“Ones that Came Before”


flournoy-miller-formal-head-shotLast Broadway season was enlivened by Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. It was brilliant but unlucky. It ran for 100 performances and I really hope that you were among the lucky ones who were able to see it. As the title said, the show was about the 1921 musical Shuffle Along and why it holds such an important place in theater history. The original Shuffle Along was written by the comedy team of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles and the songwriting team of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle and the 2016 musical concerned the back story of how it was created and produced and how that success impacted them and their cast.

It was not the first African American musical comedy on Broadway. What was depends on your definition of “on Broadway” (most scholars would say In Dahomey, 1902), but all agree that it was early in the first decade of the century. What all of the shows had in common was that they were built around a male comic or comic team, and had multiple opportunities for character and romantic songs. So the pairing of the comedy team and songwriting team was standard practice.

George C. Wolfe’s script for the 2016 musical included 3 scenes in which the characters paid tribute to “the ones that came before,” the large community of creators and performers of the African American musicals that toured and played on Broadway before 1921. In one scene that drew gasps from the audience, an older actress/character described touring on the TOBA circuit to explain why she advised against the romantic leads kissing on stage. This scene reminded the characters and taught the audience that the Theatre Owner Booking Association (aka Tough on Black Actors) circuit followed Jim Crow laws and practices.

Another dialogue scene was a conversation between Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle concerning James Reese Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra, with which they both performed. While no short scene could possible sum up the vital importance of James Reese Europe for 2 decades of Harlem-based music, it did remind the audience of the long history of African American songwriting and composition while giving Sissle a motivation for his emotion state.

Within the plot, the show’s cast is waiting at the train station to start the preview tour. There is a hold-up with the tickets and to quell the cast’s worries, Brian Stokes Mitchell as Flournoy Miller starts to sing. Surprisingly, it is not a song from the show, a spiritual or hymn, which would have made theatrical sense, but one that seems to be known to the cast, who join him in perfect 4-part harmony.   It was not identified, but I recognized it as “Swing Along,” a song by Will Marion Cook. Cook was the songwriter for In Dahomey and many of the other early African American musicals, as well as songs performed in vaudeville and interpolated into “mainstream” musical comedies.  He frequently set lyrics by Paul Lawrence Dunbar.   Although most of his music was published by Jos. W. Stern, then a important Tin Pan Alley firm, Swing Along was first published by G. Schimer as one of the “# Songs for Chorus of Men’s Voices.”  It was first recorded on Victor in 1915 by the Orpheus Quartet, so that 4-part harmony was appropriate.

Cook’s name comes up this season at the New York Philharmonic since he was one of the two African American composers (with H. T. Burleigh) who studied with Anton Dvorak in New York (at the National Conservatory of Music) who are believed to have inspired Dvorak to use African American traditional songs in his New World Symphony.  When he is mentioned in music history, it is frequently with the frequently with the phrase “he studied with Dvorak and taught Duke Ellington.” For more on Cook and his family, there is a recent biography by Marva Griffin Carter named will-marion-cook-1910.

In Wolfe’s clever script, the characters in the show remind each other and teach the contemporary audience about the ones that came before – them and us.

Portraits at Flournoy Miller and Will Marion Cook (directly above) from the New York Public Library’s Digital collection.   My WordPress readers may be interested in an older blog about another Clef Club stalwart J. Rosmond Johnson which I wrote for the opening of the Smithsonian’s African American Museum. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2016/09/22/johnson-lift-every-voice.


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