'Shuffle Along' Changed Musical Theater 100 Years Ago Though much of it is unwatchable today — it contains blackface and other minstrelsy — Shuffle Along brought jazz to Broadway and was the first African American show to be a smash hit.

'Shuffle Along' Changed Musical Theater 100 Years Ago

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One hundred years ago tonight, a new musical created by a team of African American artists opened on Broadway and became a hit. It was called "Shuffle Along." By today's standards, as you're about to hear, a lot of it is, frankly, offensive. But as Jeff Lunden reports, it's worth remembering because "Shuffle Along" also opened the door to Black culture on Broadway.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: If you wanted to see a musical on The Great White Way in 1921 - that name came about because of the electric lights on Broadway but was true about the color of the actors and audience - you could see an operetta...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHOCOLATE SOLDIER")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Oh, you little chocolate soldier man.

LUNDEN: ...Or a splashy revue.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SECOND HAND ROSE")

FANNY BRICE: (Singing) Everyone knows that I'm just Second Hand Rose

LUNDEN: But as of May 23 that year, you could also see something completely new.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHUFFLE ALONG")

NOBLE SISSLE: (As Tom Sharp, singing) Shuffle along, and whistle a song. Sometimes a smile will right every wrong. Keep smiling, and shuffle along.

CASEEN GAINES: "Shuffle Along" is an amazing moment in our history.

LUNDEN: Caseen Gaines has just written "Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote The Rules Of The Great White Way."

GAINES: You can draw a horizontal line to what musical theater sounded like before 1921 and after.

(SOUNDBITE OF EUBIE BLAKE AND NOBLE SISSLE SONG, "IN HONEYSUCKLE TIME")

LUNDEN: When "Shuffle Along" premiered, not only did it bring jazz to Broadway, it was the first all-Black show to be a smash hit, composer Eubie Blake recalled in a 1973 interview on WNYC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

EUBIE BLAKE: When we put "Shuffle Along" on Broadway, we put Negroes back to work again. People said that we had an Uncle Tom show because it was cork and they distorted the English language. But it was permissible in those days.

LUNDEN: Cork, as in blackface. The scriptwriters Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles were African Americans who performed in blackface. Caseen Gaines says that was a form of resistance.

GAINES: Really, what Black actors were doing was asserting their place in the entertainment industry and saying, well, if white performers are going to make a buck at the expense of Black people playing up to stereotypes, we can do it, too, and we can probably do it a whole lot better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SHUFFLE ALONG")

FLOURNOY MILLER: (As Steve Jenkins) Ladies, gentlemenses (ph), peopleses (ph), and folkses (ph)...

AUBREY LYLES: (As Sam Peck) Well, you ain't left out nobody. I'll give you credit for that.

LUNDEN: Miller and Lyles doing a blackface scene from "Shuffle Along."

GAINES: A lot of it is very hard to listen to in 2021. At the time, perhaps there were Black people that were uncomfortable with it but sort of understood that it was a foot in the door.

LUNDEN: "Shuffle Along" was about two grocery store owners running against each other for mayor of a small town. It featured a romantic subplot which wasn't played for laughs, revolutionary at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE WILL FIND A WAY")

SISSLE: (As Tom Sharp, singing) Love will find a way.

LUNDEN: Noble Sissle, the lyricist, singing with Eubie Blake at the piano. "Love Will Find A Way" became popular, but the show's biggest hit was "I'm Just Wild About Harry."

(SOUNDBITE OF EUBIE BLAKE AND NOBLE SISSLE SONG, "I'M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY")

LUNDEN: "Shuffle Along," staged with hand-me-down costumes and sets, tried out in New Jersey and Pennsylvania before it arrived on Broadway $21,000 in debt. But audiences came in droves, and it ran for well over a year, sprouting several touring companies.

GAINES: White audiences could go see the show and feel like they were slumming it.

LUNDEN: And, Gaines says, to appeal to white audiences, there was a lot of colorism in "Shuffle Along."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU'VE NEVER BEEN VAMPED BY A BROWNSKIN YOU'VE NEVER BEEN VAMPED AT ALL")

LYLES: (As Sam Peck, singing) If you've never been vamped by a brownskin, you've never been vamped at all.

GAINES: They chose women that would pass the brown paper bag test, which is essentially being lighter than a brown paper bag.

LUNDEN: As a matter of fact, teenager Josephine Baker auditioned and was rejected several times. Gaines adds That kind of colorism didn't start with "Shuffle Along," but the show perpetuated it. The success of "Shuffle Along" opened the floodgates for other Black musicals on Broadway, and white creators like George Gershwin started writing jazz-inflected scores. It may be a footnote now, as Caseen Gaines writes, but he says...

GAINES: If you are a lover of theater and feel like "Hamilton" or "Rent" were revolutionary, "West Side Story," this is like the godfather of all of those productions.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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