In May 1921, Shuffle Along, a musical with music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, premiered on Broadway. Written, staged, and performed entirely by African Americans, it was the first show to make African-American dance an integral part of American musical theater, eventually becoming one of the top ten musical shows of the 1920s. Despite many obstacles Shuffle Along integrated into Broadway and introduced such stars as Josephine Baker, Lottie Gee, Florence Mills, and Fredi Washington. Here, Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom provide a list of ten little-known facts about the show.
- Shuffle Along was the first Broadway musical play with a book, music, dance, and cast created by African-Americans. The show’s book was written by its lead comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles; the lyrics and music were written by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. Both had successfully toured on white vaudeville. The four formed a production company to produce the show.
- The original production launched the careers of many future stars, including Florence Mills and Josephine Baker. Mills became a major star in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds revues before her tragic death just six years after Shuffle Along. Her funeral procession was a major event in Harlem. Baker made her mark as a comic dancer in the show’s chorus line before moving to Paris, where she became an international sensation.
One of its hit songs, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” gained renewed popularity in 1948 as Harry S. Truman’s campaign song. Blake wrote the original song as a waltz. Lead actress Lottie Gee, who sang the song, asked, “How can you have a waltz in a colored show?” Along with lyricist Noble Sissle, she insisted that he “make it a one-step,” and it became a hit dance number in the show.
- “Love Will Find A Way,” the featured duet between the young lovers Roger Matthews and Lottie Gee, was controversial because it portrayed black romance as equal to whites. Noble Sissle recalled that “We were afraid that when Gee and Matthews sang it [on the show’s opening night that] we’d be run out of town. [We] were standing near the exit door with one foot inside the theatre and the other pointed north toward Harlem. … Imagine our amazement when the song was not only beautifully received, but encored.”
- Several of the members of the show’s orchestra—including Felix Weir, Hall Johnson, and William Grant Still—would go on to distinguished careers in the classical and popular music fields. Weir founded the American String Quartet, perhaps the earliest black classical ensemble. Johnson achieved fame in 1928 as the leader of his eponymous choir that toured the country and appeared in many motion pictures. Grant Still was the most accomplished of black composers of his time, composing everything from songs to symphonies, including the major work the Afro-American Symphony.
- Shuffle Along opened on Broadway—just barely—at the 63rd Street Music Hall, about half-mile north of the heart of the theater district. The former lecture hall had hosted everything from political events to classical soloists. It was hardly a desirable location; a critic described it as being “sandwiched between garages and other establishments representative of the automobile industry, [which] was little known to the average Broadway theatregoer.” The space had a small stage and didn’t even have an orchestra pit. Blake commented that the theatre “violated every city ordinance in the book,” adding ironically, “It wasn’t Broadway but we made it Broadway.”
- Shuffle Along set new standards for how black performers could appear on stage. While its two comic leads appeared in blackface—honoring the age-old stereotypes of minstrelsy—the rest of the cast did not. The actors portrayed a wide range of characters, including middle-class merchants and politicians—well-beyond the norm for the mainstream stage. When Sissle and Blake appeared towards the end of the second act to perform some of their hit songs, they wore the same tuxedos that they sported on the vaudeville stage.
- Despite wearing blackface on stage, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles were both college-educated actors, having first met as students at Fisk University in Nashville. Miller wrote most of their material, which was based on comic wordplay along with physical humor. Their act was so successful it was widely copied, most notably by radio comedians Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, aka Amos ‘n’ Andy. Ironically, Miller would be employed by the duo to write many of their later radio and TV shows.
- Shuffle Along launched the jazz age, making Harlem a must-visit spot for New York’s chic high society. It inspired dozens of other shows, including Miller and Lyles’ Runnin’ Wildthat introduced the iconic ‘20s dance, the Charleston. Harlem nightspots like the Cotton Club thrived in its wake, introducing major jazz figures including Duke Ellington.
- The Broadway production of Shuffle Along closed on 15 July 1922 after 504 performances. It had the eleventh longest run of any Broadway musical up to that time including Show Boat, which ran 572 performances. It became one of the top-ten draws on Broadway for the entire decade.
Feature image by Alex Avalos