Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Last week, the Museum hosted a conversation with director Rachel Taichman and playwright Paula Vogel on their new theatrical collaboration investigating the performance history of the Yiddish play Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance). Their play, Indecent, opens next month at Vineyard Theatre, but this week’s blog coincides with the opening of another “history of” show, Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed which opens on April 28th at the Music Box Theatre. Like the title suggests, it’s a new musical about the creators of the 1921 Shuffle Along, often called the first Broadway musical written by and for African Americans. To mark the opening, we’ll peek into the creative lives of Shuffle Along‘s songwriters, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle.
Composer James Hubert “Eubie” Blake was born in 1887 (Blake said he was born in 1883, but the generally agreed on year is 1887) in Baltimore to two former slaves. The last and only child to survive infancy, young Eubie started learning how to play the organ before discovering ragtime and the piano. By the time he was 15, he was playing paying gigs in and around Baltimore. In 1899, Blake began playing with a melody that would become one of his enduring compositions, “The Charleston Rag.”
Noble Sissle, the son of an Indiana Reverend, got his start in show business when his father’s sudden death compelled him to leave college and find work as a singer. In 1915, the 26 year-old Sissle joined the Baltimore band where Eubie Blake was playing piano. Soon, they were writing their own songs. They found some initial success when one of their earliest collaborations was picked-up by the popular entertainer Sophie Tucker. With the outbreak of World War I, Sissle joined the armed forces becoming a drum major with an Army band and playing for troops in Europe. Sissle teamed up with Blake again after the war forming the Dixie Duo, a vaudeville act that performed original comic songs.In their act, Sissle and Blake eschewed performing in the burnt cork makeup so often demanded of African Americans on stage at that time, instead dressing in elegant evening attire. The Dixie Duo teamed up with another vaudevillian comic duo, Miller and Lyles, to create Shuffle Along. With songs by Sissle and Blake and F. F. Miller and Aubrey Lyles on the book, Shuffle Along opened at the 63rd Street Music Hall on May 23, 1921. It became a smash success, running for over 480 performances. The biggest hit was “I’m just wild about Harry.” Originally a love song sung by the show’s young heroine Jessie (Lottie Gee) to her sweetheart played by Roger Matthews, the song found new life in Harry S. Truman’s 1948 Presidential campaign. Appropriate because the plot of Shuffle Along, thin though it was, revolved around a mayoral race.
After their hit show, Sissle and Blake collaborated on a few other Broadway musicals, the 1923 Elsie and The Chocolate Dandies in 1924. Neither were as successful as their first collaboration. The next year they toured Europe. The duo effectively split up when Sissle opted to stay in Europe after the tour. He founded an orchestra, and when World War II broke out, he began entertaining the troops once again. A version of Shuffle Along headed by Sissle performed in U.S.O. shows in 1945 and 1946. Before the war, he returned to New York to direct and perform in the 1942 revue Harlem Cavalcade, but the show closed within a month of opening.
Back in the States, Blake continued performing and composing. Broadway revivals of Shuffle Along were attempted in 1933 and 1952 but neither were successful. At 63, Blake retired from performing and went back to school to formally study composition at New York University. When ragtime reentered the popular imagination in the early 1970s, Blake emerged from retirement to enjoy a career renaissance. The 1978 revue Eubie! celebrated his songs and collaborations with Sissle, and he performed with Gregory Hines on a 1979 episode of Saturday Night Live!Eubie Blake passed away in 1983 at the very respectable age of 96. Noble Sissle died eight years earlier at the ripe old age of 86. At the time of his death, he was one of the oldest living members of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) having joined with Blake in 1922. After their deaths, Sissle and Blake’s songs continued to be featured on Broadway in such revues as Bob Fosse’s 1986 Big Deal and the 1994 Joan Rivers vehicle Sally Marr…and her escorts. The re-envisioning of Shuffle Along that opens this week will re-introduce the Dixie Duo to a new generation of theater-goers. (For more context on the show, check out NY Times article from March 24). Under the combined creative powers of director and playwright George C. Wolfe, choreographer Savion Glover, and stars Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, and Brian Stokes Mitchell, Broadway is poised to once again be “just wild” about Sissle and Blake.