Saturday, March 19, 2016

John Malveaux: The Musical That Ushered In The Jazz Age Gets Its Own Musical

Dominique-René de Lerma
Shuffle Along  was produced by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.  Some of its musical arrangements were done by Still.  The show featured an African American cast and was so successful that it ran for 504 performances in New York City before going on tour.

             Audra McDonald in rehearsal for the upcoming musical Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.  Devin Alberda/Rinaldi PR

   The composers of the original Shuffle Along, Noble Sissle (left) and Eubie Blake.
Rinaldi PR           

John Malveaux of 

National Public Radio

March 19, 2016

At a 42nd Street rehearsal studio, 14 dancers are working on a big production number, guided by dreadlocked choreographer Savion Glover. He and the stars of the show — including Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter — are part of a team that built a new musical around an older musical. Or, more precisely, what was in 1921 essentially a revue: just a string of songs.
That show was called Shuffle Along. The new musical is Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. It tells the story of an unlikely smash hit that brought black culture and a different kind of music to the Great White Way. The original Shuffle Along — created and performed by African-Americans — helped to usher in the Jazz Age. It launched careers for black entertainers and opened the door for black musicals to come, but in theater history it's been largely overlooked.
Composer Eubie Blake, along with Noble Sissle, wrote the music and lyrics for Shuffle Along. Blake was serious about his music, like his colleague Scott Joplin. They called it ragtime.
In 1979, I visited the then 92-year-old Blake at his home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. He said that when this music made its way to the New York stage, it was a given a racier name — one that Blake says was derogatory. He wouldn't even say the word, only spell it.
"When Broadway picked it up, they called it 'J-A-Z-Z,'" he says. "It wasn't called that. It was spelled 'J-A-S-S.' That was dirty, and if you knew what it was, you wouldn't say it in front of ladies."
Blake's perspective was 77 years in the making, as a black entertainer in a white entertainment world. He was born in Maryland in 1887, the son of former slaves. He started his career in show business when he was 15.
"1902: People look at me when I say that. They don't believe me, but it's true," Blake said. "I went with a medicine show. Some people might not call it show business, but you got an audience — they call them 'rubes.' And then we entertain them, and they sell the medicine.
Blake took his talents to vaudeville, where he teamed with Noble Sissle, who wrote and sang the lyrics to Blake's songs. In 1921, they set out to write a musical with another vaudeville duo, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. Miller & Lyles were a black comedy team who met at Fisk University. But onstage, they played down for white audiences.
Miller and Lyles adapted some of their vaudeville skits for scenes in Shuffle Along, and then performed them onstage in blackface because — as John Kenrick, author of Musical Theater: A History, explains — that's what was expected.

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