A smile flashes across George C. Wolfe’s face as he makes a rather startling admission. He hasn’t yet seen Hamilton, the megahit musical that has rewritten Broadway history, nabbed a record 16 Tony nominations and is sold out until somewhere near the end of the Trump Administration. “I’ve been working,” he says simply. “I literally haven’t had a chance to see it.”
Excuse accepted. For the past few months Wolfe has been racing to finish his own Broadway musical–titled, not so simply, Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. The show opened at the Music Box Theater on the last day of the Broadway season, drawing mostly enthusiastic reviews and garnering an impressive 10 Tony nominations of its own. In another season, Shuffle Along might be looking ahead to a Tony sweep. In the year of Hamilton, Wolfe and his creative team are most likely doomed to spend awards night chained to their seats, applauding repeatedly for a hip-hop Founding Father.
But Broadway’s snazziest also-ran has made theatrical history too. Hamilton is a breakthrough show that has been hailed for opening new vistas for the musical. Shuffle Along looks backward rather than forward but makes an equally important statement about where Broadway has been and where it’s going. It’s partly a revival and partly a backstage drama, revolving around a nearly forgotten 1921 musical, one of the first all-black shows to become a hit with mainstream Broadway audiences. Shuffle Along ran for about 500 performances and went on to tour extensively, providing a launching pad for such future stars as Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson and integrating Broadway audiences in a way no other show had before. Despite that pedigree, almost no one remembers it.
Yet Wolfe, who conceived, wrote and directed the show, has done more than just excavate a forgotten chapter in American theater history. His show links that history with the amazingly vital contribution that African-American artists have made on the contemporary Broadway scene. Along with Wolfe–the acclaimed director of such shows as Angels in America, Jelly’s Last Jam and Caroline, or Change–Shuffle Along has been choreographed by Savion Glover, the avatar of tap-dancing greats like Charles “Honi” Coles, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers. He was also Wolfe’s collaborator on the 1996 hit Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, which won four Tony Awards itself.
The cast is an all-star team whose stage credits are a virtual survey course in the role African Americans have had in keeping the Broadway musical alive and strutting over the past couple of decades: Audra McDonald (a six-time Tony winner, for shows ranging from Carousel to Porgy and Bess), Brian Stokes Mitchell (the original Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime), Billy Porter (Kinky Boots), Brandon Victor Dixon (The Color Purple) and Joshua Henry (The Scottsboro Boys), along with one awesomely talented (and Tony-nominated) newcomer, Adrienne Warren. While Hollywood has been under fire lately for the dearth of movie roles and recognition for black actors (for two straight years, not a single Oscar nomination has gone to an actor of color), Broadway has become a model of diversity. Among the 40 actors nominated for Tony Awards this year, no fewer than 14 are black, Hispanic or Asian American.
Shuffle Along is an extravagantly entertaining show, packed with vintage Eubie Blake tunes (including one familiar standard, “I’m Just Wild About Harry”), overflowing with Glover’s vibrant tap-dance production numbers and dense with theater lore about the making of Shuffle Along and the people behind it. Much of that history is merely narrated by the actors onstage rather than dramatized, which gives the show a somewhat pedantic tone at times. But no more so than in Hamilton, which makes its lesson in American history palatable by encasing it in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop lyrics and rhythms. Shuffle Along accomplishes the same thing by means of Glover’s ebullient, galvanizing (and LOUD, thanks to mikes on the stage floor)dance numbers, like the scintillating “Pennsylvania Graveyard Shuffle,” with its suitcase-toting ensemble hoofing its way through a grueling small-town tour before the Broadway opening.
Wolfe, an elfin, soft-spoken theatrical polymath (he began his career as a playwright and was the artistic director of New York City’s downtown Public Theater for more than a decade), is talking about the show while nibbling at a fruit salad one recent morning, just before one of the last preview performances. He knew little about Shuffle Along before launching into the project, he says, though he had come across references to it for years. “I would read something about Josephine Baker, and Shuffle Along would pop up,” he says. “I’d read something about Paul Robeson, and Shuffle Along would pop up. There were, like, these bread crumbs that were being dropped. Gilbert Seldes writes about it in The Seven Lively Arts. Langston Hughes went to Columbia University so he could see Shuffle Along. All these people either connected to it or saw it and celebrated it, and its invisibility became very fascinating to me.”
As he researched further, Wolfe discovered that the show was a pioneer in numerous ways. It was the first Broadway musical to prominently feature syncopated jazz music. (Blake not only wrote the songs but also played piano in the orchestra and, with his partner and lyricist Noble Sissle, performed onstage.) It boasted Broadway’s first chorus of female dancers–previously such chorus lines merely sang and looked pretty. And it was the first show to feature a serious love affair between a black couple onstage; traditionally, romances of color were relegated to comic relief.
What wasn’t workable for a modern audience, Wolfe decided, was the show’s original book–a patchy story about a local political race, which is used mainly as a pretext for the musical numbers and vaudeville-style comedy bits. (Two short-lived Broadway revivals of Shuffle Along, in 1933 and 1952, reworked the book extensively.) “It’s like a lot of 1920s musicals before Show Boat,” says Wolfe, “a mishmash of everything that’s come before: vaudeville meets operetta meets burlesque.” He wound up junking the book entirely and instead wrote a musical about a musical. “The people who made the show became as fascinating to me as the characters they created,” he says.
Chief among them were the show’s two producers, F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, who also worked together as a vaudeville team, often performing in blackface (in the days when even black performers darkened up with cork). But the character who intrigued Wolfe the most–possibly because he had landed McDonald for the part–was the show’s leading lady, Lottie Gee. After struggling on the vaudeville circuit for years, she got the role in her mid-30s, and it made her a star. But she was eventually overshadowed by another singer who joined the cast, Florence Mills. Gee’s career floundered after that. “I became fascinated by this woman who was at the peak of her power,” says Wolfe, “but was born at the wrong time.”
Wolfe’s passion for his historical mission rubbed off on the whole creative team. “Sadly to say, I had never heard about Shuffle Along or these great contributors,” says Glover, who is choreographing his first Broadway show since Noise/Funk. “I was surprised at all the show’s breakthroughs.” He studied up by listening to old recordings (no film footage of the original show exists) and drawing on his prolific knowledge of dance styles of the era. Mitchell, who plays Miller, read through 250 pages of his poems, sketches and other writings in an effort to scope out the man. “We were doing a kind of forensic acting,” he says, “looking for these characters, having to interpolate from what we had read to what really happened. We would rehearse a minute-and-a-half scene and then have an hour-and-a-half discussion about it.” Jamming all that history into one evening of theater proved a challenge. In early previews, the show ran more than three hours. Scenes and musical numbers were cut and added almost daily. An elaborate dream ballet was excised early on. A sequence involving Josephine Baker was also left on the cutting-room floor. Mitchell originally had a solo tap-dance number toward the end of the show, in which his character has a near breakdown when his partner Lyles announces that he is splitting up the team and moving to Africa. After weeks of tinkering, that number was cut too. (Glover has a video record of all the outtakes. “Someday I may do something with it,” he says.)
But the finished show, trimmed down to a relatively sleek 2 hr. 40 min., stands as a major work of reconstruction and tribute. The first act has an upbeat, let’s-put-on-a-show vibe as the producers struggle to raise money and battle Broadway’s racist barriers, before finally booking the show at an out-of-the-way theater without an orchestra pit on West 63rd Street. The second act turns darker and more ambiguous, as the songwriters and producers have a falling-out over royalties, a love affair between Blake and Gee goes sour, and the show’s legacy seems increasingly imperiled–a denouement neatly encapsulated in the astringent climactic number, “They Won’t Remember You!”
“What the show is ultimately about to me is that everybody wants to be remembered,” says Wolfe. “Remembered for having done something that mattered. I was deeply affected by the idea that these people, the best part of them, made something glorious, and none of them were able to duplicate that success ever again. I found that very moving. And I found it even more moving that nobody has memorialized their success.”
“When I was younger I wouldn’t have thought about telling this story this way,” adds Wolfe, 61. “But now that I’m older, I think about these things. I think about the friends who I lost to AIDS–who’s remembering their stories? You walk past statues in New York City and you just go, Who are these people? I used to work for an archive of black cultural history. I would file all these articles for them. And somebody that was significant in 1963 was invisible by 1975. I found all that incredibly moving. All the joy and the strength and the heart it takes to make something–if you’re lucky, it reaches an audience and people celebrate it. And then it’s theater, and it’s gone.”
Shuffle Along is exciting theater–high-spirited and sober-minded at the same time–but if the Broadway gods are smiling, it won’t be gone anytime soon.
MORE SPRING AWAKENINGS
Three more standouts in this season’s crop of new musicals:
A country-flavored pop score by Sara Bareilles shines brightest in this adaptation of the 2007 indie film. The story of a pie-making waitress with marriage problems has more sugar than a heaping slice of Dutch apple.
Dear Evan Hansen
A misfit teenager becomes an accidental Internet star after the suicide of a classmate. Touching, psychologically nuanced and hip to the way kids and parents actually relate, this off-Broadway musical could be a future Broadway hit.
In this musical take on the 1991 novel about a Wall Streeter who hacks up people for sport, Benjamin Walker is creepily charismatic as Patrick Bateman, Duncan Sheik’s jagged rock score matches the mood, and Rupert Goold’s visually arresting staging almost makes you forget what a nutty idea it is.
This appears in the May 23, 2016 issue of TIME.