Review/Photos By Ron Fassler . . .
As a longtime visitor to 54 Below, something happened May 22nd I’ll remember the rest of my life, a simple moment of pure synchronicity. As the hour-long tribute to the 1923 Broadway musical Shuffle Along was winding down, we were informed at exactly 8:10 p.m. that 100 years ago—to that very minute—marked the opening night curtain going up on its original production. The theatre, the 62nd Street Music Hall, was even located nearby in the same zip code (in the days long before there even was a zip code). I looked at the time and felt an electrical current sweep through me. What can I say? I’m a sucker for anything to do with the theatre that connects with that kind of specificity on such an historic occasion.
Coming at the end of a night that was all about connection, its being noted was not lost on such a savvy audience. Shuffle Along came at the very beginning of what would become known as the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural revolution within the African American community that forged aspects of theatre, art, fashion, music, dance and politics. The musical was the product of the songwriting team of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, both of whom went on to long careers. Sissle lived to be eighty-six and Blake ninety-six. Blake was still appearing on talk shows right up until he died (claiming to be one hundred), one of the last eyewitnesses and central figures of an astounding era. Shuffle Along, the first Broadway musical created entirely by Blacks, was not only a first-rate entertainment, but ran for over a year at a time when that was enough to be record-breaking.
I consider myself very fortunate to have seen George C. Wolfe’s magical 2016 Broadway production of Shuffle Along, Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. I managed three separate visits and wasn’t alone in recognizing its greatness. But for a myriad of reasons which won’t be told here, it closed prematurely after three months. It dramatized the story of how Shuffle Along got to Broadway, interspersed with musical numbers from the actual show, with dances choreographed by Savion Glover that in any other season, besides one that gave everything to Hamilton, would have been recognized with a Tony Award.
Noble Sissle Jr made for an elegant host at 54 Below, later in the evening joined by his sister, Cynthia. Their joy in presenting their father’s work was both palpable and touching. When Cynthia Noble noted that it would have pleased her father no end to have “Broadway Babies singing his songs,” she rightly added “and that your songs are still being sung!”
In terms of the sixteen numbers performed, it was of particular interest for me personally to see different artists attack songs I associate with the 2016 Shuffle Along. Enormous credit must go to Sarah Sigman, for her stirring rendition of “I’m Simply Full of Jazz,” a number that most assuredly helped Adrienne Warren earn her first Tony nomination. Major Attaway had the goods to pull of “Low Down Blues” which, due to his deep, deep voice, was light years from how Billy Porter performed it seven years ago. I also liked James Jackson, Jr.’s “Daddy, Won’t You Please Come Home,” a song that was sung by Audra McDonald in a bawdy new version with a great deal of new meaning. And Lance Roberts deliciously laid into “If You’ve Never Been Vamped by a Brownskin, You Haven’t Been Vamped at All.” That number also served as an encore to end the evening with a rare video of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake performing it together in their later years. There was additional poignancy added when Noble Jr informed us that at the time of the taping, his father had started to lose access to his memories. But when his old partner asks him to join in, Noble Sr lifts his head and sings the song to perfection, causing more than a few people in the audience to tear up, myself among them.
Other performers included Phillip Attmore, John Manzari, Rachel Simone Webb, Zurin Villanueva, Jared Wayne Gladly, Subiya Mboya, Chelsea Lee Williams and Rashaad Fisher.
54 Sings ‘Shuffle Along’ – 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street between Eighth Avenue and Broadway (www.54below.org).
Featured Image: Noble Sissle, Jr and Cynthia Sissle