whose work I had never seen before, I have rarely been so dazzled by a newcomer.
My role in writing these blogs is not one of critic. Critical maybe, if what I'm writing calls for it. This is not a review, but a morning after report written from the viewpoint of a fan. Not only a fan of the musical theatre, but of groundbreakers like this one; whose creators possess courageous foresight and a willingness to cut to the bone; to expose the darkness necessary, while still bringing something beautiful (and long buried) into the light.
Why this Shuffle Along failed to connect with a wider audience is one I don't have the answer for. The woman I sat next to yesterday, a retired schoolteacher from New Jersey (what can I say? people interest me) was as excited as I was to see the show. When I mentioned it was my third time, she smiled and grasped my arm, as if I had given her some sort of guarantee against disappointment. It worked, as at some point during the first act, she leaned in and whispered, "I know why you saw it three times."
I haven't felt so bereft for a musical's short and unhappy run since John Kander, Fred Ebb and David Thompson's The Scottsboro Boys. It too was a tough sell, with its one Caucasian cast member (just like Shuffle Along), and an inability to sell the show to people who felt is what might be store was a lecture, or maybe a history lesson, with music and dance included to help make the medicine go down.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Both shows were vibrant and alive and teeming with talent and great, great songs (and dancing). Both shows were liberating in style and spirit, but ultimately made its characters' happiness short-lived, slammed shut by prejudice, sometimes in a brutal fashion. I tried to get as many people as I knew to see both shows, and what I heard mainly was, "Yeah, I hear it's good, but—" and whatever that "but" was, it was never good. People want their dreams to come true, not to be fleeting.
Of course, what is more fleeting than theatre? We've all been in the presence of something special and alive going on up on stage, something that will never be again, even if the same actors and the same crew show up the very next night and do it all over again. It's extraordinary. There's nothing like it. And it's ephemeral. The final moment in Shuffle Along is when Brian Stokes Mitchell blows into his fist, shakes it, then releases whatever empty magic it contained out into the atmosphere. Then he gestures with his hands that it's gone... the perfect mix of melancholy and joy the musical embodies and embraces.
When a show of this quality closes after only three months, a feeling of accomplishment can easily be replaced by a feeling of being
unappreciated, and even forgotten (something the original cast of Shuffle Along