Rekindling the Magic of "Shuffle Along"

On the night of May 23, 1921, an unheralded all-black musical opened in a small playhouse on Broadway and 63rd Street, a half-mile north of Times Square. No one in the audience could have guessed that "Shuffle Along" would change the face of American musical theatre, but the ingredients were all there: The production featured a powerhouse cast, eye-popping dance numbers and a boldly modern score that fused syncopated jazz with bright pop hooks. Critics were wowed. "You may resist Beethoven or Jerome Kern," wrote one, "but you surrender completely to this."

The creators--Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, along with writer-actors Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles--should have been able to milk those notices for years. But even though their production blazed new trails in music, theatre and race relations, "Shuffle Along" was largely forgotten as time went by. Until now. A star-studded, Tony-nominated revival has opened on the Great White Way, and for those who want to dig deeper into the story of this remarkable show, Harbinger Records has just released a beautifully-packaged archival recording of the score as it was performed by members of the original cast and creative team.

"Sissle and Blake Sing Shuffle Along" is a rich slice of Broadway history, and a sterling addition to Harbinger's growing catalogue of musical theatre and cabaret recordings. The disc includes vintage sides that Blake and Sissle made for the EBM record label, along with acetates the two men recorded for a show, "Shuffle Along of 1950," that was written but never produced. The songs on the disc are presented in order, as heard on opening night. And we're not talking about scratchy, low fidelity recordings; the music has been re-mastered for contemporary listeners with clean, warm sound.

Harbinger, a subsidiary of the non-profit Musical Theatre Project, has already distinguished itself with recordings like the "Hidden Treasures" series of unreleased songs and performances by John Kander, Sheldon Harnick and Hugh Martin. Ken Bloom, Harbinger's co-founder, said he eventually plans to release all of Blake's recordings from his own record label, as well as the complete demo sessions for "Shuffle Along of 1950."

As a plus, the new disc includes a 23-page booklet that serves up a mini-history of black musical theatre, as well as a chronicle of "Shuffle Along's" gestation and its importance in the Broadway canon. Hailed as one of the best musicals of 1921, the show ran for 504 performances--and it's easy to see why it broke new ground.

"A modern song, to make any kind of hit at all, must have 'pep' to it, and also must have a 'catchy' tune that unconsciously sticks to the mind of the listener," Blake told the Lebanon (Pennsylvania) Daily News, explaining "Shuffle Along's" box office success. He said "the mushy, sobby sentimental love songs of twenty or more years ago would not be at all popular today. 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."

When it came to love interest, Blake and Sissle rejected the cartoon-like caricatures of black characters dating back to blackface minstrelsy. They portrayed an adult relationship between a black man and a black woman, despite warnings that white audiences would rebel at such a plot. On opening night, the song that helped frame the show's love interest, "Love Will Find a Way," was a huge success, as was the storyline.

The audience seating plan was no less of a breakthrough. At "Shuffle Along," whites and blacks both sat in the orchestra, even though there was a line of demarcation between them. While Variety reported that "the two races rarely intermingled" at the show, blacks were not forced to sit in the balcony. It marked an important step toward the integration of New York City theatres.

"The factors for a significant cultural development in the American popular theatre were all present," according to the album's liner notes. "A white audience fascinated by the Negro, though in many ways obviously misinformed; critics and writers interested in the possibilities of seeing Negro themes and actors on the stage, and a great pool of Negro talent, trained in cabarets, vaudeville houses and Negro theatres."

The disc makes this potent moment come alive. While the book of "Shuffle Along" was hardly compelling--it featured the comic story of a three-way mayoral race in a fictional town, interspersed with vaudeville gags--the music and lyrics were the main event. And they connect today just as they did on opening night. "If You've Never Been Vamped by a Brownskin" kicks off the recording with a bang. The infectious "Baltimore Buzz" stopped the show in 1921, and the production's biggest hit, "I'm Just Wild About Harry," had audiences on their feet 95 years ago, just as it does in the Broadway revival today.

"Shuffle Along" was packed with talented stars, including Florence Mills, Lottie Gee, Roger Matthews and Gertrude Sanders. But new faces would go on to make their own history. Sixteen-year-old Josephine Baker was an audience favorite. A powerful bass singer riveted theatregoers--something that would become routine in Paul Robeson's career. When a smaller version of the show toured in the 1940s, Nat King Cole played in the pit band.

Musical theatre would never be the same. At the end of the day, the production showed that black artists could match, if not exceed, the work of white composers, and fill seats night after night. As Blake later noted: "The proudest day of my life was when 'Shuffle Along' opened. At the intermission of the show, all those white people kept saying: 'I would like to touch him, the man who wrote the music.' It made me feel like, well, at last, I'm a human being."