The New York Opening and First Reviews
On May 23, 1921, Shuffle Along opened at the 63rd Street Music Hall. Located a half-mile from the northernmost point of Times Square, the theater stood on the corner of Broadway. It was hardly a well-known space; a critic for the New York Age described it as being “sandwiched between garages and other establishments representative of the automobile industry, [which] was little known to the average Broadway theatregoer.” The space had a small stage and hardly a backstage at all. It didn’t even have an orchestra pit, so the first three rows were removed and the boxes demolished to accommodate the musicians. Being used primarily as a lecture hall, there was very little depth to the stage. Even though the stage was extended a few feet, most of the dance numbers were limited to being choreographed horizontally across the width of the stage. A makeshift curtain was added and soon the space was a passable theatre. Blake commented that the theatre, “violated every city ordinance in the book,” adding ironically, “It wasn’t Broadway but we made it Broadway.”
Previously a lecture hall, the theater reopened in November 1919 as a recital hall for classical soloists. According to the New-York Tribune, “The name was selected…despite the fact that the term ‘music hall’ has become more or less identified with vaudeville in America.” The owners, instead, sought to draw on the English concept of a hall for “legitimate” concerns and recitals. Germaine Schnitzler, a classical pianist, gave the opening concert, and the remodeled theater had a seating capacity of 1062 and 12 boxes seating an addition 84 patrons. The paper praised the halls acoustics, saying it compared music could be “more perfectly enjoyed than in…the great spaces of Carnegie or … the smaller reaches of the Aeolian.”
In April 1920, the theater had its first association with African-Americans when a film on the subject of William Hayward’s “famous colored regiment” was shown, in a special screening attended by Governor Al Smith. By then, the theater was mostly showing movies, with a mix of political events. A “Grand Protestant Rally” led to a riot between its members and a rival Catholic group, resulting on the police responding to break up the brawl. In short, this was hardly a theater with an illustrious history presenting Broadway musicals—nonetheless, within a few months of Shuffle Along’s opening, 63rd Street had to be changed to a one-way to accommodate the large crowds coming to see the show.
While successful from the start, the white press was slow to review Shuffle Along. The New York Times was most impressed with the music, calling Blake’s score “swinging and infectious,” noting that it drew on both qualities “inherent to the Negro” while being “frankly Remickniscent [sic]” of standard Broadway songs. However, the critic found little to like in the show’s book or acting:
It has here and there a broad comedy scene that is effective, but little or none of it is conspicuously native and all of it extremely crude—in writing, playing and direction . . . The authors have the leading roles but except in a burlesque boxing bout…they revealed no marked comic talents. There is a good male quartet, and now and then some entertaining dancing.
While praising Sissle and Blake’s songs, industry paper Variety general faulted the cheap production, weak script, and—surprisingly—the lack of dancing (the show would become famous for its dancing chorus line). “The musical numbers are worthy of a real production, which ‘Shuffle Along’ lacks entirely,” the reviewer huffed, noting that “dancing [did not start until] the second act, [and] there was comparatively little of it,” spending more time describing the “bobbed hair effect” sported by the troupes “high brown” chorus than their feet. Gertrude Saunders, Lottie Gee, and particularly Roger Williams were all praised for their singing, and Miller and Lyles’ boxing routine that they had perfected during their vaudeville years was noted as “the hit of the show.” “Love Will Find A Way” was singled out as “a peach,” and considerable coverage was given to the specialty interlude performed by Sissle and Blake in the second act. The Variety critic believed that the show would mostly appeal to a black audience, noting:
The 63rd Street Theater is … a few blocks to the westward… [of] a negro section known as “San Juan Hill.” The Lennox avenue colored section is but 20 minutes away on the subway, so that “Shuffle Along” ought to get all the colored support there is, along with the white patrons who like that sort of entertainment.
Despite the $2.00 ticket price for the front half of the auditorium, “colored patrons were noticed as far front as the fifth row.” (Allowing blacks to be seated in the main part of an auditorium was noteworthy for the day; usually they were relegated to the upper balcony.) Ironically, it turned out that it would be the “white patrons who liked that sort of entertainment” that would propel the show to great success—despite this initial reaction from the entertainment industry.
The New York Age’s Lester A. Walton, the best-known African-American critic of the period, was saddened by the white critics’ expectations for both the types of characters, songs, and dances that were appropriately “African” that were the acceptable limits for black performers. “Unless you are in overalls and wearing a perpetual grin you are apt to create the impression of assuming too much dignity,” Walton believed was the typical attitude of white critics and theatergoers. Ironically, though, the dances and routines created in Shuffle Along “have already been confiscated by white performers for their personal use,” he noted. In a later piece, Walton thought a show that depicted blacks as “nice-looking young men and women, well dressed and using plain United States language” couldn’t succeed with white audiences.
Notably, some white critics found the show lacking in sufficient echoes from the “deeper jungles,” as well-known critic Heywood Broun stated in the New York Tribune. His review didn’t appear until July, when the show itself was already the hit of the season. While he admired the show’s energetic troupe and the “frenzy and rigor” of their dancing, he found that
On the whole, “Shuffle Along” follows Broadway models. The African contribution is not large. Most [of] the music is lively and agreeable, but not much of it is new. The book could be rewritten for any pair of German dialect comedians.
The expectation was for more stereotypical depictions of blacks, particularly in the show’s non-comedic moments. Not surprisingly, Broun singled out for praise “the choral work [and] … the singing of a male quartet” for their “primitive power,” reflecting the white belief that all best black music was spirituals sung in harmony. However, he also noted that Blake was “a performer of unusual merit.”
According to Blake, one white critic helped really put the show over the top: “It was Alan Dale’s review that really made people want to see the show.” Writing in the New York American, Dale recognized that this show “with no ostentation of scenic effects and no portentous ‘names’ and no emphasized ‘sensations’” put most mainstream musicals to shame. Also uniquely among the early white critics, Dale celebrated the power of the show’s dancing, noting that the cast’s energy and enjoyment of the material was one of the highlights of the show:
How they enjoyed themselves! How they jigged and pranced and cavorted, and wriggled, and laughed. It was an infection of amusement. It was impossible to resist a jollity that the company itself appeared to experience down to the very marrow. Talk of pep! These people made pep seem something different to the tame thing we know further downtown. Every sinew in their frames responded to their extreme energy.
Nonetheless, like the critic Heywood Broun, Dale thought the show lacked a certain “darkness.” However, unlike Broun, Dale doesn’t believe that black actors were unable to match white performers; in fact, he singled out singers Lottie Gee and Roger Williams as being every bit as talented—if not more so—than the day’s white stars:
“Shuffle Along” is a darky show that has lost most of its darkness. The men “black up” just as though they were tintless; the women rouge up, very much as they do in non-colored performances. One expects to see an essentially colored aggregation, but it isn’t that by any mean. It is a semi-darky show that emulate the “white” performance and—goes it one better.
Describing Sissle and Blake’s songs, Dale again lamented their lack of “molassesian” style and “primitiveness,” while praising their “simplicity and charm.”
After the show was a success, white critics like Gilbert Seldes—who wrote for the influential magazine Vanity Fair—reflected on why it had such strong appeal. Seldes felt the show was “without art, but with tremendous vitality.” Nonetheless, he thought the comportment the dancers, “a little too piercing at times, the postures and the pettings and the leapings all a little beyond the necessary measure. It remains simple; but simplicity, even if it isn’t usually vulgar, can be a bit rough.” Writing later in his influential book The 7 Lively Arts, he reflected on his original criticism:
It was fairly obvious that Shuffle Along had been conceived as an entertainment for negroes; that is why it remained solid when it took Broadway, to the intense surprise of its producers. It was, in short, an exotic for us, but it wasn’t an exotic for themselves. Its honesty was its success, and its honesty put a certain stamp upon its successors. In all of them there is a regrettable tendency to imitate, at moments, the worst features of our usual musical comedy. But the major portion of each show is native, and so good.