For at least 10 years, MrB and I have visited London and Paris in July. We didn’t make plans this year, so I’ve been mournfully looking at my 2015 photos. This one of me — in a Keith Haring-print dress from Patricia Field — was taken in London on July 31.
I think I might have had one glass of wine too many that night.
I enjoy this dress and I’ve gotten a lot of use out of it this year. I brought it to Miami in early June when I went to celebrate my grandmother’s 100th birthday.
I also wore it late last month in New York when MrB and I went to see the Broadway musical Shuffle Along.
What Wendy Wore to Shuffle Along
Dress: David Dalrymple for Patricia Field (2015)
Belt: Patricia Field (2015)
Shoes: Onex (2015)
Guest stars: Edward (2015) and Gigi (2003)
Shuffle Along is closing this Sunday after 100 shows and 38 previews. I encourage you to grab tickets to one of the last shows if you can, because the performers are AH-MAZ-ING. The play was supposed to run for longer; the official reason given for the early closure is that ticket sales couldn’t survive the maternity leave of its star, Audra McDonald. (July 24 was originally supposed to be her last show, not the last show for everyone.) Yeah, yeah. Blame the woman! I believe what I’ve read in a few articles like this one: It was the lack of Tonys that really doomed the show. In the Year of Hamilton, Shuffle Along didn’t win a single award out of 10 nominations. It’s not unheard of for a show to close shortly after missing out in the Tonys.
Speaking of Hamilton and the Tonys, I’ve got to applaud Shuffle Along executive producer Scott Rudin (aka “Boss-Zilla“) for having extraordinary chutzpah. The full title of Shuffle Along is “Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.” As you might infer from the subtitle, the play is the true “behind the musical” story of the 1921 smash Shuffle Along, a revue that was vaguely about a mayoral race and that was written, produced and performed entirely by African-Americans. Using songs from the original (including the famous “I’m Just Wild About Harry“), the new Shuffle Along is about the struggle to get an all-black musical produced, and how eventual success didn’t necessarily mean a “happily ever after” for the all the participants. Despite that brand-new book, Rudin — knowing Hamilton was bound to sweep the Tonys — tried and failed to get the 2016 show nominated as a revival rather than a new musical. (Reporting on this strategy, the New York Times noted, “The issue might sound arcane, but it has significant financial implications, because Tony Awards can drive ticket sales.”)
When I first read about that effort, I thought, “Okay, sounds like that’s worth a try.” Then I saw the play. As MrB and I exited, I remembered the Tonys strategy and I was nearly falling on the sidewalk laughing. The nerve necessary to pitch this entirely new show as a revival! (It’s also such a dis to George C. Wolfe, the author of the new play’s book.) I said to MrB, “I don’t think I could argue that with a straight face if my life depended upon it.” MrB said, “Hey, you gotta try.” I kept laughing though.
The original Shuffle Along launched the careers of superstars like Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. When we got home, I fell down the Internet rabbit hole searching for information on Florence Mills, another international star from the cast of the original Shuffle Along (and a significant character in the 2016 production). Florence worked like a dog after she hit the big time, and, according to the current Broadway production, postponed taking care of her health because she was so concerned about the many theater people who depended on her for their living. She died of tuberculosis in 1927, at the young age of 31. According to the New York Times, 10,000 people paid their respects at the funeral home.
A 2006 review of Bill Egan’s book Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen noted that Florence “was also a staunch supporter of equal rights for African-Americans, and was outspoken on this issue both in the press and personally. In fact, her signature song ‘I’m a Little Blackbird’ was a plea for racial equality …” I was intrigued by that because Baker, Robeson and others associated with the 1921 production were also outspoken supporters of civil rights. It makes sense to me that the kind of people who fought like mad to get an all-black show to Broadway — often going unpaid during the show’s pre-New York touring days — would be brave enough to speak their minds to a frighteningly racist society.
So many of the people involved in the original musical — and portrayed on stage in the 2016 show — were so fascinating that I want to read everything about all of them. I hope the new Shuffle Along‘s website stays up, because there’s some good history there. I also recommend a March 2016 New York Times story by John Jeremiah Sullivan called, “‘Shuffle Along’ and the Lost History of Black Performance in America.” It covers topics including the surprising use of blackface BY black performers. There’s also a photo of the Shuffle Along dancers (Josephine Baker is sixth from the right) and multiple shots of Florence Mills in different costumes.
Hamilton — the musical that shut out Shuffle Along at the Tonys — is going to benefit from the latter’s closing. The immensely talented Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Eubie Blake, the composer for the 1921 Shuffle Along, is going to take over Hamilton‘s Aaron Burr role in mid-August, replacing Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr. I’ve seen Leslie and I’ve seen Brandon, and I can assure Hamilfans that Burr is going to be in excellent hands.