A couple of weeks ago, my Twitter feed included a post from The New York Times referring to SHUFFLE ALONG, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, as a “revival.” My immediate reaction was: “Do they mean ‘revival’ not in a theatrical sense?” That is because I always thought about this show as a new musical. The original release said it was “a musical about the events that led to the creation of the groundbreaking Eubie Blake-Noble Sissle musical Shuffle Along.” That description didn’t lead me to think “revival,” even though I knew the songs were from the original show. But then I saw the latest release, announcing some stellar additional casting, which came complete with an introduction stating: “Please note that when classifying the show, it is more accurate to call it a revival than a new musical.” Why was I wrong? Or was I wrong?
The March press release stated: “In April 2016… SHUFFLE ALONG, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, will be a backstage musical telling the story of the creation of this transformative but now forgotten show.”
The August press release stated: “The 2016 SHUFFLE ALONG brings the original show back to glorious life, while simultaneously telling the remarkable backstage story of both its historic creation and how it changed the world it left behind.” The recent release also calls it “a striking new production that presents both the 1921 musical itself, and additionally details the events that catalyzed the songwriting team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, and librettists F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles to create this ground-breaking work.”
The new release does indeed make the show sound more like a revival with some bonus extras. There are three possible explanations I can think of for this change in slant:
1) The show itself has changed since it was first announced in March. SHUFFLE ALONG, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed has never been seen by an audience — it is in development. During the time when a show is developing, it often changes. Perhaps director George C. Wolfe, who is also providing the libretto, and his creative team have changed the concept in the past five months.
2) The original press release didn’t do a great job at accurately describing the show. This is not a slam on the press agents or anyone else involved in the writing and approval process; such things happen often. I’ve frequently written to press agents after seeing a show to say: “Umm… That wasn’t really what I thought it would be.” Under this reasoning, this release more accurately describes the show as it has always been. End of story. (Of course, the argument could be made that I simply didn’t do a great job at interpreting the original press release. Others thought the same thing as me though, so at least I’m not alone.)
3) It’s part of early Tony campaigning. The Tony Awards Administration Committee decides if a show is a “revival” for Tony purposes, and they don’t have to listen to anyone else, but if a show is always framed as a revival, it has a good shot at being considered a revival.
Not having read a script or seen SHUFFLE ALONG, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed at any stage of its development, I cannot say which of the three alternatives is most accurate. I truly have no idea. I’m excited about the show regardless. This all said, because of my own love of talking about Tony rules, I’m going to write about what it takes to be a revival according to the Tony folks and what the race is like this year.
Basically, in relevant part, to be a “revival,” something has to have played on Broadway before in “substantially the same form” or be a “classic.” The classic category isn’t particularly relevant to this column, and I’ve written about it too many times already. What does “substantially the same form” mean? That is where the Tony Awards Administration Committee comes into play — they decide.
Remember that odd On a Clear Day You Can See Forever which bore little resemblance to the original other than its score (which was augmented with a song from the film)? That was a revival. Same with the rewritten Flower Drum Song, which had two trunk songs. The 2013 Cinderella was a revival, despite having trunk songs, never being on Broadway before (oh, yeah, sorry, another mention of a “classic”), and having a nice stepsister and a title character who doesn’t truly lose her shoe. So “substantially the same form” appears to mean: “with the same score or sort of the same score with maybe some deletions and some add-ons.” Crazy for You, which was based on Girl Crazy, did win the Tony Award for Best (new) Musical, but that was all the way back in 1992, and I believe only possessed five of the songs from the original.
The first release made SHUFFLE ALONG, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed seem more like Crazy for You, except, you know, nothing like Crazy For You. I thought it would include some of the original show but really be removed from the original show–it would be a new show about the old show, as it said. This release makes it seem simply like the old Shuffle Along with a new book, which just happens to add book scene material about the making of the show and the subsequent reaction. What the show will be in March when it hits the stage remains to be seen.
Often years being a musical revival is easily the path of least resistance — some years there are barely enough entrants to have a category. (The award doesn’t sell as many tickets as the award for Best Musical, so it’s easier to get nominated, but there is less reward to winning.) This season however is a competitive one in terms of revivals. There is the highly anticipated Fiddler on the Roof directed by Bartlett Sher, Dames at Sea, The Color Purple, and a revival of She Loves Me starring Broadway’s beloved critical darling Laura Benanti and How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor. (Irrelevant, but I like Radnor’s film Liberal Arts better than Garden State.)
Of course, the Best Musical category is much more of a killer, as the juggernaut that is Hamilton exists. I got a call from a producer last week asking me if I thought it was unbeatable. My mind harkened back to a few years ago when I received similar calls regarding Matilda. I think Hamilton has more of a groundswell behind it – and it is American – but that year’s race is evidence that saying shows are “unbeatable” is not the best choice ever. (As if I didn’t know that from years of press agent Judy Jacksina describing to me how the dark musical Nine toppled the Dreamgirls behemoth.) Nevertheless, people are running scared from Hamilton. Many emails that came my way questioned whether the urge for Shuffle to be positioned as a revival doesn’t come in direct response to Hamilton mania. Honestly, prior to a couple of weeks ago I personally thought Shuffle would make it a real Best Musical race. It seemed like strong competition for the main prize.
Only time will tell whether Shuffle will be considered a revival for Tony purposes or seem like a revival to those who see it. All I know is with that team, no matter how it is classified, it is bound to be interesting. I’m excited.
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