Panel makes path to Tony much harder for ‘Shuffle’

The committee of Broadway insiders that decides which productions will be eligible for which Tony aw

It looks as if “Shuffle Along” will have to face “Hamilton” after all.

The committee of Broadway insiders that decides which productions will be eligible for which Tony awards declared Friday that the show, with a full title of “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” is a new musical, despite efforts by its producers to have it called a revival.

That means that “Shuffle Along” will compete for a nomination in a crowded category that includes the smash hit “Hamilton,” which is expected to win the best new musical prize when the Tonys are held June 12. Tony awards, especially in that marquee category, help sell tickets.

The question of how to think about “Shuffle Along,” which on Thursday night became the last show to open during the 2015-16 Broadway season, had become a hot topic in the industry, largely because its lead producer, Scott Rudin, is a prolific and powerful theater producer of the moment.

Categorizing the show posed a challenge for the Tony Awards administration committee: Most of the songs are from the original 1921 production of “Shuffle Along,” but the book is entirely new. In 1921, the show was loosely about a race for mayor in a fictional town; the production that opened this week, replete with tap dancing, is about the evolution of the original show and the lives of its creative team and star.

Rudin argued, in a letter to the committee, that “Shuffle Along” was akin to recent productions of “Flower Drum Song” and “Cinderella” that were deemed to be revivals despite substantially revised books. But a majority of committee members thought it was more analogous to shows like “Crazy for You” or even “Jersey Boys,” which paired classic songs with new books and were deemed to be new musicals. And earlier this week, the Drama Desk Awards, which are given by theater critics, declared “Shuffle Along” to be a new musical for the purposes of that contest.

“Shuffle Along” is a passion project for George C. Wolfe, a Tony-winning director who wrote the new book for the show and directed it. The show, which pays homage to one of the first all-black musicals on Broadway,

stars Audra McDonald, who has won six Tony awards. Also in the cast are Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry, all of whom were deemed by the committee to be featured actors, despite Rudin’s request that Mitchell be considered a leading actor.

The jazzy score, featuring music from the original by Eubie Blake and lyrics by Noble Sissle, will not be eligible for a Tony award.

In a statement, Rudin accepted the committee’s decisions. “George and I are grateful to the committee for their careful consideration,” he said. “The process is and always has been a fair one, and we’re flattered to be considered a new musical. You’d be hard pressed to find two people who love new musicals more than George and me.”

“Shuffle Along,” which was capitalized at up to $12 million, has been doing well at the box office. It had four sold-out weeks in a row before attendance dipped slightly last week, when McDonald fell ill and missed three performances; the show grossed $809,033 over eight preview performances last week.

On Thursday, Rudin told the ensemble that he would share revenues with performers who had helped develop the project. The issue of revenue- or profit-sharing has become a much-discussed concern among actors, prompted by the success of “Hamilton.” The producers of “Hamilton” agreed recently to share profits with actors involved in its development; Rudin had previously shared revenue with performers involved in the development of “The Book of Mormon.”

“It felt like the fair thing to do,” he said in a statement. “This company of artists has been working on ‘Shuffle Along’ for nearly two years. They made the show with us. The show is about collaboration; they’re our collaborators.”

The Tony awards process now begins in earnest. Monday, a committee of up to 50 nominators is to meet to choose the nominees by secret ballot, and Tuesday the nominees are to be announced. Eleven new musicals and five musical revivals are eligible for nominations.

There are 846 theater professionals who can vote in this year’s Tony Awards, and they must file their ballots by June 10. The votes are then tallied, and the winners are to be announced at the awards ceremony on June 12.

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