BY ZITA ALLEN | When “Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed” opens at the Music Box Theater on April 28, it won’t be tap wizard Savion Glover’s first time on Broadway.
Glover’s signature style has dazzled the eye and boggled the mind ever since he debuted at 12 years old in “The Tap Dance Kid,” dancing alongside his mentor, the legendary Gregory Hines. That show was followed by a string of hits, including a Tony-nominated performance in “Black and Blue” and a starring role as jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton in George C. Wolfe’s musical “Jelly’s Last Jam.” Then, in 1996 came his performance in “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk,” for which his choreography won the Tony.
Like these previous hits, “Shuffle Along” represents the fruits of a collaboration with director and writer George C. Wolfe, who snagged one of his two Tony Awards for directing “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk.” There is one big difference here, though. This time, while audiences will be dazzled by the rapid-fire rat-a-tat-tat of Glover’s tap style, they won’t see him dance. But, no worries. Instead of watching Glover hunched over, knees bent, dreadlocks flying, in the zone as his size 12 EE tap shoes hit the boards with an explosive volley that brings folks to their feet, there will be a chorus line of amazing dancers doing the steps Glover choreographed.
Will critics proclaim that Glover has, once again, stolen audience’s hearts when the show opens? Only time will tell. But, if the enthusiastic applause during the sold-out previews is any indication, Glover and Wolfe could have another hit on their hands.
Seeing the show a few days before interviewing Glover made it perfectly clear that “Shuffle Along“ sparkles not only because of Glover and Wolfe but thanks to the sparks that fly when you put together a cast that includes Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry, Brooks Ashmanskas, Adrienne Warren, Amber Iman, and a sassy, breathtaking chorus line.
One evening before curtain call, Glover took time out of a hectic schedule to settle into a cozy corner of the theater’s downstairs lobby and talk about “Shuffle Along.”
“Well, it started with several conversations. George and I knew we wanted to work together again. We pitched several different concepts to each other. Then, in one of our meetings he said he’d been looking at the original ‘Shuffle Along,’ the first black Broadway musical back in 1921, and all that it did. He wanted to explore that — not do a revival of it but just explore the possibility of using the music to tell the stories of the people who were involved.”
Fans of “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk” and its unique way of capturing the journey from slavery to the present know what that means.
“The direction George has taken allows audiences to not only know about the 1921 ‘Shuffle Along,’ Glover added, “but, through his ‘edutainment,’ to learn what black performers went through and in some cases are still going through.”
Yes, there is a glimpse of blackface and one use of the N-word. But there is also “Love Will Find a Way,” the first time a black man and woman sang a love song to one another onstage. And, there is so much more that allows the show to teach and remind us what folks endured to become giants who changed American culture forever. There are the show’s creative teams — Noble Sissle & Eubie Blake and Flournoy Miller & Aubrey Lyles — and stars Lottie Gee and Florence Mills, as well as folks who emerged from both the show and the Harlem Renaissance era it helped spark, including James Reese Europe, Aida Overton Walker, Carl Van Vechten, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. There’s even a program insert for the 1921 “Shuffle Along” that includes bios and photos of the originators and cast as well as a Who’s Who that includes Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson.
Is it information overload?
“I think audiences have become more intelligent and open to not being simply seduced by entertainment,” Glover responded.
Then, too, there’s the dance. Glover has always starred in previous collaborations with Wolfe, so it’s interesting to know how it feels being behind the scenes.
“It feels great,” he said. “I like being able to sit back and watch the pictures. It’s like everything or most of the information that I have gathered from the past and the men and women I’ve studied with prepared me for this moment.
“Had I not spent time with Gregory Hines or Jimmy Slyde or Honi Coles or the Nicholas Brothers or Lon Chaney or master teacher and choreographer Henry LeTang [who staged a revival of “Shuffle Along” some 50 years ago], or any of the other great masters…” Glover said as his voice trailed off. “Sometimes I pull from approaches that may not necessarily be what I would do in the moment but it works. I’ve been really allowing myself to be vulnerable to accept the energy of these masters I’ve been fortunate enough to know, learn from, and work with.”
It’s all in this production, which is chock full of the variety that reflects both tap’s spectrum and Glover’s genius. Not only are there iconic tap steps — buck and wing, over the trenches, in the trenches, stomp, slide, and you name it — but they emerge in creative numbers that riff on the original show and move the story forward in compelling ways. Take the traveling number that captures the show’s touring circuit as dancers, each holding a suitcase, tap, stomp, and shuffle across the stage while calling out the names of the cities the show played in before landing on Broadway.
“Showstopper” is a word that gets bandied about when folks are smitten by Broadway magic. Chances are once the “Shuffle Along” reviews appear, it will be used again. But, if it is, it could indicate that along with everyone else affiliated with the show, Savion Glover’s contribution plus his desire “to continue to be uplifting, shedding light on situations reminding us what we had to go through as a people” helped folks enjoy and learn from the remarkable combination of “edutainment” that is the bundle of joy known as “Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed.”
SHUFFLE ALONG | Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St. | Tue., Thu., 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $79-$375 at telecharge.com