As Terry Teachout was finishing Pops: A Life, his 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong, he had an idea. Realizing that Armstrong's final performance at the Waldorf in 1971 was an operatic moment—a meet-your-maker crescendo in the life of a great artist—Terry wrote a theatrical work where the trumpeter reflects on his life, and his white manager, Joe Glaser, adds his thoughts. The radical device was having the same black actor play both parts.
The result is Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man play now in previews at New York's Westside Theatre Upstairs. The show, which opens March 4, stars John Douglas Thompson and is directed by Gordon Edelstein. Terry, of course, is the Wall Street Journal's drama critic, which places him in the tricky position of walking the talk—putting himself out there as a playwright. It's one thing to critique plays and performers and quite another to become the artist behind the work and face criticism.
Flying back from Boston yesterday, I posed five questions to Terry a week from Satchmo at the Waldorf's premiere...
JazzWax: Why place Louis at the Waldorf Hotel—aside from the event being his last performance?
Terry Teachout: One of the themes of Satchmo at the Waldorf is the extent to which Armstrong had lost touch with his original black audience by the end of his life—a fact of which he was well aware, and one that hurt him deeply. It struck me that to use a high-priced uptown hotel as the play's setting would serve as a powerful and telling symbol of this transformation. Even the title ties into it. You hear it and you ask yourself, "What is Satchmo doing at the Waldorf?"
In addition, the setting is an aspect of what I hope is the complexity of the way in which I portray Armstrong, who wasn't a simple man by any means. He's proud, rightly so, that a black man who was born in the Storyville section of New Orleans in 1901 can now play and stay in a hotel like the Waldorf. At the same time, it breaks his heart to look out at the all-white crowd and realize that his own people have turned their backs on him. There's nothing remotely simple about that situation, or about his emotional response to it.
JW: What were the biggest challenges to having the lead actor, who is black, play both Louis and his white manager, Joe Glaser?
TT: I found it equally easy to put plausible-sounding words in the mouths of both men, since I knew their real-life patterns of speech very well from having spent so much time researching Pops, my Armstrong biography. I suspect, however, that different actors will be challenged in different ways by the problem of portraying two men who were as different as Armstrong and Glaser. Dennis Neal, who created the double role in Orlando in 2011, grew up in a neighborhood full of people who talked like Joe Glaser, so the tough-guy accent came naturally to him. He found it harder to "get" Armstrong's New Orleans-flavored speech. [Photo above, Joe Glaser and Louis Armstrong]
With John Douglas Thompson, who's performing the play in New York, it was the other way around: he had to work harder on Glaser's accent than on Armstrong's familiar-sounding voice. By the way, John and Dennis both listened to the only surviving tape of a radio interview with Glaser, which is in the Louis Armstrong Archives at New York's Queens College. Glaser actually sounded quite a bit like actor Edward G. Robinson. They didn't imitate it—I didn't want that, any more than I wanted them to do a literal impersonation of Armstrong. But it definitely helped them to develop their own Glaser-style voices.
JW: What shift did you have to make as a writer from author to playright—where credible dialogue is everything? How did you ensure that the dialogue sounded credible vs. merely well-written?
TT: For some reason that I don't understand, writing natural-sounding dialogue seems to come fairly easily to me. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I've always tried to write the way I talk. Of course, I polished and refined the dialogue every time Satchmo at the Waldorf was staged. It has been performed in five different cities—and I worked closely with John and Dennis to make sure they found their lines to be easily, comfortably speakable. But there was never a stage in the writing of Satchmo—even in the first draft—when the lines sounded "written." Right from the start, they sounded as though they were being spoken out loud. [Photo above, John Douglas Thompson]
JW: Was there any concern on your part that, as a theater critic, you were crossing the line to playwright—meaning your critical treatment, good or bad, would be political vs. the merits of the work? In other words, any concern that you could be treated excessively well by a fearful theater community or unfairly rough by other critics?
TT: I don't think about that kind of thing. I've always taken it for granted that other drama critics will say exactly what they think about Satchmo, just as I would if our positions were reversed. And I've been struck all along by how genuinely welcoming the theater community has been to me. So far as I can tell, they all seem to think it's a good thing that I'm stepping up to the plate and putting myself in their place.
JW: Have you been approached to do a play based on Duke Ellington, the subject of your most recent biography—Ellington: A Life?
TT: A lot of people have asked me whether I'm interested in writing a one-man play about Ellington. The answer is no—at least not for the present. I have other things that I want to do first, and I don't want to be typecast. That said, I do have what I think might be an interesting idea for an Ellington-themed play—but I'd prefer to keep it to myself for now! All I can tell you is that it wouldn't be a one-man play.