Review of Satchmo at the Waldorf at Shakespeare & Company
by Gail Burns and Larry Murray
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Larry Murray: Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was born in 1901 and played the trumpet just about all his life, right up until the day he died in 1971. For most of us, myself included, his playing was about all we knew about him. He could blow a hundred high C’s in a row, a feat few have ever been able to duplicate to this day. He was the first truly popular African-American entertainer who was able to “cross over” and ended his career with few black fans and millions of white ones. Yet his life as a person is very little known.
Gail Burns: Playwright and critic Terry Teachout listened to hundreds of hours of tapes that Armstrong made in his dressing rooms over his last years and penned what many consider the definitive biography Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (2010).
Larry: And he used that book as the basis of this play – Satchmo at the Waldorf – to cobble together in 90 minutes a very personal and emotional recounting of his youth, his long career and his final years where his trust for his manager Joe Glaser was betrayed, his peers dismissed him as an Uncle Tom and yet his music continued to be as popular as ever.
Gail: It does seem odd that someone with such immense talent as an entertainer, musician would come in for so much nagging criticism during his working life.
Larry: That really got me too. Perhaps because he was just so easy-going on stage they thought he had no depth. He was called an “Uncle Tom” for not being enough of an activist, yet he found himself in a heap of trouble when he spoke his mind to a reporter, criticizing Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus and President Eisenhower:
“,,,because “the way they are treating my people in the South, the Government can go to hell.” Here for a concert, Mr. Armstrong said President Eisenhower had “no guts” and described Gov. Orval E. Faubus of Arkansas as an “uneducated plow boy.” He said the President was “two-faced” and had allowed Governor Faubus to run the Federal Government.” It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” – NY Times
His innovations in the jazz tradition were unique yet some Miles-come-lately dished his jazz for being too old fashioned. Every new tune he undertook had a fresh and original twist to it. For all his creativity, Armstrong never went so far off the path of popular jazz so as to lose his audience.
Gail: The audiences loved him, but some earnest jazz critics found it hard to praise him. I learned a lot because Terry Teachout’s play covers an amazing swath of his life.
Larry: When the play begins, Satchmo has just finished a performance at the Waldorf Astoria and returns to his dressing room, gulping down pure oxygen from his tank to regain his breath. Whereupon he acknowledges having dirtied himself in the elevator due to incontinence. There was a great deal of scatological and street talk in his language. Like Richard Nixon, it’s something you not expecting to hear from a performer that usually was considered “safe” for white audiences. So it comes as a bit of a surprise, don’t you think?
Gail: A little…Louis Armstrong died when I was 14 so I have clear memories of him on the great TV variety shows of the 1960’s where everything was squeaky, squeaky clean, but I am now a grown-up and have no doubt that Armstrong spoke that way in private life;
Larry: But Thompson doesn’t just play Satchmo in this play.
Gail: He also plays Joe Glaser, his manager from 1935-1969, who was white and Jewish. Now THAT is something that wouldn’t have happened on stage before Armstrong’s death! And, briefly, fellow jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-1991).
Larry: When Thompson switches to Glaser, the lights change and we see a mid-20th century New York skyline, and his energy level goes way up, along with the volume. But when he turns into Miles Davis, he seems to shrink and becomes barely audible.
Gail: The Miles Davis lines were just added for this latest iteration of the play, and we agree that they didn’t work. It wasn’t clear who this third character was or why he was speaking. The voice Thompson uses, which I understand is an excellent impersonation of Davis, is indeed hard to hear. And what you can hear is angry and racist. Davis was no fan of Armstrong and considered him a traitor to his race.
This was the world premiere of Satchmo at the Waldorf, which, as I have explained before, means that this was the first time a performance was open to the press for review. The play was performed in a longer two-act version last fall at Orlando (FL) Shakespeare Theatre starring Dennis Neal and directed by Rus Blackwell. This version is co-produced by Shakespeare & Company and the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, where is will move next and run from October 3-November 4, and was directed by Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein. He and Thompson and Teachout have used the rehearsal process to hone the script.
Larry: Teachout constructed this one man show in such a way that we learn about his life in more or less a chronological order, all done while he is in his dressing room changing from his performance attire to street clothes, cleaning his instrument and preparing to depart. It’s damned efficient, and the set has to be the biggest dressing room I have ever seen.
Gail: Yeah I’m pretty sure even the Waldorf doesn’t have dressing rooms that palatial, but Lee Savage’s set was beautiful. I spent sometime admiring the very hotel-like rug that covers the stage of the Tina Packer Playhouse. As you mentioned, Matthew Adelson’s excellent lighting design is effectively used to deliniate shifts in time, place and character. John Gromada’s sound design provides plenty of opportunity to hear Armstrong’s instrumental and vocal work, much of which is still beloved and frequently played. And Ilona Somogyi’s costume design was innocuously period. I believed that Armstrong would have worn those clothes.
Larry: The overall structure of the play captured my interest from beginning to end, remaking the musician from just an entertainer into a more fully living and breathing human being. There is a lot of humanity in all of us, and Thompson easily conveys the joys and sorrows of a life well lived. Louis Armstrong died before civil rights for all were a reality, yet it appears that he was, in his own quiet way, responsible for some breakthroughs, like refusing to play a hotel club that would not let him stay in one of their rooms, or to enter through the front door.
Gail: I have to say, I looked around the theatre and saw a mostly white audience watching a black man star in a play about a black man, written and directed and produced by white men…About the only thing that has changed is the color of the actor’s skin and the fact that everyone now uses the same doorways and bathrooms. The divide that so pained Armstrong is still firmly in place. I doubt that the audiences in New Haven, a city with a large non-white population, will be any better integrated.
Larry: One can hope that his story will be shared by everyone, it’s a “sticky” play with much to say. There are a lot of impressions that have stayed with me since seeing Thompson as Satchmo. Foremost among them is that beyond what every great entertainer does on stage to delight us, there is a feeling, striving human being dealing with the same issues as everyone else. In Armstrong’s case, he was suffering from a worsening heart condition in his last years, yet still found working better than not. One unanswered question is whether he had no other choice, being an undisciplined spender.
The play gives us a rush because it takes the beautiful simplicity of Armstrong’s love of music and smashes them headlong into the headwinds of racism, the mob and black civil rights that make Satchmo such a totallyriveting theatrical story. Do we both agree it’s also a remarkable tour de force by John Douglas Thompson?
Gail: It’s his first one man show ever, and I hear he got a little advice from Tod Randolph, who’s done several one-woman shows, including the two she’s starring in this summer. What was most fun for me was getting to watch Thompson shift characters on stage. He makes Armstrong and Glaser such distinct people physically and vocally. And he looks nothing like either man. He is a full foot taller than Armstrong ever was, and is more than two decades younger than Armstrong is supposed to be here. In the final scene he came downstage and I thought “He looks so old.” And he did. He is just a brilliant actor and it is wonderful to watch him work.
One final note: Teachout was the first Armstrong biographer to have access to 650 reel-to-reel tapes made by the trumpeter during the last quarter-century of his life, many of which contain astonishingly candid recordings of his private after-hours conversations. These tapes served as the inspiration for much of the dialogue in Satchmo at the Waldorf, in which the offstage Louis Armstrong–raw, frank, and uncensored-is revealed for the first time.
Satchmo at the Waldorf by Terry Teachout, directed by Gordon Edelstein with sets by Lee Savage, costumes by Ilona Somogyi, lighting design by Matthew Adelson; sound by John Gromada and stage managers Diane Healy and Hope Rose Kelly. Cast: John Douglas Thompson as Louis Armstrong, Joe Glaser, and Miles Davis. About 90 Minutes with no intermission. August 22- September 16, 2012 at the Tina Packer Playhouse of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. www.shakespeare.org Box Office 413-637-3353
“Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong” by Terry Teachout
Long Wharf Theatre
NY Times Obituary for Louis Armstrong