Shuffle Along is one of the most important shows in Broadway Black history. As one of the first all-Black Broadway musical hits that was also written by Blacks, Shuffle Along significantly altered the face of the Broadway musical, as well as that of New York City. Shuffle Along opened the door for Black performers and writers on the stage during the period in the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance. It legitimized the Black musical, proving to producers and managers that audiences would pay to see a wealth of Black talent on Broadway, as opposed to one Black act per bill, which had been the norm. The show also contributed to the desegregation of theaters in the 1920s, giving many black actors their first chance to appear on Broadway. Importantly, Black audiences at Shuffle Along sat in orchestra seats rather than being relegated to the balcony.
To create Shuffle Along, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles adapted the plot and characters from their Vaudeville comic sketches and featured music by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. The four celebrated vaudeville performers met at a 1920 NAACP benefit in Philadelphia. The Shuffle Along plot involved Sam and Steve, two old friends and dishonest grocery store owners who run against one another for mayor of Jimtown, each promising to hire the other as chief of police if elected. Once in office, however, the two find themselves at odds and resolve their differences in a long, comical fight. As they fight, their opponent for the mayoral position, Harry Walton, vows to end their corrupt regime. Harry wins the next election, and the lovely Jessie Williams, and runs Sam and Steve out of town.
Although it would become widely successful, Shuffle Along was not without its challenges. The revue arrived in Depression-era New York mired in debt (over $200,000 in today’s terms when adjusted for inflation) after a pre-Broadway tour in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It opened at a remote Broadway house on West 63rd Street, in a converted lecture hall that lacked a proper stage or orchestra pit. And despite being celebrated vaudeville performers, Miller and Lyles and Sissle and Blake had never performed on Broadway, much less written a musical. By contemporary standards, it remains problematic: some actors performed in blackface and most of the comedy relied on old minstrel show stereotypes. Each of the leading male characters was out to swindle the other and the score included a song about how lighter-skinned Black women are more attractive than women with darker skin.
However, Shuffle Along immediately caught on with its jazzy score and exuberant song-and-dance styles, a modern, edgy contrast to the mainstream song-and-dance styles that audiences had seen on Broadway for two decades. The sixteen-girl chorus line was undoubtedly one of the main reasons why the show was so successful. It also introduced musical hits such as “Love Will Find a Way,” and “In Honeysuckle Time.” The most popular tune of the show, however, was “I’m Just Wild about Harry,” sung by the lead female character, Jessie Williams, and Harry Walton. A song about mutual Black love broke racial taboos at that time and helped to usher in perhaps the first sophisticated African-American love story. The song was so wildly popular that Harry Truman chose “I’m Just Wild About Harry” for his presidential campaign anthem in 1948, more than 25 years later.
Shuffle Along premiered on Broadway at the Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre on May 23, 1921, and closed on July 15, 1922, after 484 performances. Directed by Walter Brooks, with Eubie Blake playing the piano, the cast originally included Lottie Gee as Jessie Williams, Adelaide Hall as Jazz Jasmine, Gertrude Saunders as Ruth Little, Roger Matthews as Harry Walton, and Noble Sissle as Tom Sharper. Florence Mills replaced Gertrude Saunders. Josephine Baker, who was deemed too young at age 15 to be in the show, joined the touring company in Boston, and then joined the Broadway cast when she turned 16. Once Shuffle Along left New York, it toured for three years and was, according to some historians, the first Black musical to play in white theaters across the United States.
By tackling issues regarding Black love, racial taboos, and desegregation head on, Shuffle Along paved the way for every predominantly Black Broadway show that came after it.