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Reviews of When Broadway Was Black by Caseen Gaines

When Broadway Was Black

The Triumphant Story of the All-Black Musical that Changed the World (aka Footnotes)

by Caseen Gaines

When Broadway Was Black by Caseen Gaines X
When Broadway Was Black by Caseen Gaines
  • Critics' Opinion:

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  • First Published:
    May 2021, 352 pages

    Paperback:
    Feb 2023, 352 pages

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About this Book

Book Summary

The triumphant story of how an all-Black Broadway cast and crew changed musical theatre—and the world—forever.

If Hamilton, Rent, or West Side Story captured your heart, you'll love this in-depth look into the rise of the 1921 Broadway hit, Shuffle Along, the first all-Black musical to succeed on Broadway. No one was sure if America was ready for a show featuring nuanced, thoughtful portrayals of Black characters—and the potential fallout was terrifying. But from the first jazzy, syncopated beats of composers Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, New York audiences fell head over heels.

When Broadway Was Black is the story of how Sissle and Blake, along with comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, overcame poverty, racism, and violence to harness the energy of the Harlem Renaissance and produce a runaway Broadway hit that launched the careers of many of the twentieth century's most beloved Black performers. Born in the shadow of slavery and establishing their careers at a time of increasing demands for racial justice and representation for people of color, they broke down innumerable barriers between Black and white communities at a crucial point in our history.

Author and pop culture expert Caseen Gaines leads readers through the glitz and glamour of New York City during the Roaring Twenties to reveal the revolutionary impact one show had on generations of Americans, and how its legacy continues to resonate today.

Published in hardcover in May 2021 as Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way

THE CROWD-PLEASER
1921

Opening night was going better than any of them could have expected, but the performers knew the rapturous applause was obscuring the truth; there was a good chance someone was going to get killed at any moment, and it was likely to be one of them. From backstage, they could hear that the controversial scene was upon them, and they hadn't forgotten the warning they had received about how the well-dressed white people in the audience might react when they saw it. While the men bore responsibility for what was about to go down, they weren't going to bear witness nor fall victim to it. Noble Sissle, who had been dubbed the greatest vocalist of his race, gathered Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, whose comically emotive brown faces were hidden beneath a layer of burnt cork. It was time for the three of them to quietly put their plan into motion. From the wings, they could see their leading players, Lottie Gee and Roger Matthews, taking center stage, which was the cue...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. In the opening of the book, Sissle, Miller, and Lyles brace for the worst during Shuffle Along's most sincere love song. Why were they so afraid of the fallout from that particular scene?
  2. In describing Miller's childhood, Gaines draws attention to the relationship between economic class and racism. How would you describe that relationship? What are some ways in which race and class intersect throughout the narrative?
  3. Diverse racial representation has a marked impact on audiences, but what effect does it have on future productions? How did Shuffle Along build on the accomplishments of earlier all-Black shows like A Trip to Coontown, In Dahomey, and Bandanna Land?
  4. What did you think of Black performers including blackface in their ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

I feel this would be a good book for book clubs and especially those who enjoy reading about social justice issues (Ariel F). I came to Gaines's book knowing absolutely nothing about the beginnings of Black theater and honestly, little about Broadway in general. With his easy-to-read style and vivid descriptions, I found myself enthralled and rooting for the musical geniuses and their ambitious play (Melissa S). As a fan of Broadway musicals, I found this book a revelation and highly recommend it (Amy E)...continued

Full Review (725 words)

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Media Reviews

Wall Street Journal
Absorbing...Mr. Gaines, an author, journalist and high-school English teacher, tracks the journey of the show from tryouts to the New York premiere in the late spring of 1921.

Washington Post
[A] deeply researched and thoughtful framing of [Shuffle Along], its time and its influence...Gaines places the show within the broader American political and racial culture, making the book not only resonant but relevant.

Kirkus Reviews
A spirited, educative contribution to both theater history and Black history.

Library Journal
[A] well-researched compilation...Theater buffs and students of Black history will be pleased by this cogent defense of Shuffle Along.

Publishers Weekly
Journalist Gaines unearths in this energetic, meticulously researched survey the story behind the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, the first show on Broadway that featured an 'all-Black creative team'...This vibrant history is well worth checking out.

Author Blurb A'Lelia Bundles, New York Times bestselling author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker
With meticulous research and smooth storytelling, Caseen Gaines significantly deepens our understanding of one of the key cultural events that launched the Harlem Renaissance. Footnotes reminds us of the many talented, but forgotten, Black actors and musicians whose innovative productions helped shape our shared culture and history.

Author Blurb Billy Porter, Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor
Shuffle Along was the first of its kind when the piece arrived on Broadway. This musical introduced Black excellence to the Great White Way. Broadway was forever changed and we, who stand on the shoulders of our brilliant ancestors, are charged with the very often elusive task of carrying that torch into our present. I am humbled to have been part of the short-lived 2016 historical telling of how far we've come, starring as Aubrey Lyles in Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed—and happy that Footnotes further secures his place in history.

Author Blurb Brian Jay Jones, New York Times bestselling author of Jim Henson: The Biography
Remarkable...Caseen Gaines, a top-notch researcher and first-rate storyteller, vividly brings a colorful era to life, telling an important story that deserves to be better known. It's a major contribution to culture and history.

Author Blurb Glen Berger, Emmy Award-winner and author of Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History
Think of history as a jigsaw puzzle. Caseen Gaines has unearthed one of those coveted, seemingly unremarkable pieces that suddenly turns a jumble of colors into a picture. A story of humans at once talented, flawed, courageous, blinkered, and visionary, Footnotes casts a valuable light on the role African Americans have played—and continue to play—in stage history.

Author Blurb Rachel Chavkin, Tony Award-winning director of Hadestown
What a gift! Footnotes is beautifully written, with Caseen Gaines telling a story that is absolutely vital to both the past and future of the theater.

Reader Reviews

Mary B. (St Paul, MN)

Footnotes
I enjoyed this book very much. It is the story of the making of the all-Black Broadway show SHUFFLE ALONG in 1921. It details how Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Flournoy Miller, and Aubrey Lyles overcame racism and many other obstacles to be able to ...   Read More
Melissa S. (Rowland, NC)

Theatrical Black History
"The 1920's were the years of Manhattan's Black Renaissance. It began with Shuffle Along… a honey of a show… swift, bright, funny, rollicking, and gay, with a dozen danceable, singable tunes.." – this quote is how Langston Hughes sums up the ...   Read More
Ariel F. (Madison, WI)

A history not well known!
Footnote is the fascinating story of black theatre between 1885-1925. It details the stories of Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Flournoy Miller and Audrey Lyles and the trials and tribulations they encountered. These 4 were the writers of the music and ...   Read More
Suzette Pierson

Shuffle Along to the Bookstore and Buy This Book
The extent of my knowledge about the history of Broadway is very limited so "Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way" by Caseen Gaines is a revelation. Narrowly, this is the story of “Shuffle Along”, the first all-...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle

Black and white photo of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle at a pianoIn Footnotes*, Caseen Gaines explores the production of Shuffle Along, the first all-Black musical to become a runaway success on Broadway. The show's appeal and popularity are credited in part to the talents of songwriting team Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, who had a history of collaborating that predated their exceptional work on Shuffle Along.

Noble Sissle was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1889. He was inspired to pursue music by his father, who was a minister and church organist. After getting his start performing vaudeville as a young man, Sissle moved to Baltimore in 1915 and joined a musical group called Joe Porter's Famous Dixie Serenaders.

Eubie Blake was a Baltimore native, born James Hubert Blake in the city in 1887. He ...

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