'Footnotes' Book Excerpt: Caseen Gaines Tells Story of Black Artists Behind Broadway's 'Shuffle Along' (Exclusive)

Footnotes Book Cover and Caseen Gaines
Courtesy of Sourcebooks ; Johanna Calle

The author raises the curtain on the historical all-Black Broadway musical in his upcoming book, out May 25.

As Broadway continues to be shut down amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, author Caseen Gaines is giving readers a chance to experience opening night again in his new book.

In Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way (Sourcebooks), out May 25, Gaines transports readers to New York in the roaring twenties to tell the story of the artists behind the revolutionary production Shuffle Along, the first Broadway show with an all-Black cast and creative team. Further, Gaines examines how lyricist Noble Sissle, composer Eubie Blake and comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles defied the odds and overcame racism, poverty and violence to break down racial barriers and bring jazz music to the mainstream, usher in the Harlem Renaissance and change the Broadway world with their hit show that would leave a legacy and pave the way for people of color on the stage. 

Shuffle Along first premiered on Broadway in 1921 and ran for 504 performances. A stage adaptation of Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed — the book detailed the challenges the original production faced and its effect on Broadway and race relations — opened in 2016 with Audra McDonald and Billy Porter among the cast members. The production went on to receive 10 Tony noms. The publication of Gaines’ upcoming book will coincide with the centennial of Shuffle Along.

Below, The Hollywood Reporter shares an excerpt of Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way.

The musical and the four men who created it had largely disappeared from the national consciousness until 2015, when Black writer-director George C. Wolfe assembled a company of fellow Tony Award winners and fresh-faced, fast-stepping newcomers for Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. As its title suggests, the show was less a revival and more a behind-the-scenes look at the original production and its aftermath. However, even though some of the most accomplished Black Broadway performers of the day were part of the cast, the original Shuffle Along had escaped them until they heard about Wolfe’s project. "This is a part of my history, and I didn’t know it," Audra McDonald, who played Lottie Gee and holds six Tony Awards, more than any other actor, said in the runup to its opening. Her comments were echoed by several other principal cast members, which included the Tony-nominated Joshua Henry as Noble Sissle and Brandon Victor Dixon as Eubie Blake, as well as Tony winners Brian Stokes Mitchell as Flournoy Miller and Billy Porter as Aubrey Lyles.

Although some found its book overly loquacious and didactic, when Wolfe’s Shuffle Along opened in 2016, the production was uniformly celebrated for its strong performances, bold and vibrant costumes, and Tony Award–winner Savion Glover’s choreography. Perhaps out of concerns shared by Jack Viertel, most of Miller and Lyles’s material was jettisoned, and similarly, the show brushes by the issue of blackface fairly quickly. Conversely, Sissle and Blake’s songbook was well-represented, with all the best- remembered numbers from the original show helping to comprise the score, supplemented by several songs from the duo’s days in vaudeville and other theatrical ventures. To help advance the plot, the writer- director added a handful of expository original tunes for good measure.

Throughout its run of thirty-eight previews and a hundred regular performances, the show grossed over $11 million at the Music Box Theatre on Forty-Fifth Street. While there would have been no way to predict this at the time of the show’s conception, it was notable for not only shining a light on a hidden gem of musical theater—and American—history but also for being part of Broadway’s brownest season in recent memory. At that year’s Tony Awards, where Shuffle Along was nominated in ten categories, including Best Musical, host James Corden greeted the audience by saying, "Think of tonight as the Oscars but with diversity," as The Color Purple, Allegiance, Eclipsed, On Your Feet!, and a little- known musical that would end up sweeping the night, each with casts made up entirely—or almost entirely— with people of color, were all vying for honors.

Shuffle Along was a strong contender to pull some upset victories, yet coincidentally, the show about the Broadway sensation of last century was overshadowed by the Broadway sensation of encores the current one, as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s historic Hamilton: An American Musical prevented it from winning a single award.

The inability of the 2016 Shuffle Along to snag a Tony speaks less to the failures of that production and more to the success of its 1921 predecessor. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Flournoy Miller, Aubrey Lyles, and every member of the company who agreed to go on the ride alongside them, even though success was unlikely and failure was a near certainty, it is no longer unusual to see people of color onstage. More Black and brown folks are telling stories than ever before, even though many of the challenges Shuffle Along’s creators faced still exist in too many facets of American society—and the theater industry—today.

How fitting is it that Wolfe’s Shuffle Along was bested by another show that brought music genres borne out of Black culture—rap, hip- hop, and R&B—and packaged it in a way that white audiences would pay top dollar to enjoy? Like Shuffle Along, with its predominantly Black and brown cast, Hamilton held a mirror to its audiences, asking them to reexamine the way they saw America and the people of color who inhabit it, who also had stories to tell and deserved space to do so. The fight for representation, inclusion, and an entertainment industry that more closely reflects the population of the United States won’t end with Hamilton, just as it didn’t end with Shuffle Along, but both shows helped change perceptions and pave the way for the future artists of color to grab the baton and make even more drastic strides in the right direction.

But as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical memorably states, "You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story." What, then, of the original Shuffle Along? Will the time ever be right to tell that story again onstage, even if, as August Wilson suggests, those who do so may be derided for it? Perhaps not. However, it’s worth considering why that is and what the repercussions are for Black artists who grow up never knowing that, in 1921, one of the biggest sensations of the year was a show where everyone in the cast looked like someone in their family and that the foundational theatrical texts extend beyond the works of George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Flournoy Miller, and Aubrey Lyles were there too, each with several Broadway productions under their belts, and their works, contributions, and lives matter. Though lingering concerns about reintroducing Shuffle Along to a modern audience are well intentioned, American history is a tapestry of imperfect icons and flawed works. While some are permitted to repeatedly press their feet into the wet cement of time, others are papered over, shuffled off to the sidelines, and relegated to little more than historical footnotes.

Excerpted from Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way by Caseen Gaines. © 2021 by Caseen Gaines. Used with permission of the publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc. All rights reserved.