History of The Musical Stage
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One of the most rarely discussed hit musicals of the 1920s was one of the longest running, and most culturally significant. Shuffle Along (1921 - 504) was the first major production in more than a decade to be produced, written and performed entirely by African Americans. After a brief tour, it opened at the 63rd Street Music Hall, well North of the main theatre district. There was a slip of a plot involving a mayoral race in "Jim Town," but the production was essentially a revue showcasing songs by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. With the popular "Love Will Find a Way" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry," Shuffle Along became such a hit that the police converted 63rd Street into a one-way thoroughfare to ease the curtain time traffic jams. The show gave several stellar talents their first major breaks, including Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall and Paul Robeson.
By today's standards, much of Shuffle Along would seem offensive. In a bow to minstrel tradition, the African American actors darkened their skin with blackface make-up, and most of the comedy relied on demeaning racial stereotypes. Each of the leading male characters was out to swindle the others, and the show ended with a song explaining that the lighter the skin tone, the more desirable a Negro woman was
Despite such content, many African Americans embraced the show. In A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1927 (NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002, pp. 263-267), theatre historian David Krasner explains that "African American audiences realized that a certain degree of bowing and scraping was necessary for the success of the performer, and so they accepted performers of their own race blacking-up." At the same time, whites flocked to see the show because it became "de rigueur for anyone wishing to be au courant."
While Shuffle Along inspired a new interest in black musicals, its tremendous commercial success had a down side
Lew Leslie's Blackbirds
Beginning in 1926, white nightclub producer/director Lew Leslie staged a series of Blackbirds revues, featuring such talents as singers Florence Mills and Ethel Waters, and dance legend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Although these productions showcased black talent, they were almost completely created by white writers and composers. In an interview, Leslie made a fascinating claim (the words in parenthesis are added for clarification)
Leslie's series reached its peak with Blackbirds of 1928 (518 perfs). This production opened at the Liberty Theater, in the very heart of the theater district, with an all-black cast and an all-white creative team. The score by composer Jimmy McHugh and lyricist Dorothy Fields included the hit songs "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," and "Doin' the New Low Down." Although the material tried to move beyond minstrel show stereotypes, they were not completely absent. Some of the cast still wore burnt cork to look "blacker," and one backdrop depicted a huge smiling "pickaninny" eating watermelon on a plantation fence. Racial enlightenment was still more dream than reality in 1928. Would that mainstream entertainment could claim complete freedom from racial stereotypes today.
In the 1920s, a bumper crop of new white composers came to prominence on Broadway. For more on them, continue to . . .