Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?

No, this post isn’t about Hamilton, but instead Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. The number of parallels between Shuffle Along and Hamilton are crazy. It’s a shame that the two shows are in the same season, because while Shuffle Along did pretty well in terms of Tony Award nominations, the show’s message is so similar to Hamilton and really brings issues of representation and diversity at the forefront. Here is a story that focuses on a real-life team, the challenges they faced, and how they changed the country. While we complain about #OscarsSoWhite, we forget the work that F.E. Miller, Aubrey Lyles, Noble Sissle, and Eubie Blake created that allowed for black performers to make it on Broadway and beyond. It’s a story that needs to be remembered, and what better way to tell the story then a Broadway musical love letter to the creators and performers who were changing the world in 1921?

Despite all the brilliant names above the marquee, it’s the ensemble that’s the heart of the show. These tap dancing fools light up the stage and bring so much energy to the show. It is truly a stacked cast, but it’s the giant tap numbers (particularly the tap battle) that stand out to me. Savion Glover’s work is astounding and it’s so great to see so many talented black dancers take center stage. While Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry, and Audra McDonald make the most of what they’re given, they individually do not have much to do, and all five actors felt underutilized to me. Dixon, who had Blake’s own backstory in addition to a love triangle, had the most to do, and was rewarded with a Tony nomination. To have big Broadway stars sign up for a show for the sake of telling a bigger story, rather than time in the spotlight is truly a beautiful thing. Of course, they each have a number that reminds you why they’re stars, but it’s the ensemble that carries most of the heavy lifting.

Much praise must go to George C. Wolfe, who directed the show and wrote the updated book. Kudos to him for realizing the potential in a behind-the-scenes story that happened during the creation of a game-changing show and for bringing it out for today’s audiences. This is a story that should be remembered, and needs to be part of our narrative. As we continue to talk about diversity in Hollywood and Broadway, this is a show that should be seen. In a banner year for diversity on Broadway, it’s only fitting that this was the show to close out the season. I fear that diversity will take a big hit next season, but hopefully Shuffle Along will continue to play and sweep everyone’s hearts with it.

The end of the show was heartbreaking and as the lights go down, it’s a beautiful reminder of the sacrifices that people made in the name of art. It’s a shame that art often gets disrupted by money and that the team broke up after creating Shuffle Along. And it’s a bigger shame that the producers think the show cannot run without Audra McDonald and is closing prematurely. As one critic said, this show will probably never be revived, and it’s a real shame that the world will no longer have Shuffle Along around to remind them of where black Broadway started. A moving and exciting production, this story deserves to be seen and remembered. Shuffle down to the Music Box Theater while you can!