“Broadway Superheroes” Unite to Tell the Story of Shuffle Along

“Broadway Superheroes” Unite to Tell the Story of Shuffle Along We talk with Tony winners Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter and George C. Wolfe about illuminating the context behind the original musical and honoring their characters.
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Shuffle Along Photos by: Joseph Marzullo/WENN, Michael Wilson, James Leynse

When “Shuffle Along” opened in the spring of 1921, it was the first Broadway show written and performed entirely by African Americans. Telling the tale of shady politicians in an all-black town, it featured a book by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, a jazzy score by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle and show-stopping dance numbers. A total sensation, the show played for a then-impressive 484 performances and provided a showcase for soon-to-be-stars Josephine Baker, Florence Mills and Paul Robeson.

Now, a new version of the show called Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed has come to Broadway. The music is much the same, but writer-director George C. Wolfe has expanded the story to include the behind-the-scenes saga of how the show came together and how it has influenced legions of musicals that followed. He’s also assembled an all-star cast with Tony winners Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter as Miller and Lyles and six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald as the show-within-a-show’s leading lady, Lottie Gee. The quartet sat down to talk about the deep connections they feel to their characters, their desire to honor those show business fore-bearers and what it’s like to be choreographed by tap whiz Savion Glover.

Why bring back Shuffle Along?
George Wolfe: It started a very long time ago when I was in college. I started receiving little incremental pieces of information about the show, i.e. that Paul Robeson was attached to it, Josephine Baker and then Florence Mills. And it was kind of like bread crumbs that were being dropped between me and it. And the closer I got to it, the more I was sort of dazzled by it.

How much did the rest of you know about it?
Billy Porter: I learned about it in musical theatre class at Carnegie Mellon. It sort of became the butt of a joke for myself and all of the other black students at the school. We read the song titles. It was like, “What is this?” We were just too young and stupid at the time. I think actually, it was more [an] embarrassed [feeling], in retrospect. It’s so interesting that it’s now come around.

Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald at the 58th Annual Tony Awards in 2004.
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald at the 58th Annual Tony Awards in 2004.

When did you first hear about it, Audra?
Audra McDonald: When we went out to lunch, and George said, “I wrote a show about a show. Do you know anything about Shuffle Along?” And I said “No.” And two or three hours later, he handed me a script and said, “Here you go.” But I didn’t know any of the history and I was sort of ashamed that I didn’t know any of the history. In my defense, I had never studied theatre.
Brian Stokes Mitchell: But Billy did [study theatre], and he still didn’t get information about it. One thing about this show is there’s very little written. You have to look really hard. Now, thanks to George and the research that he’s done and passed onto us, we have reams of material about it

Did you think about just doing the show as it was originally done?
GW: No. Because I was dazzled by the people. I just thought these people were extraordinary. Miller and Lyles, who these two guys play, went to Fisk University. And Sissle and Blake, they worked with James Europe. Lottie was a force of nature. I was just in awe of them and the story of them and the story of Shuffle Along became really interesting to me. The world was changing, and downtown people started going up to Harlem to clubs because their interest and their curiosity was piqued by Shuffle Along. So its significance is seismic. It’s not just another show.

I thought it would be fun to go back to a time and a place where people didn‘t have the armor they needed to be human beings.

What most excited each of you as you began digging into your characters?
BSM: It almost feels like we’re standing on the shoulders of the greats and we want to do them honor. In a sense we’re kind of channeling, for lack of a better word, these people, the spirit of these people—and not just them, but all of the people that did this kind of thing. I think we all feel a responsibility to bring them to the theatre and let the audience see and understand what George has been enlightening us to.
BP: I cosign on that, as well. There is a speech at the end of Act One where Aubrey talks about the ghosts and how they lead us and how they support us and push us to be the best version of ourselves. It’s like we are all the embodiment of the type, the archetype that those people were at that time.
It’s like “Oh my God, we’re here in this time doing the same thing, fighting the same sh**, working just as hard.” It’s a little different, but it’s the same. The players have changed; the time has changed; but the struggle is still real.
AM: George and I went out drinking the other night, social drinking, but whatever, and I said to him, “You know what, George? I’m starting to realize that Lottie is closer to me than I thought. She’s closer to who I am than I was willing to admit.”

How so?
AM: Her fear and her pain and just her desire, you know, in terms of how she wants to be seen and who she wants to be and what she wants to be in this business. And her fierce independence.
BSM: It’s almost like forensic acting, you know? I think all of us are finding out: Well, they’re us.
BP: And you know, we’re all control freaks; but George creates this beautiful sort of chaos, where nobody knows what they’re doing ever at any time so we’re all in the same place. We can all grow at the same pace, and no one gets ahead of the other, and there is no space for ego.
AM: We are all lost together.

Ben Vereen and Brian Stokes Mitchell in the Broadway musical <i>Jelly's Last Jam</i>, 1993
Ben Vereen and Brian Stokes Mitchell in the Broadway musical Jelly's Last Jam, 1993 Martha Swope

The original Shuffle Along got a lot of attention for its dancing. But you folks are primarily known for your singing and your acting. What’s been the experience of performing numbers conceived by a tap master like Savion?
BP: You know Kinky Boots, so I did dance.
GW: And this one [Mitchell] replaced Gregory Hines in Jelly’s Last Jam.
BSM: But I retired my tap shoes after that show. I take the shoes out as I need to. But it’s not the shoes so much. It’s my brain. Because I could pick up things pretty quickly before, and my feet were good because I had studied dance and everything when I was younger, but what I’m finding now is: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I get that,” and then five seconds later, “Um what was that step again?” And Sav doesn’t save us. He’s like a bebop jazz instrumentalist. There’s no respect for the time signature and phrases and everything, and he does it his own way, and it winds up in this beautiful place, and it’s gorgeous.
AM: I had studied dance in junior high and in high school and I went to a performing arts high school so dance was P.E. So I had jazz and ballet. I was on point at one point but that was all in high school.
GW: His feet are doing an endless series of math equations. … Him and those other dancers [in our show], they’re gorgeous; they’re so young.
BSM: And their brains are so young.
AM: Yeah, it’s interesting being the old folks in the show.
BP: I don’t know when that happened. We were doing table work, and I looked around at those other two boys [Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry who play Blake and Sissle] and I was like, “When did I cross over to the old folks?”
AM: I’m the oldest woman in the show.
BSM: And I’m the oldest one in the show. For a long time, I was always the youngest one in the cast, but not anymore.

George C Wolfe and Billy Porter
George C Wolfe and Billy Porter

Did you feel you had to change anything to avoid offending modern sensibilities?
GW: It’s very challenging to get around something like “Pickaninny Shoes”—that song will not be in the show—but it’s the context. I remember there were three or four people who were like, “Why don’t you change the title cause Shuffle Along implies something … that means a derogatory context for black people retreating in a non-sophisticated way, away from the white man.” They didn’t mean it in that way at all because they were celebrating. That’s the fundamentally extraordinary thing about Shuffle Along: Because it was the first, it may have been naïve and unsophisticated in some respects and sophisticated in other respects, but there was no sense of contrivance. There was no sense of trying appease a black audience or a white audience. It just was what it was. Good, bad, right or wrong, it just was what it was. They were just trying to get it up. They didn’t have time to figure out a political, racial, cultural, social agenda.
AM: Which is why I think you were so smart to say, “I can’t just revive Shuffle Along the musical, I have to put it within the context of what was.” You have to see the world around in which Shuffle Along was coming up.
GW: One of the things that I love about this show: After being around for so long, I wanted to reclaim my innocent love of making theatre. Because at various times in my career, I have cast myself and been cast as a warrior, and it’s something that I gladly and willingly take on, but I just thought it would be fun to go back to a time and a place where people didn’t have the armor they needed to be human beings, but they also had incredible trust in their talent. And I love that.

How does that world compare with the Broadway of today?
GW: I think all of us in this room, are really smart and we work really hard, and we’re also really lucky that we’ve had the careers and the choices that we’ve had that far exceed what our people who we’re honoring [had]. And, therefore, it’s then on each of us to transform the currency of our success into options for ourselves and for other peoples. I remember when I first started talking about Shuffle Along, I said, “What we really need is the Black Avengers onstage.” That’s what’s wondrous about this, because these are Broadway superheroes working together.