- OnStage New York Columnist
I admit it. This is going to sound somewhat selfish. I own and accept this. That being said, Shuffle Along should have remained open; at least for a little while longer. Let me explain. I fully understand the economy of Broadway. Seventy percent of Broadway is dominated by the almighty tourist dollar. Let's face it: tourists drive the Broadway market. However, every once in a while, there is a show that enters the fold and proudly proclaims, "Damn it, I'm here and I BELONG here to be seen and heard by all!" Shuffle Along was just that show.
In a season that was dominated heavily by the super mega ultimate juggernaut Hamilton and all of the attention that show garnered, other shows became overshadowed. When Shuffle was first announced last year, with its megawatt cast including Tony Award-winners Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, and Brian Stokes Mitchell (not to mention a slew of Tony nominees and some of the most top-notch talent in the Broadway community), many of us in the theatrical community thought to ourselves: This is it! This is the show that will take on Hamilton. Or at the very least, go toe-to-toe artistically and commercially with Hamilton to give it a run for its money. Alas, that ship pulled into dock, dropped anchor for a hot minute, and promptly sailed. But why?...
By all accounts, Shuffle seemed solid. Tony Award-winning director and theatrical visionary George C. Wolfe (Jelly's Last Jam, Angels in America, The Normal Heart, The Wild Party, just to name a few of his masterpieces) was at the helm. I mean, you could create a show just by watching George C. Wolfe explain theatre and wave his hands theatrically about with his passion and zen for the craft.
So what went wrong? Well, a few factors. First and foremost, I've always been skeptical of shows where it almost seems to good to be true. Let me explain. Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell (both of legendary Ragtime fame as one example) onstage again in a new Broadway musical? I mean, come on! But where Shuffle may have faltered was in it's mammoth-like attempt to track the tragic history of its source material from rocket rise to swift fall into virtual oblivion. Add the fact that there was a great attempt at adding a dash of hope into the mix to help elevate the show back into the conscious of a nation who, as we speak, is still battling the same racial walls that existed at the turn of the 20th century and you have a huge undertaking to tackle. A challenge? Yes. Impossible? No.
The opening number leading into the first act was, in my opinion, theatrical perfection. We got to know the leads, we had great show-stopping musical numbers executed by tap hoofers that made the walls of the Music Box Theatre shake with superb choreography by Tony Award-winner, Savion Glover (his best work to date I think). We had a rousing number of hope and ambition that jolted us into intermission. The second act tried to bite off more than it could chew: incredibly ambitious, but a tad meandering in scope. At moments, just glancing at the audience around me, you saw the faces of people who looked like they were trying to sit through a really interesting history lesson and struggling to keep up.
There are two typical reactions when exiting the theatre after a show: Where do we get dinner or drinks? Or...what was that I just witnessed and let's talk about it. Never have I left a show where it continually haunted me for days afterward and consistently left me bewildered; not only by what I witnessed but also by the impending notion that this show may befuddle and irk people. Yes, there were a few cancelled previews. Yes, people in the industry were already speaking of its potential demise. Conversely, however, PEOPLE WERE TALKING nonetheless: myself included. This is certainly more than can be said of most shows currently on Broadway. And not just myself and a select few theatre friends, whose opinions I highly trust. EVERYONE WAS TALKING.
So back to the question at hand: why did Shuffle close so early? Producer Scott Rudin, in no uncertain terms, blamed a pregnant Audra McDonald. We can go around and around in circles dissecting that situation, but let's not because it is a distraction from real facts. Broadway audiences, as a whole, still are not ready for a musical like Shuffle and like it or not, that affects dollars. Let's remember: this is show BUSINESS, lest we forget. As frustrating as it is, we still want our tap numbers, but we want them light and happy and not moored to high stakes drama. Yes we want our ballads, but not combined with racial politics. We don't want to confront onstage what we are seeing being mirrored back at us when we walk out onto West 45th Street.
Could Shuffle have run longer? Sure. Would it have been successful financially in doing so? In the long run, no. Was it an artistic success? Absolutely. No question. As I said to several cast members backstage when I saw the show in previews: Thank GOD for this show. It NEEDS to be seen in all its glory on a Broadway stage. Will Shuffle resurface again? At some point, yes. Maybe regionally. In my opinion, with a smaller cast in a more intimate setting. I have very high hopes for it's distant future. But as for those of us who were lucky enough to witness Shuffle Along, we simply wish it hadn't shuffled off so quickly...