The Broadway musical season that began with a Hamiltonian bang in August has now ended with another historical explosion, this one detonated by the playwright and director George C. Wolfe. His Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed is explosive not simply in the auditory sense, though the shattering artillery onslaught of Savion Glover’s choreography may ring in your ears (and change the way you think about the expressive potential of tap) forever. Shuffle Along is also explosive in the way a nuclear reaction is: Wolfe bombards a core of ideas about race and culture with a billion showbiz protons to produce both a gorgeous spectacle and a big, smoking crater where your former ideas of Broadway once stood.
The spectacle first: Act One sensationally tells the story (most of it narrated by the four male principals) of how the original Shuffle Along arose from creative—but also racial—ambition. The Keith Circuit comic duo of F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles (Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter) wanted to break into the big time in an era when few shows by black artists made it to Broadway and fewer were successes. At an NAACP event in Philadelphia, they met the songwriting team of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle (Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry), whose tastes ran less to the prevailing sound of operetta than to ragtime and Tin Pan -Alley. The four men decided to turn a popular Miller and Lyles sketch called “The Mayor of Jimtown” into the book for their new collaboration, which would feature not only an all-black creative team but an all-black company, and, scandalous in that era, a romance involving the touching of all-black hands.
The plot was piffle—something about election chicanery in the mythological South—but the gesture was daring and the songs, including “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “Love Will Find a Way,” and “Daddy, Won’t You Please Come Home,” were terrific. Wolfe uses them, as well as others drawn from the Blake and Sissle catalogue and some imported and patched in from elsewhere, to tell a different story entirely, this one a “let’s put on a show” narrative about the difficulties and indignities the four men faced in getting their baby on the boards. They rehearsed in a vermin-infested hall, tried out on an under-financed tour, were booked into a “Broadway” theater on 63rd Street that had no orchestra pit. They bickered among themselves and with their cast, including their ingénue Lottie Gee, whom Shuffle Along would make, briefly, a star. Wolfe speculatively places Gee at the apex of a love triangle: Both Blake and Sissle, though married, make moves on her. However questionable historically, this is theatrically a no-brainer, as it provides Wolfe with an excuse to bump Gee up from supporting player to top billing, and thus to cast Audra McDonald in the role.
This review might have begun “Audra Smiles!”—so unusual and uplifting is it to see our leading vocal tragedienne in a part that (until Act Two) is essentially as light as a soubrette’s. McDonald sings beautifully, of course; the role sits mostly in the thrilling upper part of her range. But you may not have remembered—it’s been 22 years since Carousel—what she can do with comic phrasing. Teaching the new girl, Florence Mills, how to sing “I’m Cravin’ That Kind of Love,” she bogarts the number and turns it into a master-class parody of a diva’s lament. She transforms “Daddy, Won’t You Please Come Home,” the song in which she acknowledges her attraction to Blake, into a hilarious bit of vocal self-pleasuring. As if that weren’t enough, she taps (as everyone else does) with a nearly reckless vigor, despite the impossibly subdivided counts of Glover’s syncopations. By the time she brings Act One to a rousing climax with the huge success of the show-within-a-show, you may feel that the outer show too is one of the best old-fashioned entertainments—tunes, dances, comedy, costumes, the whole hotcha package—to hit Broadway in years.
But Wolfe has been preparing you from the start for Act Two: the ominous “All That Followed.” The Follies-like tableau that opened the show, in which the ghosts of the characters gathered on the bare stage to look back on their past, suggested the restlessness of lives unfulfilled, and the dancing, in its nearly hysterical treatment of black vernacular forms, additionally suggested that race would be involved. To make room for this metanarrative, Wolfe lets the story elements peter out once the teams break up, Lottie chooses between them, and everyone whiffs in their next at-bat. Act Two then becomes an argument Wolfe is having with the world, and perhaps with himself, about cultural appropriation. The gist is that white artists stole the theatrical ideas pioneered in the 1921 Shuffle Along—the jazz rhythms and dance forms, the use of ensemble, the high-low mishmash—and in doing so got credit for inventing the musical-theater style that dominates to this day. That argument is theatricalized quite stunningly throughout, especially in a segment called “Till Georgie Took ’Em Away,” in which (we are told) George Gershwin steals the melody that became “I Got Rhythm” from the black composer William Grant Still. Phillip Attmore’s tap dance with a clarinet in hand (Still played that instrument in the original Shuffle Away orchestra) is soul-scalding.
Whether it’s fair or not is another matter; various versions of the Gershwin story have been reported, not all of them convincing. Still, it’s doubtless the case that thefts of an even larger sort occurred. In another Act Two number, the white Harlem Renaissance historian Carl Van Vechten simpers forward to spit out a song with new lyrics by Wolfe that express his central point. People will remember black artists’ “syncopation” and “stompin’ feet” and “uptown lowdown beat,” he sings, but they won’t remember Shuffle Along with its “antiquated, antebellum / Get on your knees and really sell ’em” hokum. Most of all, adds Van Vechten—he and all the white characters are played as nasties by Brooks -Ashmanskas—“they won’t remember you.”
So Wolfe is engaged in an act of reclamation. To that moral cause he brings all his passion and accumulated know-how; Shuffle Along is expertly staged, and in particular is lit gorgeously—often terrifyingly—by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. The arrangements and orchestrations by Daryl Waters are stunning. When, again Follies-like, Act Two turns into a series of solo psychodramas in song, Wolfe has the talent at hand and the directorial clarity to make each one a powerful statement of suffering. (McDonald’s “Memories of You” is a transfixing “Losing My Mind” moment, and Porter’s “Low Down Blues” deservedly blows the roof off the Music Box.) But this is almost too much undramatized richness, without enough context to help us understand whether the suffering is entirely the result of the forces to which Wolfe ascribes it. Still, if Act Two sometimes seems like a PowerPoint presentation, with astonishing slides but bullet-point arguments, the show as a whole is nevertheless revolutionary theater. To the extent Wolfe has redeemed the lost artists of Shuffle Along, he has also redeemed himself, and us.
Shuffle Along is at the Music Box Theatre.
*This article appears in the May 2, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.