“Shuffle Along” is an outlier in American pop culture: a history-making show that was largely forgotten by history. Educator and popular-culture historian Caseen Gaines seeks to redress this paradoxical imbalance with “Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way,” a deeply researched and thoughtful framing of this pioneering musical, its time and its influence. Although there had been musical entertainments with Black performers and Black material in New York’s Theater District earlier in the 20th century, “Shuffle Along” was the first hit of its kind, a unique “crossover” project that brought White and Black audiences together (though still physically separated) in the Broadway theater. The alchemy that ignited the show’s success came almost exclusively from its four idiosyncratic creators.
Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles — former students at Fisk University — had been playing the Black vaudeville circuit as blackface comedians. James Hubert “Eubie” Blake had graduated from playing the piano in Baltimore brothels to form an elegant vaudeville act with vocalist and World War I veteran Noble Sissle. The four men cobbled together a show called “Shuffle Along,” which evolved from a thin scenario about the comic complications of a three-way mayoral race into a full narrative, with songs that artfully juxtaposed the threadbare minstrelsy traditions of the 19th century with the debonair jazz stylings that presaged the Harlem Renaissance. A few musical numbers were written just to suit some extra costumes that came the producer’s way at bargain prices. When the show shuffled its way into New York after some desperate tryouts, it was kept at arm’s length from Broadway’s crown jewels, opening at the 63rd Street Theatre, near Columbus Circle. To make matters worse, the show was thousands of dollars in the red before the opening night curtain went up in May 1921.
But Miller and Lyles were gifted comedians, the chorus girls were chic and sassy, and best of all, “Shuffle Along” had a score of charm and modernity. One song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” about one of the mayoral candidates, would become a standard (and would be used for another Harry — Truman — as a campaign song when he ran for president in 1948). Another, “Love Will Find a Way,” was a romantic ballad in a slowed-down tempo — the first time on a New York stage that a Black couple expressed their mutual ardor in a serious fashion. And the musical was a hit, running more than 500 performances, something nearly unheard of for any Broadway show back then. Its greatest success, however, may have been how it advanced the cause of Black artists at a critical time: “The proudest day of my life,” said Blake later, “was when Shuffle Along opened. At the intermission, all these white people kept saying, ‘I would like to touch him, the man who wrote the music.’ At last, I’m a human being.”
But the show’s creators were unable to draw down creative lightning and make it strike twice in their careers. Over the next four decades, as Gaines chronicles in each disheartening iteration, “Shuffle Along” would be reduced, revised and revived countless times without success; at one point, the two respective teams — Sissle and Blake, Miller and Lyles — would perform in competing versions of shows derived from the same exhausted material. Was racism the cause, or was it the dizzying shifts in popular taste of the period, especially sensitive among material written for and by Black entertainers? Or was it, perhaps, that “Shuffle Along” was less than the sum of its many compelling parts? On this crucial question, Gaines hedges his bets, but he provides a telling quote from the Baltimore Afro-American from 1933, which details the high caliber of contemporary Black entertainers: “These advances of Negro artists mark milestones on the road of progress for the theater, but they all combine to make ‘Shuffle Along of 1933’ [a later iteration] just another colored show.”
Gaines places the show within the broader American political and racial culture, making the book not only resonant but relevant. In addition to providing background on Jim Crow and the Great Migration, the author points out that the Tulsa Race Massacre occurred a week after “Shuffle Along” opened in 1921. The show raised concerns back in the 1920s about colorism (chorus girls who were deemed too dark-skinned weren’t cast — a teenage Josephine Baker was rejected several times for that reason) and cultural appropriation (many of the show’s innovations, such as its idiosyncratic dance moves and the double-act repartee of Miller and Lyles, were absorbed and denatured by White showbiz entities). Gaines is at his best when sourcing the wide-ranging voices of what at the time was called “the Negro press”; editorials and opinions from around the country zigzagged between approbation and disgust over the performative images of Blackness in “Shuffle Along.” That the show became a lightning rod for how Blacks saw themselves — or aspired to be seen by a nation undergoing tectonic shifts in racial identity — is a tribute to both its timelessness and its timeliness.
“Footnotes” could have gone deeper in conveying the offstage or onstage theatrical magic of the show itself. Gaines doesn’t really spend enough time walking the reader through how “Shuffle Along” played onstage. He also glosses over discussion of integrated shows of the period, such as “Show Boat.” A passing sentence asserting that in the late 1940s “Black musical theater in Manhattan had become virtually nonexistent” utterly dismisses all-Black musicals of the decade such as a successful revival of “Porgy and Bess,” plus “Carmen Jones,” “St. Louis Woman” (with an integrated writing team) and “Lost in the Stars,” as well as progressive integrated musicals such as “Bloomer Girl” and “Finian’s Rainbow”; their cumulative influence did a lot to push dated material like “Shuffle Along” off the boards.
“Shuffle Along” would eventually get its valedictory moment in the spotlight when, in 2016, George C. Wolfe (who recently directed the film version of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) mounted an extravagant Broadway revival/re-examination titled “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” with a cast that included Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter — superstars of the Broadway stage in any decade.
But it seems to be the fate of Blake, Sissle, Miller and Lyles to be marginalized even when celebrated. Wolfe’s star-studded extravaganza, which lasted only 100 performances, didn’t even produce an original cast album; to this date, the effervescent score to “Shuffle Along” has never had a proper recording that reflects its historical stature. Although “Footnotes” raises a detailed embroidered curtain on “Shuffle Along” and its elegant, ambitious Black pioneers, posterity is still keeping the show’s full achievement waiting in the wings.
The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way
By Caseen Gaines
Sourcebooks. 448 pp. $26.99