Shuffle Along, and All the Stuff That Followed

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

The 1921 musical Shuffle Along had been on visionary playwright-director George C. Wolfe’s radar for decades.  Last year he finally decided to tackle it, devising a musical that, while using the show’s original score, would tell the story of how the musical was born and its historical significance.  It was the first Broadway musical created entirely by African-Americans and featuring an all-black cast.  The full title would be the rather unwieldly Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.  Wolfe got uber-producer Scott Rudin on board, who had no less than six productions on Broadway last season.  He lined up a cast of theater royalty that included Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry and, most importantly it would turn out, the queen of Broadway herself, Audra McDonald.  The show went on to garner 10 Tony Award nominations.

It was announced long before the production began performances in mid-March that Ms. McDonald would be leaving the production after the Tony Awards to recreate her latest Tony-winning performance in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in London’s West End.  Presumably the search for a suitable replacement was on at that point but if so, everyone involved was tight-lipped about it.  Eventually it was announced that the fantastic, if not terrifically well known Rhiannon Giddens would be stepping in during Ms. McDonald’s summer absence from the production.

Then followed a more dramatic announcement: Ms. McDonald was pregnant.  Plans for Lady Day were scrapped but she would be leaving Shuffle Along nonetheless, although now for a different reason.  Then came the most dramatic announcement.  Mr. Rudin would be closing the production, which has regularly been grossing nearly $1M a week.  Ticket sales had dropped off precipitously for the summer following the announcement of Ms. McDonald’s maternity leave, Mr. Rudin explained.

Hey, wait a minute.  Everyone in the free world knew months ago that Ms. McDonald would be out of the show all summer.  So why was Mr. Rudin playing the maternity card?  Not only was it disingenuous, it was insulting to Ms. McDonald.  Her beloved company of players would now all be out of work because she got pregnant.  Ridiculous.  The producer knew when he hired her that he would have to replace her for the summer, her subsequent unexpected pregnancy having nothing to do with it.  Apparently he wanted her name on the marquis to sell the show and, like Scarlett O’Hara, would worry about the rest later.  Mind you, Mr. Rudin is quite a savvy producer so none of this makes much sense.  Why weren’t the replacement apparatus and attendant marketing efforts put in place the day Ms. McDonald signed her contract?

It's not the first misstep Mr. Rudin has made with Shuffle Along.  He petitioned the Tony nominators to consider the musical in the Best Revival category, in hopes of not having to go up against the juggernaut Hamilton.  Ridiculous again.  It is an entirely new musical albeit one with a pre-existing score.  Somewhat ironically, considering her rave reviews, Ms. McDonald did not receive a Tony nomination for her performance.  There was some speculation that the nominators took umbrage with her having taken the role knowing she would be leaving the production just a few months after opening.  But in all fairness, I’ll let Mr. Rudin hold the bag for that decision.  He should be grateful that Ms. McDonald and her “people” don’t seem to be the litigious types.  If they were, his ass might well be grass as the whole maternity bit might well be considered libelous.

Of course everyone is thrilled for Ms. McDonald and her husband, Broadway stalwart Will Swenson, and their expanding family.  Still, it’s unfortunate that her exit from Shuffle Along has been positioned in such an unseemly way, and that the revelatory show’s premature exit from Broadway is happening at all.