Musical Theater Nerd Joshua Henry Brushes Up on Broadway History in Shuffle Along
And trying to figure out how this iconic show was nearly lost to time.
With an all-black cast and an uncommon musical sound, Shuffle Along was the unexpected Broadway hit of 1921, and it's now primed to repeat history as the Broadway hit of 2016. This time, however, any theater fan could predict success for this show and its cast of musical-theater royalty. Not only does Shuffle Along star Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Billy Porter, the new production will boast both direction and a brand-new book by theatrical icon George C. Wolfe.
As the musical's full title indicates (Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed) Wolfe's book goes behind the real-life creation of the original Shuffle Along, tracking the experiences of its creators (including songwriters Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle) as they "grinded, pushed, begged, borrowed, and stole" their way to Broadway.
As Joshua Henry, who plays Sissle, puts it, "It's like the VH1 Behind-the-Music and the behind the scenes at the same time…Never before had you seen black girls onstage hoofing for their lives," Henry continued, considering the past and present milestones the show represents. "That image had never been seen up until that point, and I have never seen an image like that. So I think that's what I'm really excited about, for audiences to see some images that they have never seen in their lifetime."
In a recent conversation with TheaterMania, Henry also discussed his thoughts on Shuffle Along's mysterious disappearance from the musical-theater canon, the new production's stellar cast, and his other boundary-pushing project: the action film The Lake.
What's it like working with this phenomenal cast?
It's really a dream cast. We keep saying that to each other. The other day I was talking to Audra about what she had for dinner — it happened to be a cheeseburger — and I was like, "What's happening in my life right now?" This is really one of those projects, and I will say this until I'm blue in the face, every moment you pinch yourself because there's so much brilliance around. If you turn around in a circle, there's a master class that's being given at every turn.
When did you first hear about this production and what did you think about it?
I first heard about this production going up about a year and half ago now. George called me and several other people into this room to workshop some material. He didn't say anything about what it was. And the first question he asked us was, "So, does anybody know what Shuffle Along is?" I had no idea. A year and a half ago is when I first heard the words Shuffle Along, which is insane, because I was in a musical-theater conservatory for four years and I thought I knew a lot — I thought I was a nerd enough to know about one of the biggest musicals in Broadway history.
And so when we started getting into rehearsals, it was an emotional roller coaster, honestly. Because I thought, "How could this have been forgotten in the way that it was? It was massive. How is it not in the history books?" If you really look at that cast and the following casts of Shuffle Along, it's Paul Robeson, Adelaide Hall — the names go on and on and on — Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, Gertrude Saunders, I mean, it's insane.
What is it like to play Noble Sissle?
He was an extremely talented, extremely driven vocalist, musician, band leader, lyricist. And he, along with his writing partner Eubie Blake, had this dream to put on a Broadway show in a time when that just hadn't happened, a black creative team putting on a Broadway show, especially bringing a new sound, a syncopated sound. What strikes me about him and what I really admire about Noble Sissle is not only was he a brilliant musician, he was an exceptional human being, and he was aware of how exceptional he was and of his importance to what he was doing at that time. He wasn't afraid to be exceptional. He accepted how gifted he was and he grinded and pushed and begged, borrowed, and stole accordingly. Because he knew the weight of what he was doing. He was ready to do any and everything to make this Broadway show happen with this new sound, not just to be innovative but he was also cognizant of what it would do for black people. Because when you bring the African-American sound, he believed...they'd be legitimized in several ways. It starts with art and then it goes forth into all other facets of life.
Why do you think we lost Shuffle Along?
George says sometimes, this is not a quote, but, sometimes history remembers you and other times history just doesn't give a crap. I mean, it was brilliant. It was innovative. And then the times just happened. The 1920s were very unique in that we'd just passed a war, a depression was coming. You know, so many things changed in the '20s and in the midst of all that, excuse the pun, Shuffle, this incredible, inventive piece was tossed aside because other things were going on. For many reasons these people were cast aside, as much as they were celebrated.
You're also set to take on a role a new film, The Lake. Tell me about it.
It's an action thriller. It's about a group of Navy Seals during the Bosnian War. And I get to play a Navy Seal. It's like my childhood dream come true. I showed my brother some of the pictures and he's like, "You gotta be kidding me, this is everything we used to do in our backyard." I literally had like a month of scuba-diving training and weapons training via actual Navy Seals. And I get to play this guy who is really good at numbers… anything with calculations, that's like his MO. And I think that's really special because as a black actor in a huge action film, that rarely happens. When I got the call to do it I was like, yes, this is exactly me. Because there's nothing stereotypical about that. I really applaud the producers and the director. I'm so thankful to be able to play someone like this.