The Story Behind the Girl in the Shuffle Along Poster

News   The Story Behind the Girl in the Shuffle Along Poster
 
The forthcoming Broadway musical Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed released its first logo image Aug. 26 and social media attention quickly focused on one particular element: the woman in the logo is not African-American.

Shuffle Along stars Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Joshua Henry and Billy Porter. The meta-musical the story behind the groundbreaking titular revue, one of the first all-African-American shows of its day, which served as a launching pad for stars like Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker.

Designed by artists for BLT Communications Inc., the image recreates a retro 1920s poster look, appropriate for a meta-musical about the making of the 1921 Broadway hit, Shuffle Along. The show was notable for many reasons, including the hit song "I'm Just Wild About Harry," but it was written by an African-American songwriting team, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. It also starred an African-American cast.

Other black writers had enjoyed success on Broadway before Shuffle Along, notably Bert Williams, whose musicals included Sons of Ham, In Dahomey and Abyssinia more than a decade earlier. But Shuffle Along was a major hit, running more than a year in a time when that was highly unusual.

It succeeded in a time when "book" musicals thrived alongside opulent revues like the annual Ziegfeld Follies, which bring us to the girl in image.

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Though she looks like an all-purpose 1920s flapper (which she was), she was actually one of the most successful 1920s flappers. Ann Pennington was born in Delaware and made her Broadway debut in 1911 at the age of 18. She was limber and beautiful in a day when those traits were especially prized, and she danced like a house on fire. She quickly came to the attention of master showman Florenz Ziegfeld, who put her in the 1913 edition of his Follies. Over the next 15 years she appeared in seven editions of the Follies, and also in five editions of the rival revue George White's Scandals. She was a contemporary and co-star of Ziegfeld stars like Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers and even Bert Williams himself.

Pennington's main claim to fame, however was an act that today would be called "cultural appropriation." She learned the moves to a dance called the Black Bottom that had been introduced in a show she saw in Harlem. It had been invented and performed up until then mainly by African-Americans. She didn't introduce it to white audiences, but her loose-limbed unrestrained performance of the dance made it her signature. She performed it by herself, or as a partner dance with Tom Patricola.

 

She appears to be doing the dance or one like it in the period photo that was used for the logo.

This appears to be her only strong connection with African-American culture.

A spokesperson for the upcoming Broadway musical gave no reason for why Pennington was used in the 2016 Shuffle Along poster art, but said that no specific commentary or point was meant by the use of her image. A production spokesperson said only, "It's a stopgap until we can shoot the company in the next few weeks."

Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry will join record-breaking Tony winner Audra McDonald in the upcoming production. Scott Rudin is producing the show, which will start previews at the Music Box Theatre March 14, 2016, and open April 21. George C. Wolfe will write a new book as well as direct, and Savion Glover will choreograph.

The backstage story is about the making of one of the first all-black Broadway musical hits that was also written by African-Americans. It opened the door for black performers and writers on the stage during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.

“In May 1921, the new musical Shuffle Along became the unlikeliest of hits, significantly altering the face of the Broadway musical as well as that of New York City. By the time Shuffle Along stumbled into town after a back-breaking pre-Broadway tour, it was deeply in debt and set to open at a remote Broadway house on West 63rd Street. In a season full of spectacles, such as Sally — a Ziegfeld musical — and another edition of George White’s Scandals, Shuffle Along’s failure was almost a foregone conclusion," press notes state.

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"New York City was still in the throes of the Depression of 1920. And despite being celebrated vaudeville performers, Miller and Lyles and Sissle and Blake had never performed on Broadway, much less written a musical. But with an infectious jazz score and exuberant dancing, Shuffle Along [which contained the hit "I'm Just Wild About Harry"] ignited not just Broadway but all of New York City. George Gershwin, Fanny Brice, Al Jolson, Langston Hughes, and famed critic George Jean Nathan were among the many fans who repeatedly flocked to West 63rd Street to see a cast which — during its run of 504 performances — featured such incipient luminaries as Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Florence Mills, Fredi Washington, and Adelaide Hall. Because of Shuffle Along, Uptown and Downtown met and became one.”

Mitchell won a Tony Award for his performance in Kiss Me, Kate. He also received three nominations for Ragtime, King Hedley II and Man of La Mancha. He will play book writer and performer F.E. Miller.

A Tony winner for Kinky Boots, Porter’s Broadway credits also include Smokey Joe’s Café, Grease, Five Guys Named Moe and Miss Saigon. He will play Aubrey Lyles, a writer and performer.

Dixon and Henry will play the songwriting team of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. Recently seen at City Center’s Encores! Off Center production of The Wild Party, Dixon has appeared on Broadway in Motown and The Color Purple, for which he received a Tony nomination. Henry is a two-time Tony nominee for The Scottsboro Boys and Violet, and he has also appeared in Porgy and Bess, Bring It On: The Musical and American Idiot.

McDonald, who won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, has also won Tonys for Carousel, Master Class, Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun and Porgy and Bess.  She will play as the 1920s headliner Lottie Gee, the star of Shuffle Along.

With music by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, Shuffle Along premiered in May of 1921 and had a run variously recorded as 484 performances and 504 performances, either one a remarkably long run by the standards of the time. The plot involved two old friends who run against one another for the office of mayor of their town, each promising to hire the other if elected. Once in office, however, the two find themselves at odds. The show was noted for its score and for a comic fight scene in Act II. That score included "In Honeysuckle Time," "Love Will Find a Way," "Bandana Time," "If You Haven't Been Vamped by a Brownskin, You Haven't Been Vamped at All," and its biggest hit, "I'm Just Wild About Harry."

The new musical will use the Blake & Sissle music with an original libretto by Wolfe. The show will represent the first collaboration between Wolfe and tap master Glover since their Tony-winning Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk in 1996.

Daryl Waters will provide music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations. The production will feature scenic design by Santo Loquasto, costume design by Ann Roth, lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer and sound design by Scott Lehrer. Shelton Becton will be the musical director.

Wolfe won the Tony Award twice, as director of both a musical and a play: Bring in 'da Noise in 1996 and Angels in America: Millennium Approaches in 1993. He also directed 16 Broadway productions, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog, plus Jelly's Last Jam, The Wild Party, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty and Caroline, Or Change.

Read the Playbill.com feature by Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins, in which she shares her memories of working on Jelly's Last Jam with Wolfe

Glover made his Broadway debut in 1983 at age 10 in The Tap Dance Kid, but has spent most of the last 18 years touring with his own dance troupe.

During its long run the original Shuffle Along employed at various times the future stars Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, Adelaide Hall and Paul Robeson. After its initial run the show had two revivals, in 1933 and 1952. Songs from the score were heard in the 1978 Broadway revue, Eubie!

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