Audra McDonald Celebrates the Comedy and Forgotten Importance of Broadway's 'Shuffle Along'

Justin Barbin
Opening night of 'Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed'

"That's why we're doing this show, so they'll remember these people and the struggle and everything they accomplished, so that we never go back to what they had to endure."

Audra McDonald and her family were in high spirits at the opening night of Broadway’s Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.

“My daughter said that it was a relief to not have to brace herself for what might happen to me, as she’s had to do with many of the other shows,” she laughed to The Hollywood Reporter of portraying the singer Lottie Gee. “‘Mommy doesn’t die, doesn’t shoot up, doesn’t get hit — it’s fine!’”

With McDonald’s comedic turn in George C. Wolfe’s new production at the Music Box Theatre, which chronicles the backstage struggle to bring the first all-black jazz musical comedy to Broadway in 1921, the cast hopes the tap-filled show is as entertaining as it is enlightening.

“History is told by the winners, but the space that exists between the winners and the losers is where you find the truth. This shines a light on a microcosm of time that was so important to the theater, and beyond, that got squashed,” said Billy Porter at the elaborate Pier Sixty afterparty, complete with large portraits of the original show’s cast, Southern comfort food and suspended suitcases over the dance floor.

“I remember learning about Shuffle Along at Carnegie Mellon, and seeing the blackface and song titles like ‘Pickaninny Shoes,’ and it was the butt of every joke for me and all my naive black friends: ‘What are you gonna be in, Shuffle Along?!’” the Kinky Boots star admitted. “George challenged that and called me on my shit, that ‘there were people who came before you and did extraordinary things, so take from it the important stuff.’”

The origin story of the historical yet sadly forgotten show touches on timeless topics like cultural appropriation and the plight of the creative spirit. But most of all, it illustrates that “everybody wants to be remembered,” noted Brian Stokes Mitchell. “We all want to matter, and feel like we lived on this planet and something came of it.”

It’s a theme that resonates even with the youngest of viewers. “One of the swings brought her 6-year-old daughter to see the show, and afterward, she had tears in her eyes because of the number ‘They Won’t Remember You’ — it upset her so much because she was sad that these people, whom she had grown to love over the past two hours, wouldn’t be remembered,” McDonald recalled.

“I told her, ‘It’s OK, that’s why we’re doing this show, so they’ll remember these people and the struggle and everything they accomplished, so that we never go back to what they had to endure.’”

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