In 1988 Brian Stokes Mitchell made his Broadway debut in a short-lived musical called Mail at the Music Box Theatre. “Back then I was one of the youngest people in the cast, and now, well...” he lets his voice trail off in a knowing chuckle, positing that he’s come full circle to become a senior cast member at the Music Box—this time in one of the hottest shows in town: Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.
It’s also one of the most important theatre pieces in town, marking the revival of the first show to make it to Broadway with an all-black creative team, while at the same time relaying the backstory of how it got there. One of the key players in that story is the character portrayed by Mitchell, F. E. Miller, half of the comedy team Miller & Lyles (Billy Porter). The two veteran vaudevillians wrote the book and performed in Shuffle Along, while the lyricist Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry) and composer Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon) created the score. And together the foursome recruited the show’s star, Lottie Gee, played by six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald.
As for making the current production a reality, that honor goes to director George C. Wolfe who, according to Mitchell, has spent years unearthing the history behind the 1921 mounting of Shuffle Along.
CG: How much did you—or anyone in the cast—know about the original Shuffle Along before working on the show?
BSM: I don’t think anyone was that aware except George. It wasn’t much more than a footnote in many theatre books, so you really had to search through disparate sources to find anything.
CG: In the show, you and Billy are a comedy team, but offstage you are the voice of reason while he is more mercurial. Was this difficult to pull off?
BSM: It’s pretty much the same as collaborating with any actor in a comedy scene—you listen to the other person and riff off their timing. And Billy is so much fun to work with. We’re kind of like the characters on and offstage—I’m more calm and reflective; he’s more energy and action. We make each other laugh all the time.
CG: What’s the run of the show been like for you so far?
BSM: It’s been a fun roller coaster ride—thrills and screams. One reason I signed on is the people. There’s not one who isn’t at the top of their game. George picked the Music Box because it’s the same [intimate] size as Shuffle Along’s original theatre. He wanted the audience to feel the vocal and dance power up close.
CG: You’re this year’s recipient of the Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award for your involvement with The Actors Fund—how much does this mean to you?
JTF: Of all awards, this one, for service and philanthropy, is the most important to me. The Actors Fund is such an amazing organization and I am so very honored.
Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed is playing at the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St. For reservations call 212-239-6200 or visit shufflealongbroadway.com.