‘Shuffle Along’ Won’t Take Losses in Stride

     MANHATTAN (CN) — Producers behind the Broadway reboot of the groundbreaking musical “Shuffle Along” claim in court that an insurer left them holding the bag when an actress’s pregnancy derailed the show.
     Audra McDonald, a veteran of the stage and longtime actress on “Private Practice,” was 45 years old in 2015 when she was cast as the top-billed star for a look back at “Shuffle Along.” In 1921, the revue-style show stood out for its all-black cast, writing and directing crew.
     Shuffle Along, the production company behind the 2016 reboot, says McDonald announced her pregnancy on April 24, 2016 — roughly a month into previews, with less than a week to go before opening night.
     “Given her age and medical history, the news of her viable pregnancy came as a surprise to her and, consequently, to Shuffle Along,” according to the complaint, filed on Nov. 3 in Manhattan Supreme Court.
     McDonald tweeted as much to her fans a month later. “Who knew that tap dancing during perimenopause could lead 2 pregnancy?” she wrote on May 10, the complaint says. “@thewillswenson & I are completely surprised but elated 2 b expecting.”
     Though contracted for 52 weeks, Shuffle Along says McDonald’s doctor forbade her from appearing in the show after July 24.
     Even before that cut-off date forced Shuffle Along to abandon the production, however, it says various illnesses and a knee injury sidelined McDonald.
     Four preview performances that Shuffle Along canceled in March because of McDonald’s upper-respiratory illness cost the production $399,838, according to the complaint.
     Shuffle Along says it refunded another $75,675 in ticket sales the next month when bronchitis caused McDonald to miss three performances.
     By the time McDonald withdrew from matinees altogether on June 15, according to the complaint, she had already missed five matinees, one full evening performance, and the second half of another evening performance.
     McDonald missed another five evening performances through July 23, and the show closed on July 24, Shuffle Along says.
     The complaint chalks up the loss from McDonald’s inability to perform at more than $691,000.
     “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed” was nominated for 10 Tony Awards but won none. McDonald herself is a six-time Tony award winner.
     Shuffle Along brought its complaint against Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s, noting that its polices were supposed to provide it with more than $14 million in insurance in the event that an accident or illness suffered by McDonald caused missed appearances or abandonment of the show.
     Lloyd’s turned down Shuffle Along’s claims for coverage, however, on June 1, according to the complaint.
     “The Underwriters based their position on the notion that Ms. McDonald’s pregnancy and the associated medical conditions were neither an ‘accident’ nor an ‘illness’ under the policies,” the complaint states.
     Shuffle Along says both it and McDonald cooperated with an ensuing investigation, but that the underwriters denied coverage for all losses in a letter dated July 12.
     As quoted in the complaint, the underwriters claimed that the show could go on without it star. “By virtue of the all-star cast, Ms. McDonald’s temporary absence does not appear fatal to the show’s continued success,” they wrote.
     Shuffle Along says this position comes in spite of its insistence to the underwriters before buying the policies about “Ms. McDonald’s critical importance to the show and its success.”
     The underwriters denied coverage again in a letter dated July 29, according to the complaint.
     Alleging breach of contract, Shuffle Along wants $691,301.80 under the nonappearance policy and $12 million under the abandonment policy.
     Lloyd’s of London did not respond to a request for comment on the case.
     Shuffle Along is represented by Liner LLP attorney Anamay Carmel.