Dear 'Shuffle Along' Producers....Shame On You

Lindsay Timmington

  • OnStage New York Columnist

Dear Scott Rudin,

I saw your show last week.  Well, the show you produced. You may have the money behind the production but you certainly don't have the soul. That belongs exclusively to the cast and creative team.  Just so you know--the night I was there, the house was full and the collective audience energy high. This is a show people want to see.

I knew from the moment I entered the Music Box Theatre and heard tapping coming from behind the curtain, that I'd walked into something amazing. Audra McDonald. Billy Porter. Brian Stokes Mitchell. Come on. Full disclosure: I bought the ticket because I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell on the same stage again. I vividly remember my first trip to NYC at the age of eighteen, sitting next to my dad and bawling as the two sung the hell out of"Wheels of a Dream" from "Ragtime." 

But I also bought the ticket because months earlier I read the feature that the New York Times ran on "Shuffle Along." I read it because I have a Masters degree in theatre and I can't remember a single mention of this show, or the quartet of men who broke major theatrical boundaries, from all my studies. I bought the ticket because I knew I needed to see the show.

So while I initially came for Ms. McDonald and Mr. Porter and Mr. Stokes Mitchell--Mr. Rudin, I stayed because that's ONE HELL OF A CAST AND SHOW. And it was immediately clear how vital this production is not only to the landscape of Broadway right now, but to theatre history always.

Photo: (© Julieta Cervantes)

Photo: (© Julieta Cervantes)

While the original production of "Shuffle Along" may have been problematic with a not-so-great book and comedy that fell short--what it did have was historical significance as one of the first shows to push racial boundaries by showing two black people falling in love onstage, by launching the career of some great theatre and musical performers like Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Nat King Cole and Florence Mills, and by being one of the first all black musicals to hit and be a success on Broadway.

It was the first show to feature a chorus of female hoofers, to spotlight syncopated jazz--and it was a show that navigated a new form of musical theatre and changed the sound to give us what we now recognize as "show tunes." It was, as Langston Hughes acknowledged, a cultural marker of the Harlem Renaissance.

And here's the thing. Your brilliant director George C. Wolfe didn't sit back and simply remount the show. I mean, two revivals failed in 1932 and 1952 respectively, and he wasn't about to try for a third. Instead, he jumped into and told the story behind the show, how it was created and why it is historically significant. He fought to bring it back into Broadway's consciousness, and to give us a piece of theatre history that most of us don't know, but should.

What Wolfe has done in framing the Blake and Sissle songs, and deliciously choreographed dance numbers with snippets of historical text, is to place the show and its creators back in their rightful spot in theatre history. He took the original "Shuffle Along" and dissected it-created a new piece inspired by the old production and gave us a gorgeous production that pays homage to a show that was at risk of falling into oblivion.  It's beautiful and brilliant and important. And now, thanks to you, fewer people will get the chance to see it.

So, shame on you. Shame on you for preemptively closing what appears to be selling show out of what, fear? Fear that when Ms. McDonald leaves so will the crowds?  Don't get me wrong, she's good, hell--she's the mother-loving QUEEN--but the rest of that damn cast will leave you speechless, breathless and wishing we could hit rewind on the dance numbers. Oh, and you know in the second half when Billy Porter sings the paint off the walls? I still get goosebumps thinking about it. So don't blame maternity leave or projected box office numbers of the Tony awards for your decision.

And in regard to the Tony awards? "Shuffle" received ten nominations. That's second only to "Hamilton" in terms of totals. In a season where people are spending their life savings, selling their kidneys and their grandmothers and getting fired from jobs for a chance at a last row ticket to "Hamilton,"it's not fair to say you're closing the show because you didn't win. Grow up.

"Shuffle Along"deserved the award for choreography, hands down. No questions asked. It just did. And it's a shame it didn't win. But that's life in the big city, pal. You just can't say "we're closing the show because we didn't win and my star got pregnant" and expect people to believe you. You're like an angry child who lost at marbles and is stomping away home.

What you're stomping away from is a piece of theatre history that needs to be told. People like me--people who have studied theatre for years and years and weren't taught this part of history, (because in most history books it's nothing more than a carefully calculated page of names and dates) need to see it. We need to know who Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Lottie Gee, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles are and what they've did and why it's important. 

This story needs to be told now, in this way--because sir, it'smasterfully, cleverly, carefully, poignantly crafted and staged.  Have YOU seen it? Because if you had--you wouldn't be closing this show. If you'd listened you'd have heard Lottie say at the end about Florence: "She wouldn't stop performing because ifdid she did, people would lose their jobs."

Let's not use a star's pregnancy as an excuse for closing either. Ms.McDonald had a planned a hiatus from the show. You had another brilliant performer lined up to step in to her role and moreover, you have a cast of actors and an ensemble that are nothing short incredible. They wouldn't have won the "Outstanding Chorus" award from Equity if they weren't. Yes, Ms. McDonald is a force, and I thank my lucky stars that I've seen her onstage twice in one lifetime but you know, I actually think she said it best when she reacted to your closing notice. "I'm devastated that my brilliant extraordinary Shuffle family won't be able to continue sharing this important & vital show. I love them so."

That was abundantly clear throughout the entire show and then again at curtain, when the entire company stood together for a singular company bow. Neither Ms. McDonald, Mr. Porter and Mr. Stokes Mitchell stepped out in front of the cast. They stood together. The show you backed is about a musical sensation, a historically groundbreaking show that could easily be lost in a single paragraph of a theatre history book. This "Shuffle Along" is about the company that mounted "Shuffle"in 1921 and the company that's honoring it in 2016. Your creative team, cast and crew stood together and created one hell of a piece of theatre.  They stood together.

It's a shame you won't stand behind them.

Hey, everyone else? Go see this show.