If you wanted to see a musical on the Great White Way in 1921 — that name came about because of the electric lights on Broadway but was true about the color of the actors and audience — you could see a European-influenced operetta or a splashy Ziegfeld revue.
But 100 years ago, on May 23, you could also see something completely new: Shuffle Along, by an all-black team of creators.
“Shuffle Along is an amazing moment in our history,” says Caseen Gaines, who’s just written Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way. “And you can draw a horizontal line to what musical theater sounded like before 1921 and after.”
Not only did Shuffle Along bring jazz to Broadway, it was the first African American show to be a smash hit. Its composer Eubie Blake recalled on WNYC in 1973: “When we put Shuffle Along on, on Broadway, we put negroes back to work again.” But he added that some members of the Black community had problems with it: “People said that we had an Uncle Tom show, because it was cork and they distorted the English language. But it was permissible in those days.”
Cork, as in blackface. The scriptwriters, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, who met at Fisk University, were blackface vaudeville comedians. “To be a Black actor and perform in blackface was really sort of a form of resistance,” says Gaines. “What Black actors were doing was asserting their place in the entertainment industry and saying, ‘Well, if white performers are going to make a buck at the expense of Black people playing up to stereotypes, playing up to antebellum humor, trafficking in those sorts of tropes, we can do it, too, and we can probably do it a whole lot better.’ And so, it was a way for them to get paid a proper wage, performing and competing with white actors in those spaces.”
A few of Miller and Lyles’ Shuffle Along routines have been recorded, but the comedy hasn’t dated well, explains Gaines, “A lot of it is very hard to listen to in 2021. At the time, perhaps, there were Black people that were uncomfortable with it, but sort of understood that it was a foot in the door.”
The writers of the score, pianist Eubie Blake and lyricist-singer Noble Sissle, resisted that kind of minstrelsy in their vaudeville act. They performed in tuxedos, but Gaines says they weren’t immune to white audience expectations. “They called themselves the Dixie Duo, really just as a marketing technique to capitalize on these stereotypes.”
Because vaudeville presenters wouldn’t book more than one African American act on a bill, the two teams never met until they were invited to an NAACP benefit in Philadelphia in 1920. “Miller and Lyles approached Sissle and Blake and said, “We have a show, we’d like to take it to Broadway, but we need music,'” says Gaines. “Sissle and Blake were always looking for the next hit. And they said, “OK, well, we’ll partner together and we’ll do something.'”
Miller and Lyles adapted an old script about two grocery store owners running against each other for mayor of a small town. It also contained a romantic subplot, which wasn’t played for comedy — revolutionary, at the time. Sissle and Blake mostly recycled old songs from their act and scored two breakout hits: “Love Will Find a Way” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
Staged with hand-me-down costumes and sets — the white producers were broke — Shuffle Along tried out in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, before it arrived on Broadway, $21,000 in debt. But “Shuffle Along, made money hand over fist,” Gaines says. It ran for well over a year, sprouting several touring companies. “White audiences could go see the show and feel like they were slumming it to some extent,” Gaines says.
In fact, to appeal to white theater-goers, the chorus girls all had light complexions. “Josephine Baker auditioned for the show several times and was rejected several times,” Gaines says. “There are questions about whether it was because of her age, but more likely than not, it was because of the color of her skin. There was a lot of colorism in Shuffle Along in the cast, particularly for the women. They chose all light-skinned women, you know, women that would pass the brown-paper-bag test, which is essentially being lighter than a brown paper bag.”
Gaines adds, “I think the colorism isn’t something that should really be glossed over, because it really raises questions about how Black people sort of have to navigate through not only all white spaces, but oftentimes all black spaces. And I think, you can look at the work of Tyler Perry, for example, and see that he certainly has had questions raised about his own work in terms of the way colorism plays a part in who are the villains, who are the heroes, who are the love interests, who are the vamps in films that have been produced in the last decade. It really it didn’t start in Shuffle Along. I want to make that very clear. But Shuffle Along certainly perpetuated that caste system, which is an unfortunate part of its legacy.”
The success of Shuffle Along in 1921 “ended up paving the way for a slew of Broadway shows, in its wake,” Gaines says. And white creators, like George Gershwin, started writing jazz-inflected scores. But the musical itself has never been revived successfully — and George C. Wolfe’s show about the making of Shuffle Along had a short Broadway run in 2016. It may be a footnote now, as Caseen Gaines writes, but he adds: “If you are a lover of theater and feel like Hamilton or Rent were revolutionary, [or] West Side Story, this is like the godfather of all of those productions.”