Don’t Blame Pregnancy for Shuffle Along Closing
Producer Scott Rudin’s June 23rd announcement of an abrupt closing of George C. Wolfe’s innovative and intoxicating musical Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed can be boiled down to this: “Audra McDonald made this sparkling show possible. Unfortunately, Audra McDonald also ruined it by becoming pregnant.”
The announcement inspired an open letter to Rudin on Broadway Black, which generated many comments from dedicated theatre followers. A piece on Scary Mommy, which was partially addressed to McDonald and noted Actors’ Equity Association’s lack of maternity leave policy, made fewer ripples. But the facts were clear. The original plan was for McDonald to originate the role of the jazz singer Lottie Gee before leaving Shuffle Along in order to have her West End debut reprising her Tony-winning turn as Billie Holiday in Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill. That show was supposed to begin previews on June 25 but was postponed because of McDonald’s surprise (as McDonald tweeted, “Who knew that tap dancing during perimenopause could lead to pregnancy?”). To be clear, as a result of her pregnancy McDonald is actually performing in Shuffle Along for a month longer than originally planned. McDonald’s phenomenal highkick at the Tony Awards performance was evidence of not just her virtuosity but her total professionalism, pregnant or not. Rudin seems to have made his decision to close the show based on anxiety over audiences potentially not finding Shuffle Along during McDonald’s absence, which is a shame since I think the astounding cast and chorus deserved to see what would have transpired with Grammy winner Rhiannon Giddens playing Lottie Gee.
There are three important reasons a show as great as Shuffle Along is closing and they don’t involve a pregnant star. The show is expensive to run, may be too “inside” for the casual Broadway consumer, and it could not get out of the long shadow cast by Hamilton.
Shuffle Along was not designed around a single star—its ensemble is one of its greatest strengths. The talent of the Shuffle Along bench goes so deep, in fact, that is likely part of its producing woes. Savion Glover is a celebrity choreographer who has been in the public eye for twenty years. Broadway superstars like Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter, as well as McDonald, are paid top industry salaries. The phenomenal 24-member chorus (which was rightfully recognized with Actors’ Equity’s ACCA Award for Outstanding Chorus) is also expensive to bankroll. Shuffle Along is different from the successful original musicals that opened this spring. School of Rock and On Your Feet! have built-in mass appeal. As an adaptation from a popular movie, School of Rock has a pre-cultivated fan base and attracts the lucrative family audience, while On Your Feet! appeals to tourists as a jukebox musical. Wolfe’s Shuffle Along, especially with that daunting pedagogical title, is perhaps too “inside” for a casual Broadway consumer who doesn’t actively desire a history lesson. While Shuffle Along won the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical and Best Choreography, as well as for costumes and make-up, it lost out on all ten of its Tony award nominations, partially because of the frenzy of hyperfandom surrounding Hamilton.
As the show’s brilliant book writer and director George C. Wolfe said in a recent podcast with comedian Marc Maron, “Broadway is about a whole bunch of stuff. Broadway is about real estate, Broadway is about awards, Broadway is about ticket prices, Broadway is about glamour and it’s also about… a lot of people who work very, very, very hard to do what they do.” McDonald’s hard work has been on display since the show began previews. Her future labor should not be blamed for abruptly ending other professionals’ labor conditions.
The protrusion of pregnancy on the professional stage makes it an easy target but imagine a scenario where the density of factors that lead a show to close were honestly accounted for. What if the press release said “Unfortunately, this is a hugely expensive show to run. It has a lot of stars and a large chorus and the staging is complex. It didn’t win the awards we hoped it would win. The producers are nervous about advance sales.” Imagine a world where a host of complex capitalist decisions didn’t come down on one woman’s body.
Imagine a world where a host of complex capitalist decisions didn’t come down on one woman’s body.
The sourest irony of this situation is that Wolfe’s Shuffle Along is a forthright commentary on the circumstance of Black performers caught in a commercial entertainment system that largely benefits white men. Rudin and the other producers’ decision recalls this dynamic from nearly 100 years ago. McDonald tweeted about the emotional impact of the cancelation, saying she was “devastated” that her “brilliant and extraordinary Shuffle family won’t be able to continue sharing this important and vital show.” In interviews, McDonald has repeatedly discussed the power of representation and the significance of Shuffle Along for Black theatre history. I have been fortunate enough to see Shuffle Along twice, once before the announcement and once after. Perhaps I was projecting, but the post-success struggles and frustrations of the characters as depicted in Act II seemed to resonate on a whole new level. When white scholar Carl Van Vechten tells Sissle, Blake, Miller and Lyles, the Black creators of the 1921 musical, that no one will remember them, I wondered too, after all that has followed, how will this Shuffle Along be remembered?