Prolonged Maternity Leave Coupled With Tony Snubs Leads to Premature Closing
On July 24, 2016, Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1912 and All That Followed played its final performance on Broadway. It had been running since its first preview on March 15, 2016, followed by its official opening on April 28, 2016. Starring Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Billy Porter, this radically reconceived new musical, based off the 1912 musical Shuffle Along, made history for its structural ingenuity as well as its celebration of a nearly forgotten show from the early 20th century, which had made history in its own right. Telling the story of the first entirely African American creative team on Broadway, the show features characters who were involved in that original production. The show was the brainchild of George C. Wolfe, who wrote the book and directed the piece, along with choreography by Savion Glover. The show was a bit critical hit upon opening, and ticket sales have been fairly healthy all along. However, although the show was nominated for 10 Tony awards, it received no wins, due to the predominance of Hamilton at this year’s ceremony. Therefore, when the biggest star in the show, Audra McDonald, announced that she would take a leave of absence of several months in order to have a baby, the producer, Scott Rudin, decided the shutter the production.
The decision to close Shuffle Along, before it had a chance to reach as a wide an audience as it might otherwise have had, is heavily debated in Broadway circles. It is a very important show to black theatre history, both itself and for resuscitating the earlier show on which it is based. However, the decision was purely financial, as a producer is ultimately answerable to his investors, and can therefore be considered a smart producing choice. In the weeks leading up to the Tony Awards, Shuffle Along brought in almost one million dollars for several consecutive weeks, with the peak being $985,656 in the week ending May 29, 2016. At the time of this writing, the box office figures for the final week of performances, the week ending July 24, 2016, have not yet been reported, and may in fact exceed the previous record. In any case, throughout the run, the ticket sales averaged to 80.66% of the show’s gross potential. Therefore, although the show was not in a position to recoup its capitalization anytime soon, it was not doing that badly either. However, the advance ticket sales, which are not published for the public, were apparently not very good in the weeks after McDonald’s planned departure. Therefore, the show is to end with McDonald’s maternity leave.
Originally Planned for a London “Lady Day,” But the Tonys Sealed the Deal
Ever since the beginning of the show’s run, it was planned for Audra McDonald to take a prolonged leave of absence. However, the original plan was for her to take the three summer months off, in order to reprise her star performance in the title role of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in London. However, when she got pregnant, the decision was made to cancel the London production, and instead for her to take a longer leave of absence from Shuffle Along, but to start her leave in late July. Therefore, the last-minute decision to close the show with McDonald’s departure was not entirely related to the departure itself. Rather, the disappointing results of the Tony Awards made it clear that Shuffle Along had very little to sustain it besides the star power of McDonald. As the weeks after the Tony Awards wore on, suddenly Shuffle Along was no longer the show that could possibly be a contender for certain honors to content Hamilton. It was clear that Hamilton is the sole winner of this season, and Shuffle Along was to be put back on the shelf, perhaps to live again in another season when it will have the chance to shine for a longer period of time.
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