The Musical That Ushered In The Jazz Age Gets Its Own Musical Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed tells the story of an overlooked smash hit created and performed by African-Americans.
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The Musical That Ushered In The Jazz Age Gets Its Own Musical

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The Musical That Ushered In The Jazz Age Gets Its Own Musical

The Musical That Ushered In The Jazz Age Gets Its Own Musical

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Ninety-five years ago, the musical "Shuffle Along" changed the game on Broadway. It was created and performed by African-Americans and helped usher in the jazz age. But even though it launched careers for black entertainers and opened the door for black musicals, theater history has largely overlooked "Shuffle Along" until now. Tom Vitale has the story.

SAVION GLOVER: Let's go back to the top.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: At a 42nd Street rehearsal studio, 14 dancers are working on a big production number guided by dreadlocked choreographer Savion Glover.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Up on 63rd, new sounds are being heard.

VITALE: Glover is part of a team that built a new musical around what was, in 1921, essentially a revue, just a string of songs. "Shuffle Along" or "The Making Of The Musical Sensation Of 1921 And All That Followed" tells the story of an unlikely smash hit that brought black culture and a different kind of music to the Great White Way.

(SOUNDBITE OF EUBIE BLAKE SONG)

VITALE: That's composer Eubie Blake from an early recording of one of his songs from "Shuffle Along." Blake was serious about his music, like his colleague Scott Joplin. They called it ragtime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

EUBIE BLAKE: Your people couldn't play ragtime. They thought they could play it. But they did not want to be classified with ragtime.

VITALE: In 1979, I visited the then 92-year-old Eubie Blake at his home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. He said when this music made its way to the New York stage, it was given a racier name, one that Blake says was derogatory. He wouldn't even say the word, only spell it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BLAKE: When Broadway picked it up, they called it J-A-Z-Z. It wasn't called that. It was spelled J-A-S-S. That was dirty. And if you knew what it was, you wouldn't say it in front of ladies.

VITALE: Blake's perspective was 77 years in the making, as a black entertainer in a white entertainment world. He was born in Maryland in 1887, the son of former slaves. He started his career in show business when he was 15.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BLAKE: 1902, I went with a medicine show. Some people might not call it show business, but you got an audience and we entertain them and then they sell the medicine.

VITALE: Blake took his talents to vaudeville, where he teamed with Noble Sissle who wrote and sang the lyrics to Blake's songs. In 1921, they set out to write a musical with another vaudeville duo, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. Miller and Lyles were a black comedy team who met at Fisk University. But onstage, they played down for white audiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That man done hit me so hard I don't know where I am.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: But you told me you was a first-class prizefighter.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Well, I is.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Then why don't you stop some of them blows?

VITALE: Miller and Lyles adapted some of their vaudeville skits for scenes in "Shuffle Along" and then performed them on stage in blackface because, says John Kenrick, author of "Musical Theater: A History," that's what was expected.

JOHN KENRICK: And unfortunately, there had been no sophisticated black entertainment on Broadway up to that time.

VITALE: The creators of "Shuffle Along" were also its producers. They went into debt to the tune of $18,000, a lot of money in 1921, to get the show ready for Broadway. But John Kenrick says theater owners wouldn't give them a space at the heart of Broadway in Times Square.

KENRICK: There was no room for blacks at the table. And "Shuffle Along," when it did come into town, had to go to 63rd Street to find a home. There was no room in the Times Square area for it. Theater owners looked and said, look, we're not even going to give you a break on the rent for this. Forget about it. There's no audience for a black revue.

VITALE: But when "Shuffle Along" opened on May 23, 1921, it became the sensation of the Broadway season.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: It ran for 504 performances to packed mixed audiences.

KENRICK: It was this huge critical success. There were so many people crowding that block of an evening that the police had to permanently switch 63rd Street from a two-way street to a one-way street just to control the street traffic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: Broadway audiences and producers had never seen this kind of talent before. Florence Ziegfeld hired chorus girls from "Shuffle Along" to teach their steps to his white "Follies" dancers. One teenager in the chorus, Josephine Baker, became an international cabaret star. A singer in the cast, Paul Robeson, became a theater legend. Harry Truman adopted the show's big hit, "I'm Just Wild About Harry," for his 1948 presidential campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing) Oh, I'm just wild about Harry. Harry's wild about me.

VITALE: "Shuffle Along" was a cultural milestone, says George C. Wolfe, who's directing the current production.

GEORGE C. WOLFE: "Shuffle Along" was as significant a step in the evolution of the musical theater as "Showboat" was in its day, as "Oklahoma" was, as "West Side Story." And I believe it should be discussed in those same contexts.

VITALE: But "Shuffle Along" was a show of its moment. When it was revived on Broadway in 1933, it closed after 17 performances. Another revival in 1952 ran just four nights. The current production tells "Shuffle Along's" backstage story and what's happened since. Eubie Blake said he spent a lifetime trying to figure out what audiences want.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BLAKE: There was a man named George M. Cohan, and he always said you're either born a showman or it takes years to become a showman 'cause every audience is different. It's a tough business because you got to judge what people like and what they don't like.

VITALE: Eubie Blake died in 1983. His story and his music will live in the heart of Broadway this spring in "Shuffle Along." For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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