George C. Wolfe

Photography Marco Grob

Published May 9, 2016

I can’t let despair define me, because then whatever currency I’ve gained is going to be wasted by disillusionment. I can tell stories. George C. Wolfe

It would be difficult to overstate George C. Wolfe’s status on Broadway. He is a lion of the theater, a legend within that weird, wonderful netherworld set mostly in the middle of Manhattan but which occupies an altogether different, recessed, and almost occult part of our culture—the darkened, spotlit stage of heightened human drama. And Wolfe’s stature there, as both a writer and as a director and producer, is more than deserved. His productions of some of the most impactful shows of the last generation have often been genre-defining blockbusters, emblems of an era. His staging of Tony Kushner’s two-part Angels in America, in 1993 and 1994, was a landmark in a grand American awakening to the HIV/AIDS crisis; it was a quake he helped to kick loose, and then helped provide a haunting aftershock for, with his 2011 Broadway revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. And since then he has continually brought the thunder: in his 1996 collaboration with Savion Glover, Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, as well as in nearly a dozen other stage productions and a few movies.

Wolfe, 61, was born and raised in Frankfort, Kentucky, and felt the pull of the theater early. At Pomona college in the mid-’70s, he says he became obsessed with Paul Robeson—an interest that led Wolfe, for the first time, to the strange and infinitely enthralling story of the 1921 production of the musical Shuffle Along to which the great actor had been peripherally connected. Now, all these years later, Wolfe is set to premiere his Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, a kind of historical narrative studded with most of the original musical’s gemstone songs. In much the way Noise/Funk told the stories behind and around the historical figures it celebrated, the new Shuffle Along is a kind of “making of” that original production, featuring its players as historical characters, and also choreographed by Glover. It is also steeped in the era of its setting, in the theatrical trends of the time, in the political realities, and the suffocating racism. As Wolfe tells his pal Kushner, the show is a great place to tell the story of how far we had come, how far we needed to go, and nearly a century later, how much remains unchanged.

TONY KUSHNER: So, should we just talk?

GEORGE C. WOLFE: You’re in charge.

KUSHNER: Okay. When did you first learn about the musical Shuffle Along, and how has it evolved into what it is now?

WOLFE: I think the first time I heard anything about it I was in college. I was obsessed with Paul Robeson in college, and I knew that he was connected to the show; he was a replacement. Then I found out about Florence Mills—she was black, a singer and dancer, from D.C., and she became this international star in the ’20s: Broadway show after Broadway show, the toast of London, Paris, and then she died when she was 31 in 1927. 

KUSHNER: Was she a soprano?

WOLFE: There’s no recording of her voice. One of the few times they tried to record her was on the stage of the Music Box. It’s said that her voice was birdlike; kind of like Piaf meets Billie Holiday meets Judy Garland. But she was a brilliant performer. And when she first performed in London, in a show called Dover Street to Dixie—there had been all these vitriolic racist things that were said in the paper about how these black people are going there and performing—she came out, did one number, the entire audience leapt to their feet screaming, and she just became the toast of the town. The royal family came to see her. And she worked so hard. In one show, she had 11 songs. She did them all. Doctors warned her that she was very ill, and she refused to stop working because she felt that if she wasn’t in the show, they would cancel it, and all the other black performers would be out of work. So she just wouldn’t stop working. She got offers to be in Ziegfeld Follies, in all these other shows, and she refused. She kept on insisting that she be in a black revue so that all these others would be employed. Then when she died, there was like a million people that showed up for her funeral in Harlem. I don’t think anybody’s career has existed to that magnitude since then. Shuffle Along launched her; she was a replacement, and it still launched her. Gertrude Saunders created the role, but left for a revue that never happened. But she’s mostly known because Bessie Smith’s husband took some money from Bessie and gave it to Gertrude Saunders. Gertrude was walking down the street somewhere in the Midwest, and Bessie Smith walked across the street and punched the shit out of her.

KUSHNER: So Florence and Paul Robeson replaced people after Shuffle Along opened on Broadway [at the 63rd Street Music Hall].

WOLFE: Yeah. Josephine Baker tried to get in the show, but she was too young. She was 14 or 15, so she snuck into the show’s touring company instead. She couldn’t do the dances, so she turned into a mocking figure, and she would mock the dancers and mock herself. She was billed as that comedy chorus gal. And then she came back to New York and did a show called The Chocolate Dandies, and after that she went to Paris. So it was all these people who were connected to this project.

KUSHNER: And it was Blake and Sissle’s first Broadway show?

WOLFE: First Broadway show. Sissle and Blake and then Miller and Lyles—who are a comedy vaudeville team, who also toured in the Keith-Albee circuit, which was an upper tier of white Broadway—had spent some time in black vaudeville. They met at an NAACP benefit in Philadelphia and said, “We’ve got a book,” and “We’ve got music,” and they decided to put it together. And one of the things that was really fascinating for me was that, prior to Shuffle Along, the women’s chorus was primarily ornamental. They were to parade across the stage with candelabras in their hair, or pianos or something, and fabulous costumes. But Shuffle Along was the first time there was a women’s dancing, hoofing chorus on Broadway.

KUSHNER: Oh my God.

WOLFE: And it was the first jazz score. They changed the traffic patterns: 63rd Street used to be a two-way street, and they turned it into a one-way street because so many people were coming to Shuffle Along. Langston Hughes went to Columbia so he could see Shuffle Along. George Jean Nathan saw it five times. And all these uptown and downtown intellectuals, as well as populist people, came to see it over and over. They added a special Wednesday midnight show, and at every midnight show, Al Jolson bought, like, 300 tickets. It created the appetite in downtown Manhattan to know more about uptown culture. And that’s what started the “slumming.” This show is considered the catalyst, in terms of the impulse and energy, not talent base, for the Harlem Renaissance.

KUSHNER: There’s a book, right? It has a story.

WOLFE: Yeah. There are elements of operetta and elements of vaudeville. The book is flimsy, like most 1920s books of musicals are. It’s a story about a three-way mayoral race.

KUSHNER: The mayor of New York?

WOLFE: No, the mayor of Jimtown, of course. 

KUSHNER: Of course. Not an African-American mayor of New York City.

WOLFE: And they would periodically stop the show—Eubie Blake, who was conducting and playing piano, would come onstage and do a series of numbers with Sissle, and then he’d go back in the pit and the plot would continue. Then the Four Harmony Kings would come out and sing a few songs, and then the show would continue. So it has a book, but it was all over the place, like a lot of Broadway shows at that time.

KUSHNER: So when did you first actually get to read the book and hear the show?

WOLFE: There were two revivals. I don’t quite know how it happened, but at one point Scott Rudin asked what I was doing. I said, “I don’t know, I want to play with this thing.” I had just done Lucky Guy, about the 1980s in New York, which I have an incredible fondness for, because that’s around when I came to the city, and its rawness just appealed to me. So I wanted to live in a completely different place. Savion [Glover] and I had reconnected and talked about working together again, and I thought this would be the perfect thing. So we just started playing around and getting all this research. And the more I read, it was like, “Oh my God, this show made close to eight million dollars in the early ’20s. There were three touring companies.” It was just this incredible thing. Fredi Washington, who later was in Imitation of Life [1934], was in the chorus. It’s one of those shows where so many people who later had an impact on popular culture walked through the door. And I find it really fascinating. I had known fragments of the show; I remember years ago some woman saying she had been the lead chorus girl in the number “If You Haven’t Been Vamped by a Brownskin, You Haven’t Been Vamped at All,” which is the most brilliant song in the world. Particularly when you take into account, in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, the aesthetic, in terms of black culture, was a light-skinned woman. So this song, that’s in the show! It’s just so …

KUSHNER: Complicated.

WOLFE: Complicated, yeah, but I love it.

KUSHNER: I guess I mean complicated in the sense that, in order to get any type of audience, you have to make some concession to what’s accepted as an African-American presence on the stage—there has to be a little minstrel, comic stuff.

WOLFE: I don’t think they were that sophisticated. I think that there was a desire—probably from Eubie—to be more like Broadway. I don’t think there was any impulse to pander to white people. And no show featuring an African-American cast had really ever been successful.

KUSHNER: I didn’t mean to pander. But, if the song is saying, “If you haven’t been vamped by a brownskin, you haven’t been vamped at all,” there’s something certainly subversive in that. It’s about sexuality, and in white culture at that time, the idea that black people had sexuality was menacing and terrifying and everything.

WOLFE: One of the other interesting things in this show is the song called “Love Will Find a Way.” It’s a pleasant little song, and it’s the first time a love song had been performed between a black man and a black woman on a Broadway stage. The first time they performed it, three of the creators were at the stage door ready to run in case the audience started to become violent. Eubie was trapped in the pit. Lyle and Miller performed in blackface because they had a blackface act, and no one else in the show did. Which is insane, beyond surreal. Have you seen the Bert Williams film? It’s called Lime Kiln Club Field Day [1913/2014]. You have to see this film; it’s the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen. It redefined all of that shit for me. Bert Williams got together with all these actors, and they made this film, which had this incredibly flimsy plot, and once again, everybody else in the movie has their regular face, but Bert Williams is in black face. And he’s astonishingly brilliant. He redefines it, because you realize it’s a mask, and you see how W.C. Fields and Charlie Chaplin lifted from him. Williams said that when he and George Walker started performing, it liberated him, because then he had a mask on. He felt like he could become another character. And it’s so astonishing to see him as a performer, because he was a real authentic artist.

KUSHNER: Did Miller write plays?

WOLFE: Yeah, and he co-wrote the book for Shuffle Along. Not very good, but he was reaching for something, you know? There’s one character who says, “Onions be went.” It’s just foolish and wonderful and awkward stuff. They were making it up. What I love about the book is the hodgepodge, stick-’em-together mess. You’re able to see where the fragments came from.

KUSHNER: That’s a form that you’ve explored a lot in your career, the revue—The Colored Museum and Noise/Funk and Harlem Song. And now this. It’s seen as this slightly primitive form on the way to Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat and then Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, that kind of juxtaposition …

WOLFE: Exactly, smashing things together. Because, culturally, that’s America at its most interesting. It’s things connected, awkwardly, that produce the brilliance. It’s not absoluteness that produces the brilliance; it’s when things that don’t belong together collide, and in that collision, something springs forth, and that becomes extraordinarily fascinating to me. 

KUSHNER: Yeah, there’s a space that’s not entirely onstage—it’s also in the minds of the audience—the space between the two things being smashed together, where all sorts of uncontrolled and uncontrollable associations are taking place.

WOLFE: Exactly. And that form feels very American to me. And what probably happened with the American musical is that Shuffle Along came along and the system extracted the potency from the marrow from the bones of Shuffle Along, and then moved on.

KUSHNER: You mean it sort of appropriated the things it could use, but to use in its ongoing project of creating unified narratives that are more socially controlling.

WOLFE: Exactly.

KUSHNER: So when you’re directing a play, for instance, Angels or The Normal Heart or Lucky Guy, do you find that the show is trapping a certain kind of energy?

WOLFE: No, because it’s just details. Every play is rhythmic control. If you want an audience to go on a journey, it’s rhythmic control. You’re crafting when they lean in, when they push back, when they breathe, when they surrender. It takes you probably five to six minutes to build trust with an audience. A musical you can build trust in three notes. Boom, boom, boom, you’re instantly seduced. So musicals have this easy potency, but generally, in my opinion, they waste them, because a musical is incredibly hard to do. But why not use that weapon of seduction and take people on as many different directions, because plays do that all the time. Angels is a classic example; you’re here and then you’re there and then you’re there—these subtle stylistic shifts, but they’re all informed by truth and stakes.

KUSHNER: I agree with you. It feels like, in musicals, the creators’ job is to reassure the audience that nothing is going to surprise them. And I wonder why. Is it because the form has a kind of danger in it that theater doesn’t have? Because of its seductive possibilities?

WOLFE: I think it’s that a musical must maintain buoyance. Most musicals are informed by very rigid archetypes. If you get a very sophisticated mind writing them, you sense something else, but it’s a folk-art form, really, at its best. At different times I’ve tried to push against it as much as I possibly could, but ultimately it is a folk-art form. So it’s Tony and Maria, the star-crossed lovers. And generally the lovers, in any form, are boring. There’s the fiery Anita and the tortured Bernardo, and the supporting characters get to be a little more complicated because they have one or two numbers. But everybody’s reassured to follow the form. In most musicals, there’s the opening number, which establishes the rules of the world and what you’re going to see, then some second character does the “I want” song. And generally the “I want” song exists in opposition to that world. So it’s very important for an audience to know where they are and why they are there in a musical. It allows them to relax and follow this form that operates in shorthand. The most extraordinary shorthand of any musical is the movie of The Wizard of Oz [1939]. That narrative is so slim. There’s no fucking fat anywhere. And a musical works with no fat. So the economy of the form, in many respects, is why a lot of screenwriting is so sleek. Because the visuals are where the explosions happen.

KUSHNER: Although when you go to see revivals of some of the big old warhorses, you’re there for three and a half hours. [both laugh]

WOLFE: Shuffle Along is three and a half hours!

KUSHNER: I’m very proud of you.

WOLFE: We’re down to under three hours right now.

KUSHNER: Do you think it’s a folk art in part because it’s a collaborative thing? I mean, you’re writing the book for this, but you’re working with Savion, so the choreographer and director are involved. And there are a lot of people who you’re directing as well.

WOLFE: Set designer, costume designer, yeah …

KUSHNER: Much more than in a play. In the musical we did together [Caroline, or Change], I was sort of astounded at how difficult it was to do anything. When we were doing Angels together, if I wanted to make a little change or you wanted me to make a change, I could write something and come in the next day and put it in. But in a musical, it’s like turning a battleship around.

WOLFE: One hundred percent. The hardest thing about a musical is making sure everybody is working on the same damn show. That is the monster.

KUSHNER: I think archetypes suggest themselves because when everybody has to be working on the same show, there’s going to be a certain kind of reliance on what everybody holds in common. And some of those things are archetypes of stereotypes.

WOLFE: But I think musicals are a lowbrow, populist art form. And I don’t mean lowbrow in a condescending way at all—they are designed to create delight, wonder, joy, surprise. And what becomes really interesting is when innovative or challenging or smart people take it and use the easy runway that the form allows to take people to another planet, or another place. Or subvert it in some way. Musicals spring forth from minstrelsy, vaudeville, melodramas; it was all these things combined to create the form. And it became very streamlined—she’s in love with him, he’s in love with her, but he’s engaged to her, and will they get back together? And as you follow this incredibly simplistic thing, the journey becomes the fun, because you’re watching something incredibly simple.

KUSHNER: So let me ask you, since we’re talking a little bit about audiences. You do a lot of work in previews. But in the rehearsal room, you’re pretty private. You never let me in. So then it’s funny that you’re then doing a lot of really exposed work and asking the actors to follow you in that, to make big changes, big choices, keep exploring and keep thinking, while there are 500, 600, 700, 800 people watching them doing it—many of whom have blogs.

WOLFE: As soon as we begin previews, I always say this to every actor, to every cast: We are not their victims, they are ours. We’re going to tell our story our way, the glorious parts and the painful parts. And that’s the thing—I could care less what an individual person from the audience says to me. I literally don’t care. But as a group, they are truth. They are 100 percent truth. If something’s not clear, it’s not clear. If they don’t get it, it’s not being done. So I’m watching the show and I’m watching the audience watch the show. Because once you leave the rehearsal room, you have space and you can see it. You can watch them watch it. You can’t see your work, really, until you’re in the theater. You have no perspective. That’s not part of my job, to go, “Oh my God, they’re so brilliant.” I’m not required to swoon. One of the things I used to say to people, that I regretted about directing Angels, is I never got to be a virgin and experience the play; I had a job to do. I have to be a custodian. I had to be clean and responsible and look at it and see it. So I never had the experience that everybody else had of the play.

KUSHNER: It was interesting when you said you’re not swooning watching your own production. Do you think that affects your ability to swoon when you watch other things?

WOLFE: Without question. It takes a lot for me to completely surrender, because I’m watching the mechanics of the thing. I’ll never forget when I saw a production of West Side Story at the New York State Theater when I was 12. There were the Sharks and the Jets and Anita and Maria and Tony, and the five different groups of people were onstage, and—I remember this very specifically—I was leaning forward in my seat. And I realized I wasn’t leaning forward, experiencing it. I was leaning forward, studying it.

KUSHNER: I want to ask you about all that followed Shuffle Along, how it ushered in a new era of African-American-authored musical theater. It made all these huge changes. And yet, there’s something that seems sort of uniquely unbudgeable about racial barriers and racism. But how do you feel right now as an African-American man in 2016? Some people still feel a kind of despair in 2016 that, no matter how many barriers are broken, new barriers come up, more violence emerges. Are you feeling at this point basically optimistic?

WOLFE: I can’t let despair define me, because then whatever currency I’ve gained is going to be wasted by disillusionment. I can tell stories. Prior to this show happening, X number of people knew about Shuffle Along—this show is now happening, people don’t know everything about it, but it’s there. The cast knows; they are finding out about people they didn’t know, the people who went before them, when the stakes were more violent. And, any time there is a cultural breakthrough in which this culture transcends what it’s supposed to be, there’s a violent reaction. So we have a black president, and it’s followed by an incredibly violent reaction. It happens over and over.

KUSHNER: I feel like this guy has been the most impressive person in the White House since FDR, just an absolutely astonishing president in so many ways. And even on the left, it still freaks people out that he’s black.

WOLFE: ‘Twas ever thus. A friend of mine said the most astonishing thing. She said that when Obama was running for president, there was a whole generation of white kids who are used to looking up to a black person center stage speaking. And that’s because of hip-hop. So there was no adjustment. A person of color in authority at times is very startling to people. But as time goes on, it becomes less startling.