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Musical of the Month

Musical of the Month: Shuffle Along

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A guest post & edition by Brian D. Valencia

Lyricist Noble Sissle and cast members from the musical "Shuffle Along," ca. 1921., Digital ID 1819503 , New York Public Library

When Shuffle Along opened at the 63rd Street Music Hall on May 23, 1921, it marked the return of all-black musical shows to Broadway after nearly a decade-long silence. The last successful musical wholly written and performed by African Americans to be performed south of Harlem had been the George Walker–Bert Williams vehicle Bandanna Land in 1908. When Walker fell ill on its tour, Williams was left to star alone in the following year’s Mr. Lode of Koal, which ran only half as long as its predecessor with half of its top billing missing. The only other original all-black musical show to play New York City during this period was the so-called Darktown Follies, a revue produced in three editions between 1913 and 1915 and revived in 1919–1920 at the Lafayette Theatre at 132nd Street and 7th Avenue.

The scarcity of black musicals on Broadway during the 1910s resulted largely from economic stresses stimulated by the United States' participation in WWI and racial tensions that were rekindled directly following the war. No Broadway producer was willing to take a risk on a "colored show" in an uncertain economy, especially when African-American servicemen were returning from tours of duty not to grateful acknowledgement of their heroism, but to the unfounded fear that they had been formally trained to kill white men and could lash out at any time.

Because of the long dry spell that preceded it, Shuffle Along has often been called the "first successful African-American Broadway musical," a title it cannot claim. The show was really the cultural inheritor of a number of important earlier efforts in black musical theater, starting with A Trip to Coontown (1898), likely the first musical entirely written and performed by African Americans to be presented publicly. This was followed three months later by an afterpiece called Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk (1898), the first such musical to play a major Broadway house, albeit the rooftop garden of the Casino Theatre. In Dahomey (1903, which had also starred Walker and Williams) was the first full-length all-black musical to play the main stage of a major Broadway house. After 53 performances in its original New York run (a sizeable achievement for any Broadway show of that era, let alone an all-black one), In Dahomey transferred to London's Shaftesbury Theatre, where it caught the attention of King Edward VII and received a command performance at Buckingham Palace.

Even these remarkable works are not without precedent. Black writer Pauline Hopkins's musical play Peculiar Sam, or The Underground Railroad (1880), for example, demonstrates a fascinating intermediary dramatic form somewhere between blackface minstrel entertainment and narrative musical comedy a full generation earlier than African-American efforts in musical theater are usually recognized.

But it was the popular success of Shuffle Along among mixed-race audiences and the musical's embodiment of all things jazz that separated it from its predecessors. Shuffle Along's most serious musical competition during the 1920–1921 and 1921–1922 Broadway seasons was Florenz Ziegfeld's production of Sally, then playing the opulent New Amsterdam Theatre, twenty-one blocks south in the heart of Times Square. Sally's Cinderella story of a dishwasher-turned-Ziegfeld Girl—with a book by Guy Bolton, score by Jerome Kern, dance music by Victor Herbert, sets by Joseph Urban, and a winning title-role performance by Marilyn Miller—should have spelled doom for a scrappy little hodgepodge like Shuffle Along. Although its creators were regulars on Keith's vaudeville circuit, Shuffle Along boasted no real stars, started $18,000 in debt, endured hand-me-down costumes that (according to composer Eubie Blake) "still had sweat-stains under the arms," and played a theater that "violated every city ordinance in the book." Yet in its original run Shuffle Along chalked up 504 performances, only 66 fewer than Sally, an almost unbelievable feat given the uneven playing field.

Flournoy E. Miller., Digital ID 1223225, New York Public Library The idea for the show was first concocted during a 1920 Philadelphia NAACP fundraiser when vaudeville comedians Flournoy E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles—who performed in burnt-cork blackface—met the songwriting team of Noble Sissle and James Hubert "Eubie" Blake—who performed in crisp, tailored tuxedos. The plan was to expand Miller and Lyles's short comic sketch "The Mayor of Dixie" into a full-length musical show and take it to Broadway. According to lyricist Noble Sissle, the foursome "felt we had a message—we felt that the gloom and depression as an aftermath of the war had left the country hungry for laughter... that was so expressed in our music and rhythms."

Miller and Lyles set about writing the book, crafting central comic roles for themselves to play. Meanwhile, Sissle and Blake supplied the score: a mix of their existing standalone compositions and songs newly written to fit the emerging story. The result featured a double plot immediately emblematic of the two teams' contrasting performance styles that concerned a three-way mayoral election (the stuff of variety and revue) and a tangentially related sentimental love story (the stuff of operetta and musical comedy). Despite its structural eccentricities and tonal split personality, their "musical mélange," as they called it, was undeniably charming and full of the most up-to-date sounds. After a string of outright dismissals, the musical soon found a devoted advocate in Henry Cort, the son of a wealthy white New York theatrical impresario, who joined the show formally in the role of producer.

The fledgling production scraped its way through a scattershot, two-month tryout tour before Cort convinced his father to lease him a defunct lecture theater on the south side of 63rd Street, midway between modern-day Lincoln Center and Central Park. Because the building had been originally intended for religious meetings and films, it was hardly ideal for live musical theater: the stage was too shallow for elaborate sets or dancing, and there was no orchestra pit. But repairs and renovations—including the removal of three rows of seats to accommodate more playing space and a fourteen-piece orchestra—began immediately. Theater improvements continued without break through the first few performances, providing the musical numbers the additional (most likely apocryphal) accompaniment of workers' syncopated hammer blows.

As Blake later recalled, the 63rd Street Music Hall "was really off-Broadway, but we caused it to be Broadway... It was the price of the ticket that mattered. Our tickets cost the same as any Broadway show." On opening night, the most expensive orchestra seats cost $2.00. "That made it Broadway!" By mid-June, Shuffle Along was a sure hit, thanks especially to effusive word-of-mouth, but also high-octane notices like this frequently quoted review from the New York Herald Tribune:

It is when the chorus and principals of a company that is said to contain the best negro troupers in these parts gets going in the dances that the world seems a brighter place to live in. They wriggle and shimmy in a fashion to outdo a congress of eels, and they fling their limbs about without stopping to make sure that they are securely fastened on.

Signs that something extraordinary was happening were everywhere. So that curious performers in other Broadway shows could see for themselves what all the buzz was about, Shuffle Along added special Wednesday midnight performances, and to accommodate the sudden increase in street traffic around the theater, 63rd Street was reestablished as a one-way. By November 1921, demand for Shuffle Along tickets was so great that the price per seat was raised to an unheard-of $3.00 (about $38 in today's money), and the likelihood of continuing its run into the next calendar year was almost certain. The original company, in fact, continued to play the Music Hall through mid-July 1922, after which it took to the road, where it joined two other Shuffle Along touring companies in bringing the show to the rest of America.

On the audience-side of the curtain, the most lasting achievement of Shuffle Along was that it, more than any other show, began dismantling racial segregation of Broadway theaters. Although handfuls of whites had ventured up to black performances at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre as early as 1912, the opening night of Shuffle Along—at which Variety reported that black patrons sat as far forward as the fifth row from the stage—marked an important stride toward integrating orchestra-level seating in theaters south of 125th Street. White patrons had traditionally (in a scheme President Woodrow Wilson tried but failed to legalize during his recent term in office) enjoyed the orchestra level to themselves, and relegated African Americans to the theater’s uppermost balcony.  The box office of the 63rd Street Music Hall, however, was willing to sell seats in the rear one-third of the orchestra to African-American ticket-buyers, a modest yet revolutionary departure from the segregated audience model.

Eubie Blake, Musician., Digital ID 1223228, New York Public Library

The musical's continued ability to draw in white theatergoers demonstrated an unprecedented willingness on their behalf to pay to see black talent on Broadway—and not just in Shuffle Along, but also in the spate of black musicals (for which Shuffle Along opened the door) throughout the 1920s. The best of these shows offered immersive, top-to-bottom jazz experiences, full of seemingly conflicting elements that found unexpected, ever-shifting harmonic relationships at syncopated intervals, while undergoing continuous repetition with revision. Other black artists like Langston Hughes admired Shuffle Along and looked to it as an important catalyst for the new "Negro vogue" in art (the Harlem Renaissance) that was at once distinctly African-American, yet acceptable to and accessible by mainstream American culture. Although it would still be some time before the black musical could fully exorcise itself of 19th-century racial stereotypes and minstrel-show shtick, Shuffle Along led the vanguard in beginning to showcase, as George C. Wolfe has called it, "the real juice, ... the real spark, not black performers performing white people's vision of black people."

Nowhere was this felt more than in Sissle and Blake's innovative score, Shuffle Along's greatest artistic legacy, described by one reviewer as a "breeze of super-jazz blown up from Dixie!" Its fresh, steady supply of foxtrots, one-steps, two-steps, rags, and the blues induced involuntary physical reactions from both the performers and the audience, as the second number concedes: "When they see me shake, it makes them shiver. / When I do a break, it makes them quiver. / ... / I'm just full of jazz, jazz, jazz..." Theirs was such a novel sound that when James Reese Europe's military band played Sissle-and-Blake tunes abroad during WWI, foreign audiences couldn't believe their ears; such music, they believed, was only possible on trick instruments. Guided by rhythms that Blake was convinced had their roots in Africa, but adapted to a new American harmonic funk coupled with a melodic freedom, the music seemed to capture at once the spirit of of post-war liberation, the sound of the modern city, and the voice of the melting pot.

Blake very much knew and prided himself on delivering the kind of music 1920s audiences craved. He explained in an interview:

The successful songwriter of today must be something more than a mere juggler of harmonious sounds. . . . The mushy, sobby, sentimental love songs of twenty or more years ago would not be popular today. Nor would the semi-martial music of songs popular during [WWI] make a hit now. What the public wants today are lively jazzy songs, not too jazzy, with love interest, but without the sickly sentimentality in vogue a generation ago.

The Shuffle Along pit musicians played from memory, Blake also explained, so as not to disturb the closely held white belief that African Americans could not read plain English, let alone musical notation. Playing without sheet music, however, cleverly afforded the orchestra the appearance of improvising its way virtuosically through each performance—although the score had actually been carefully orchestrated by Will Vodary (a composer for the Darktown Follies) under the direction of Eubie Blake, who conducted from the piano. Even its orchestra left an indelible stamp on Broadway: after Shuffle Along, any pit band that did not include rhythm percussion sounded terrifically incomplete and old-fashioned.

The musical's setting, the fictional, all-black Jimtown, Dixieland, provided Miller and Lyles a no-holds-barred arena in which to have fun with purportedly Deep-Southern manners. The mythical Jimtown is so deep, in fact, that New York City seems unknown there: when told that a man from New York has come to see him, Steve Jenkins responds, "Where's dat???" Except for a few eloquent well-to-dos (most notably the lovers), the dominant tongue in Jimtown is a broken English delivered with a thick Southern drawl, full of malapropisms ("unveil" instead of avail, "slam" instead of salaam), distortions ("lextriv" for electric, "gentlemenses" for gentlemen), and general linguistic confusion ("...how do you spell ‘cat' anyhow?" / "Der ain't but six letters in it").

Poignantly resonant with our current moment, Jimtown first appears gripped in the throes of election-year politics, and in the energizing opening number, "Election Day," the three mayoral candidates air their positions musically. The first, Steve Jenkins (played in blackface by Miller) and his zealous supporters "stand for everything we can get." Next, Steve's business partner and chief rival, Sam Peck (played by Lyles, also in blackface), leaves the campaigning to his badgering wife, who clearly wants to be "First Lady of the town" more than Sam wants to be the mayor of it. Finally, wholesome Harry Walton champions a virtuous era of "Honor" and "Justice," but because he refuses to buy votes (unlike his challengers), he languishes at the polls. Confusion surrounding the election and its outcome provides a broad jumping-off point for much of the show's comic business, the bulk of which (including the twenty-minute "Jimtown's Fisticuffs" comic ballet) was recycled from Miller and Lyles's vaudeville routines.

Tied to that plot by the thinnest of strands is the unadorned musical-comedy love story between Harry Walton and Jessie Williams, who (as per Jesse's father, Jimtown's distinguished hotelier) can be married only on the condition that Harry wins the election. Although the lovers receive preposterously little attention compared to Steve and Sam, it is Jessie and Harry who sing the two most enduring songs in the score: "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Love Will Find a Way." "On opening night," recalled Sissle, the latter song "had us more worried than anything else in the show. We were afraid... we'd be run out of town." Sentimental love stories between black characters had previously been taboo because, in the irony-streaked words of actress and songwriter Alberta Hunter, "Negros didn't have romance." "Imagine our amazement," concluded the show's lyricist, "when the song was not only beautifully received, but encored."

Although today it would be easy to dismiss Shuffle Along as mere mindless fluff or as an offensive relic of its time, beneath the tired vaudeville jokes, the crude racial caricatures, and the non-sequitur specialty turns, something more serious might be lurking. Upon close look, the musical is full of strange and often troubling evocations of the history of black oppression in America. Steve Jenkins admits during his stump speech, "I may not wear watches and chains—but I have worn—" "Balls and chains," Sam offers as a completion to the thought. A citizen named Rufus Loose identified as a Civil War veteran (an African-American man who presumably fought for the South) wanders without any immediate dramatic purpose through the libretto. Figures with the highly charged names Uncle Tom and Old Black Joe appear "from the time long ago" only to perform a song about fixing Jimtown elections and then disappear. Even the musical's title suggests the physicality of the slave's ring shout, characterized by its circular, shambling ritual motion.

But rather than linger long enough to provoke critical inquiry, these allusions occur and then, themselves, promptly shuffle along—as the title song advises them to do:

...don't start a-singing the blues,

But just you shuffle along,

And whistle a song.

Why, sometimes a smile will right every wrong.

Keep smiling and shuffle along.

As fleeting memories and images of the black experience in America, these flashes of something darker form a subversive pageant of black history that runs throughout the musical. But the comedy is so loud and the tunes are so peppy, that that story—unless you actively seek it out—inevitably gets lost in the shuffle.

A Note on the Libretto

Although I have honored the original manuscript text as much as possible, I have standardized spelling and punctuation throughout, in addition to silently correcting apparent typographical errors. Some obvious and overgrown stage directions have been eliminated or trimmed, and others have been amended for clarity. This, too, I've done without comment.

The libretto's placement of "Uncle Tom and Old Black Joe" and "Everything Reminds Me of You" does not agree with the run order printed in the playbill. For consistency, I have deferred to the libretto but offer bracketed notes suggesting alternate locations. Similarly, I've supplied in brackets the lyrics for "Goodnight, Angeline," "Ain't It a Shame?," "Daddy, Won't You Please Come Home?" and the songs in the "Few Minutes with Sissle and Blake" sequence (which do not appear in the 1921 libretto) where they were likely heard.

Although Sissle and Blake's song "The Vision Girl" seems to have been interpolated into Shuffle Along, its placement in the libretto is not immediately clear and, therefore, does not appear there.

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Further Reading

The most complete writing on Shuffle Along as both a theatrical work and a turning point in early twentieth-century American culture can be found in the following (sometimes conflicting) sources:

Kimball, Robert. "Sissle & Blake's Shuffle Along, liner notes to Shuffle Along, New World Records NW 260 (1976). (Available online: http://www.newworldrecords.org/linernotes/80260.pdf.)

Krasner, David. "Shuffle Along and the Quest for Nostalgia: Black Musicals of the 1920s" (ch. 11) in A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910–1927. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. 239–267.

Savran, David. "Shuffle Along" in Highbrow/Lowdown: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2009. 72–6.

Woll, Allen. "Shuffle Along" (ch. 5) in Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dreamgirls. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1989. 58–75.

About the guest blogger & editor

Brian D. Valencia is a doctor of fine arts candidate in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at the Yale School of Drama, where he is writing a dissertation on the rise and proliferation of musical dramatic forms in 18th- and 19th-century America. As a composer, musical director, dramaturg, and performer, Brian has showcased his own theatrical work in New York City and New Haven, Connecticut. He is originally from Bay City, Michigan, and holds a master of fine arts degree from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in musical theater writing, as well as a bachelor of science degree from Yale College in chemical engineering.

 

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Financing

I'd be interested to hear if you have any hard information about who actually underwrote the production. I've heard different ideas.

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