Whenever I pick up a show biz memoir or biography, I always start on Chapter Four or Five.
I don’t want to know about any theatrical artist’s childhood. Tell me about the career.
How did you get to be you, Ms. or Mister? What were the inevitable flops before success arrived? What insider information can you tell me about the evolution of those great (and no-so-great) dramas, those hilarious (or lame) comedies or those potent (and impotent) roles in musicals? THAT’S what I want to know.
No matter how juicy the personal story – Jeff Chandler showing himself in drag to Esther Williams (which, as it turned out, was a fib she’d fabricated) — I’m not interested. Let me know about the troubles with your shows, not with your love affairs, marriages and divorces. In a manner of speaking, every memoir or biography for me is a page-turner – for I’m constantly turning pages to skip personal disclosures in hopes of finding professional ones.
That brings us to SHUFFLE ALONG, OR THE MAKING OF THE MUSICAL SENSATION OF 1921 AND ALL THAT FOLLOWED. It’s bookwriter-director George C. Wolfe’s great tribute to African-American talent and stick-to-it-tive-ness. Who’d expect that an odds- against-it black show in those times would get to Broadway and become a significant hit?
I was galvanized by what Wolfe had to say and show — until intermission. When I returned to my seat, Wolfe’s Act Two spent dealt with my bugaboo: SHUFFLE ALONG collaborators’ personal lives.
Let’s give Wolfe great credit, however, for initially picking up the various musical theater history books and reading about SHUFFLE ALONG’s painful genesis and astonishing success — and then realizing “Oh, wow, there’s a show here.” Indeed there is. Nice, too, that he has many of the characters speak eloquently, for many of those involved were well-educated.
But why hear about the liaison between SHUFFLE ALONG’s composer Eubie Blake (the accomplished Brandon Victor Dixon) and star Lottie Gee (the – need we add? – magnificent Audra McDonald)? So they had an affair that broke her heart because he wouldn’t divorce his wife. Is this as interesting as hearing that an out-of-town box-office manager took the money acquired from tickets sales to bet on a horse who was, of course, a sure thing. The nag turned out to be, equally-of-course, not a sure thing. SHUFFLE ALONG was now utterly penniless, and how it managed to survive that setback among dozens of others and still get to Broadway is a miracle – and stories about miracles often make for good musicals.
But this story isn’t in the show.
One must wonder if it once was. At the first preview, the musical was about an hour longer, so a good deal of song, dance and dialogue had to walk the plank. Perhaps this is one detail that was discarded along the way. But the show would have been better retaining this tale and dropping a long soap-opera-ish second-act plot with won’t-you-ever-leave-your-wife dialogue.
We can infer why Wolfe preferred to keep the Lottie-Eubie impasse; it gives a six-time Tony-winner more to perform. So many audiences will be pleased to hear Audra McDonald sing – especially “Memories of You” (Blake’s favorite song of all he wrote, by the way) — that they may tolerate the sudsy story that comes before her sterling rendition. McDonald does have that rare soprano that sounds natural and not pretentious in that pay-attention-to-my-great-voice way.
Lottie Gee starts out reserved, but McDonald lets us see the woman was not an ice queen but just someone scared that the little success she’d had worked so hard to achieve could be forgotten in a nonce; then where would she be? So she’s very stingy with smiles and avoids giving them. What’s more, she gives her opinions of the show they’re creating in language worthy of a Pulitzer prize-winning drama critic.
Wolfe also gives Lottie a great line when she tries to soothe a just-starting-out actress by saying “Everyone is scared the first time she steps on stage” before becoming a diva and dryly adding “Or so I’m told.” That probably was true of McDonald when she was a kid back in Fresno and appearing at Roger Rocka’s Good Company Players.
McDonald has beautifully calibrated her performance so that as the show becomes increasingly successful, she’s able to loosen up and relax. If you take a rest room break, just look at McDonald you’re your return; you’ll know exactly where in 1921 SHUFFLE ALONG is in its genesis. This is a remarkable achievement worthy of – yes – the Tony nomination that McDonald was recently denied.
Centering on an ill-fated love affair isn’t the only mistake Wolfe has made. He’s also erred in the way he’s apportioned dialogue among his four male leads: the estimable Dixon, Joshua Henry (fine as Noble Sissle), Brian Stokes Mitchell (excellent as co-librettist F.E. Miller) and Billy Porter (appropriately feisty as co-librettist Aubrey Lyles). Wolfe has each come out with a staccato phrase of exposition, and as soon as one finishes his phrase, another takes over the narrative with a new speedy sentence.
No, if we’re to learn about “the making of the musical,” we need to hear and process that information; making our heads work in tennis-match fashion by going from one speaker to another, trying to find who’s talking now, making each line harder to hear from the next speaker results in a far less enjoyable and informative show. Had Wolfe instead given a solid paragraph of exposition to each of the four men, our burden would have been immeasurably lightened and we would have better gleaned what had gone on.
Billy Porter makes Aubrey Lyles a no-nonsense guy and a suspicious (and not without cause) hothead. Watch how he handles a chance criticism from one of the cast members. Mitchell excels as the voice of reason: “When are you gonna solve a problem rather than being one?” One thing’s for certain: Porter has no problem with the penultimate melisma in “Low Down Blues” which may be the most thrilling one of the new century.
There is that cliché of “When you’re down and out, lift up you head and shout, sing and dance.” Such moments cue many dances, but Savion Glover’s choreography is so entertaining and exciting that we don’t much mind the excuse. If you love jazz tapping in which the instruments stop improvising and the feet create the music instead, you’ll be mighty pleased here.
Important impresarios of the original SHUFFLE ALONG were Messrs. Cort (for whom the 48th Street theater is named) both pere and fils. Here the younger Cort greatly resembles the older one, and for good reason: Brooks Ashmanskas plays both, aging dozens of years in one split-second from a son in his prime to a dad in his dotage.
Guess which Cort says “White people don’t come to see black people.” Ah, but they did and soon, for the first time, they allowed blacks to sit with them in the orchestra and not send them to the balcony. That, too, is a fact SHUFFLE ALONG ETC. could have underlined more. Funny that a musical that sports a song called “Love Will Find a Way” spends so much time in showing us it sometimes doesn’t.