Up Next

Broadway

On Broadway: There is no ‘Hamilton’ without ‘Shuffle Along’

‘Shuffle Along’ provides the context for just how big a deal ‘Hamilton’ is

To walk along New York’s West 45th Street these days is surreal.

Specifically, the walk between Broadway and 8th Avenue. There’s a permanent throng of people, and foot traffic barely creeps along in the heart of the theater district. The people are here to see Lion King. Here to see The Color Purple. They’re here to see Eclipsed, and they’re here to see Shuffle Along Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. They’re here, in essence, to see blackness, and lots of it, in a multitude of forms.

One block over, on 46th, is Hamilton, Broadway’s very own stimulus package, which boasts a history-making 16 Tony nominations thanks to the work of an almost entirely nonwhite cast. People clutch their smartphones and huddle around the stage doors in clumps, hoping to get a selfie or share a word or just catch a glimpse of Audra McDonald, or Danielle Brooks, or Lupita Nyong’o or Leslie Odom Jr. or Lin-Manuel Miranda or Daveed Diggs or Cynthia Erivo. The canvas of stardom on “Broadway” is a rainbow of browns.

If only Shuffle Along composers Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle were alive to witness this. And writers Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. Blake, Sissle, Miller and Lyles were the creators of the original Shuffle Along, which made history in 1921 when it opened at the Sixty-Third Street Music Hall with an all-black cast and desegregated orchestra seating. The quartet is here, though, in a way, thanks to director and writer George C. Wolfe, the man responsible for resurrecting Shuffle, and retooling it as a sort of This Is Your Life account of how the ’21 show came to be in the first place. Eubie and his creative cohort live on in actors Brian Stokes Mitchell (Miller), Brandon Victor Dixon (Blake), Billy Porter (Lyles), and Joshua Henry (Sissle).

There’s historic poetry in the fact that Hamilton is nominated for Best Musical against Shuffle Along given that in so many ways, Shuffle lays out context for how a show like Hamilton could come to thrive as it has. Throughout Shuffle Along, the audience is treated to illustrations of never-ending negotiations around the performance of blackness and the personal toll such negotiations levy on black actors, singers and dancers.

“This is only time I’ve ever felt particularly American is in the last like eight months that I’ve been working on [Hamilton].” — Daveed Diggs

While Shuffle Along, which boasts 10 Tony nods of its own, doesn’t enjoy nearly the buzz that Hamilton does, it shouldn’t be overlooked. With its imaginative lighting, enthralling choreography, superb casting, and inspired costume design, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. But Shuffle Along’s biggest thematic throughlines by far, are code-switching and performativity, which in the play become barometers for racial progress: just how much can you be your true self while remaining palatable to white folks?

The cast of the Broadway musical "Shuffle Along" featuring Savion Glover performs "Pennsylvania Graveyard Shuffle" on May 31, 2016

The cast of the Broadway musical “Shuffle Along” featuring Savion Glover performs “Pennsylvania Graveyard Shuffle” on May 31, 2016

Virginia Sherwood/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

While Hamilton gets right down to the business of simply being oneself without bothering to ask for permission first, Shuffle Along provides context for just what a big deal that is for black artists. “This is only time I’ve ever felt particularly American,” is what actor Daveed Diggs (who plays Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton) told TV talk show host Charlie Rose.

Early in the Shuffle Along, Sam (Brooks Ashmanskas) — the white intermediary between Miller, Lyles, Blake and Sissle and investor Henry Cort — is charged with laying out the complications of putting on a black show for a white audience. They, Sam explains with a witty nod to Shuffle Along’s real-life (and still pretty dang white) audience, want black actors in blackface. They want comedy. And they certainly don’t want to see a romantic relationship between two black characters in their own skin. Miller, Lyles, Sissle and Blake are willing to accept a deal with Cort, but only if he agrees to give them complete creative control, specifically because they want to put on a show that doesn’t hew to the racist standards 1921 white audiences have demanded. Cort agrees, and the men draw up a contract.

Miller and Lyles in particular spend much of the show wrestling with this tension, adding nuance to deep-seated attitudes about blackface by noting their own objections to white performers doing it, while proclaiming that on them, the practice is “saucy and subversive.” Wolfe smartly and subtly critiques the resistance to depicting black romance onstage in the most meta way possible by including a storyline about the offstage love affair between Blake and singer Lottie Gee (Audra McDonald).

When the show in Shuffle Along finally starts to enjoy some success — enough to take it from a shoestring-budget roadshow that can’t pay its actors to a Broadway home on 63rd Street — we see all the characters, but especially Miller and Lyles, settle into themselves a bit more. We get visual cues in the costuming as Lyles purchases one outlandish suit after another. The foursome’s financial victories are marked with celebratory dance numbers performed in black and gold. In the most literal interpretation, the black represents blackness while the gold is indicative of their newly-found wealth. Lyles actually sings a number called Everybody’s Strutting Now dressed in a crazily checkered, but impeccably tailored red-and-black suit. Of course there’s a matching waistcoat.

While Blake is adjusting Shuffle for its opening night, the show’s star, chitlin’ circuit queen Lottie Gee, tells him she’s “not singing no waltz in my Broadway debut.” She insists on a jazz tune.

But it comes tumbling down. Infighting between Miller, Lyles, Sissle and Noble helps drive Shuffle Along to close.

When they’re faced with returning to blackface to make a living after finally being able to be themselves onstage, Lyles tells his writing partner, “I’m sick of painting a face on my face.” He’s found his authentic self, and he doesn’t want to relinquish it. Miller shoots back in frustration, midway through applying his makeup, “You do what you want to do. I do what I have to do.” And after Shuffle Along closes, Miller and Lyles argue after a meeting with a white investor about a new project goes south. Beforehand Miller says to Lyles, who is dressed in yet another eye-searing suit, “We’re here to get backing on our next play, so could you be less … you?” But Lyles is 100 percent himself and the meeting does not go well. Eventually the two men dissolve their creative partnership. Without a team to write books to their accompany their music, Sissle and Blake’s partnership doesn’t fair much better. The psychic pressure of constantly having to police one’s blackness is just one of the factors that does them in.

Just how much can you be your true self while remaining palatable and familiar to white folks?

When you consider the real-life journeys of Miller, Lyles, Blake and Sissle, it makes Hamilton’s success all the more sweet. The show has bewitched the country by telling the story of a white founding father with non-white actors, using music filled with hip-hop and R&B easter eggs that members of Broadway’s predominantly older white audience are unlikely to even detect.

While the need, on some level, to cover their true selves was the engine of Miller and Lyle’s early success and also their late-career demise, Hamilton’s success can be directly attributed to the fact that it engages in very little compromise to appeal to its white audience. In a recent Sirius XM Town Hall, Miranda admitted to host Anderson Cooper that he put You’ll Be Back, the Beatles-esque song sung by King George III, in Hamilton as a reassurance to that audience.

“It’s extraordinary the response that song gets,” Miranda said. “For older theatergoers after 15 minutes of hip-hop and R&B, they go, ‘Oh God! A white guy singing a song center stage. Thank God! Thank Christ!’… but the audience really gets the chance to breathe. It is the first traditional musical comedy hall song [in the show].” It’s a lovely, generous gesture on Miranda’s part, but it certainly doesn’t dilute the significance of Hamilton. The audience is still consuming Miranda’s art on his terms, not the other way ’round. Judging from the trials Shuffle Along illustrates so well, that’s an enormous, heady accomplishment.

Still, there’s a reason that the energy of 45th and 46th Streets feels so dangerously surreal: because it could so easily slip from the tangible into the ephemeral in another season or so. Odom, who plays Aaron Burr in Hamilton, noted this in a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable discussion. “I love the theater and I love this moment we’re having right now,” he said. “But I am not so fast to praise what I think we’re having is a rare moment. What I really think what we need to pay attention to is the next two seasons. Often times, from my career, I’ve watched my white counterparts. I imagine, if you would with me, if a white actor was having a similar situation as I’m having right now in this show, with the success of this show, there might be three or four offers a week for the next shows you’re going to do. There are no shows for me to do.”

Odom’s fellow actors look at him, flabbergasted.

“There’s just no roles,” he continued. “Especially when you look at an Aaron Burr. You look at the complexity, the humanity in this part. There’s no parts for me to play.”

The 70th annual Tony Awards air June 12 at 8 p.m. on CBS.


Below, a complete list of the 2016 Tony nominees:

Best Play

Eclipsed
Author: Danai Gurira
Producers: Stephen C. Byrd, Alia Jones-Harvey, Paula Marie Black, Carole Shorenstein Hays, Alani Lala Anthony, Michael Magers, Kenny Ozoude, Willette Klausner, Davelle, Dominion Pictures, Emanon Productions, FG Productions, The Forstalls, MA Theatricals, The Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, Patrick Willingham

The Father
Author: Florian Zeller
Producers: Manhattan Theatre Club, Lynne Meadow, Barry Grove

The Humans
Author: Stephen Karam
Producers: Scott Rudin, Barry Diller, Roundabout Theatre Company, Fox Theatricals, James L. Nederlander, Terry Allen Kramer, Roy Furman, Daryl Roth, Jon B. Platt, Eli Bush, Broadway Across America, Jack Lane, Barbara Whitman, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Scott M. Delman, Sonia Friedman, Amanda Lipitz, Peter May, Stephanie P. McClelland, Lauren Stein, The Shubert Organization, Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson, Roundabout Theatre Company, Todd Haimes, Harold Wolpert, Julia C. Levy, Sydney Beers

King Charles III
Author: Mike Bartlett
Producers: Stuart Thompson, Sonia Friedman Productions, Almeida Theatre, Robert G. Bartner, Norman Tulchin, Lee Dean & Charles Diamond, Scott M. Delman, Ruth Hendel, Stephanie P. McClelland, Jon B. Platt, Scott Rudin, Richard Winkler, Zeilinger Productions, The Shubert Organization

Best Musical
Bright Star
Producers: Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson, Zebulon LLC, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Len Blavatnik, James L. Nederlander, Carson & Joseph Gleberman, Balboa Park Productions, The Shubert Organization, Jamie deRoy/Catherine Adler/Cricket Jiranek, Rodger Hess, A.C. Orange International, Broadway Across America, Sally Jacobs & Warren Baker, Diana DiMenna, Exeter Capital, Agnes Gund, True Love Productions, The Old Globe

Hamilton
Producers: Jeffrey Seller, Sander Jacobs, Jill Furman, The Public Theater

School of Rock—The Musical
Producers: Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Really Useful Group, Warner Music Group & Access Industries, The Shubert Organization, The Nederlander Organization

Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
Producers: Scott Rudin, Roy Furman, Columbia Live Stage, Center Theatre Group, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Broadway Across America, Heni Koenigsberg, The Araca Group, Peter May, Jon B. Platt, Daryl Roth, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Scott M. Delman, Sonia Friedman, Ruth Hendel, Independent Presenters Network, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Spring Sirkin, Eli Bush, Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson, Color Mad Productions, Len Blavatnik

Waitress
Producers: Barry and Fran Weissler, Norton and Elayne Herrick, David I. Berley, Independent Presenters Network, A.C. Orange International, Peter May, Michael Roiff, Ken Schur, Marisa Sechrest, Jam Theatricals, 42nd.club/Square 1 Theatrics, Benjamin Simpson & Joseph Longthorne/Shira Friedman, The American Repertory Theater

Best Revival of a Play

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible
Producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Len Blavatnik, Roy Furman, Peter May, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Scott M. Delman, Heni Koenigsberg, Daryl Roth, Jane Bergère, Sonia Friedman Productions, Ruth Hendel, JFL Theatricals, Stacey Mindich, Jon B. Platt, Megan Savage, Spring Sirkin, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson

Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge
Producers: Scott Rudin, Lincoln Center Theater, Eli Bush, Robert G. Bartner, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Roy Furman, Peter May, Amanda Lipitz, Stephanie P. McClelland, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Scott M. Delman, Sonia Friedman, John Gore, Ruth Hendel, JFL Theatricals, Heni Koenigsberg, Jon B. Platt, Daryl Roth, Spring Sirkin, Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson, The Young Vic

Blackbird
Producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Scott M. Delman, Peter May, Jon B. Platt, Len Blavatnik, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Heni Koenigsberg, Stacey Mindich, Wendy Federman, Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson

Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company, Todd Haimes, Harold Wolpert, Julia C. Levy, Sydney Beers, Ryan Murphy

Noises Off
Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company, Todd Haimes, Harold Wolpert, Julia C. Levy, Sydney Beers

Best Revival of a Musical

The Color Purple
Producers: Scott Sanders Productions, Roy Furman, Oprah Winfrey, David Babani, Tom Siracusa, Caiola Productions, James Fantaci, Ted Liebowitz, Stephanie P. McClelland, James L. Nederlander, Darren Bagert, Candy Spelling, Adam Zotovich, Eric Falkenstein/Morris Berchard, Just for Laughs Theatricals/Tanya Link Productions, Adam S. Gordon, Jam Theatricals, Kelsey Grammer, Independent Presenters Network, Carol Fineman, Sandy Block, Menier Chocolate Factory Productions

Fiddler on the Roof
Producers: Jeffrey Richards, Jam Theatricals, Louise Gund, Jerry Frankel, Broadway Across America, Rebecca Gold, Stephanie P. McClelland, Barbara Freitag & Company/Catherine Schreiber & Company, Greenleaf Productions, Orin Wolf, Patty Baker, Caiola Productions, The Nederlander Organization, Gabrielle Palitz, Kit Seidel, TenTex Partners, Edward M. Kaufmann, Soffer/Namoff Entertainment, Healy Theatricals, Clear Channel Spectacolor, Jessica Genick, Will Trice

She Loves Me
Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company, Todd Haimes, Harold Wolpert, Julia C. Levy, Sydney Beers

Spring Awakening
Producers: Ken Davenport, Cody Lassen, Hunter Arnold, David J. Kurs, Deaf West Theatre, Carl Daikeler, Sandi Moran, Chockstone Pictures, Caiola Productions, Marguerite Hoffman, H. Richard Hopper, Learytodd Productions, Markoltop Productions, R&D Theatricals, Brian Cromwell Smith, Invisible Wall Productions, Monica Horan Rosenthal

Best Book of a Musical

Bright Star
Steve Martin

Hamilton
Lin-Manuel Miranda

School of Rock—The Musical
Julian Fellowes

Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
George C. Wolfe

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre

Bright Star
Music: Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
Lyrics: Edie Brickell

Hamilton
Music & Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda

School of Rock—The Musical
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Glenn Slater

Waitress
Music & Lyrics: Sara Bareilles

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play

Gabriel Byrne, Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Jeff Daniels, Blackbird

Frank Langella, The Father

Tim Pigott-Smith, King Charles III

Mark Strong, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play

Jessica Lange, Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Laurie Metcalf, Misery

Lupita Nyong’o, Eclipsed

Sophie Okonedo, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible

Michelle Williams, Blackbird

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical

Alex Brightman, School of Rock—The Musical

Danny Burstein, Fiddler on the Roof

Zachary Levi, She Loves Me

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton

Leslie Odom, Jr., Hamilton

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical

Laura Benanti, She Loves Me

Carmen Cusack, Bright Star

Cynthia Erivo, The Color Purple

Jessie Mueller, Waitress

Phillipa Soo, Hamilton

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play

Reed Birney, The Humans

Bill Camp, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible

David Furr, Noises Off

Richard Goulding, King Charles III

Michael Shannon, Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play

Pascale Armand, Eclipsed

Megan Hilty, Noises Off

Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans

Andrea Martin, Noises Off

Saycon Sengbloh, Eclipsed

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical

Daveed Diggs, Hamilton

Brandon Victor Dixon, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed

Christopher Fitzgerald, Waitress

Jonathan Groff, Hamilton

Christopher Jackson, Hamilton

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical

Danielle Brooks, The Color Purple

Renée Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton

Jane Krakowski, She Loves Me

Jennifer Simard, Disaster!

Adrienne Warren, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed

Best Scenic Design of a Play

Beowulf Boritt, Thérèse Raquin

Christopher Oram, Hughie

Jan Versweyveld, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge

David Zinn, The Humans

Best Scenic Design of a Musical

Es Devlin & Finn Ross, American Psycho

David Korins, Hamilton

Santo Loquasto, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed

David Rockwell, She Loves Me

Best Costume Design of a Play

Jane Greenwood, Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Michael Krass, Noises Off

Clint Ramos, Eclipsed

Tom Scutt, King Charles III

Best Costume Design of a Musical

Gregg Barnes, Tuck Everlasting

Jeff Mahshie, She Loves Me

Ann Roth, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed

Paul Tazewell, Hamilton

Best Lighting Design of a Play

Natasha Katz, Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Justin Townsend, The Humans

Jan Versweyveld, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible

Jan Versweyveld, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge

Best Lighting Design of a Musical

Howell Binkley, Hamilton

Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed

Ben Stanton, Spring Awakening

Justin Townsend, American Psycho

Best Direction of a Play

Rupert Goold, King Charles III

Jonathan Kent, Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Joe Mantello, The Humans

Liesl Tommy, Eclipsed

Ivo Van Hove, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge

Best Direction of a Musical

Michael Arden, Spring Awakening

John Doyle, The Color Purple

Scott Ellis, She Loves Me

Thomas Kail, Hamilton

George C. Wolfe, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed

Best Choreography

Andy Blankenbuehler, Hamilton

Savion Glover, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed

Hofesh Shechter, Fiddler on the Roof

Randy Skinner, Dames at Sea

Sergio Trujillo, On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan

Best Orchestrations

August Eriksmoen, Bright Star

Larry Hochman, She Loves Me

Alex Lacamoire, Hamilton

Daryl Waters, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.