NEW YORK — In 1921, a show limped onto Broadway with less-than-rosy prospects. The city was still recovering from the Depression. The show was debuting in the middle of summer and there were no air conditioners. It was already $18,000 in debt.
The show, one of the first Broadway musicals to be written and directed by African-Americans, was “Shuffle Along.”
And it beat the odds to become a wild hit, running more than 500 performances and attracting celebrities to its audience.
“That’s a story. How did that happen?” asked Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe, who stumbled over references to the long-forgotten show over the years as he researched the 1920s, musicals and civil rights.
“What I found fascinating is that people connected to popular culture and snobs, people uptown and downtown, seemed to have this extraordinary affection and high regard for this show. I went, ‘There’s something there.’ ”
Wolfe decided to create a show about it and ended up with “Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” a celebration of the era, creativity, audacity and the city.
As announced recently, it will be choreographed by Savion Glover, star Audra McDonald and start performances next year. Wolfe wrote the book and directs.
“Shuffle Along,” with music and lyrics by noted composers Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, had Broadway’s first jazz score that included the songs “(I’m Just) Wild About Harry,” ‘’Love Will Find a Way,” ‘’Bandana Days” and “Shuffle Along.” The cast featured Paul Robeson and Florence Mills, and Josephine Baker joined the tour.
The dance-heavy show centers on a three-way mayoralty race in a small Southern town called Jimtown, a plot Wolfe said he wasn’t too keen on spending a lot of time re-creating.
“The book is, like a lot of books from musicals in the ’20s, kind of hokey. They’re cut-and-paste jobs. They’re vaudeville,” he said. “Do I really want to spend a whole evening wondering which of these people is going to end up mayor of Jimtown, or am I really much more fascinated by these astonishing people who put together this show?”
So instead of reviving the show as it was in 1921, Wolfe decided to reframe the whole thing as a musical about the making of a musical, a collaborative and crazed process that hasn’t changed much in 94 years.
“I’m convinced whenever something opens on Broadway, it’s a miracle. It’s a miracle that people survived,” said Wolfe, whose shows include “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk,” “Angels in America” and “The Normal Heart.”
He is also the chief creative officer for The Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta.
“The wonderful thing about theater is that it has so many people involved in the creation of it. The worst thing about theater is that it has so many people involved in the creation of it,” Wolfe added. “That dynamic is thrilling and challenging every time you make a show.”