When a play about a legendary history maker opens with the main character breaking the fourth wall and telling a story about defecating himself in an elevator, audiences should know that they are in store for some heavyweight fare.
Wall Street Journal drama critic and newly-minted playwright Terry Teachout's evocative debut Satchmo at the Waldorf opened at New York City's Westside Theater March 4 and the 90-minute play — a revelatory tour-de-force chock full of historical data to make even the savviest of jazz purists blush — features the masterful talents of John Douglas Thompson portraying jazz icon Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong during his later years. Not only does Thompson, known for his acclaimed roles in Shakespearean works, hit a home run as the man who immortalized jazz standards such as "Hello Dolly" and "What A Wonderful World," the Bath, England-born thespian also showcases his versatility by taking on other pivotal characters such as Armstrong's shady kingmaker Joe Glaser and his younger rival Miles Davis, respectively.
"I have to admit that I was really uninformed about Armstrong. I didn't have a proper context to understand this man," Thompson, who was last seen on Broadway in the theatrical adaptation of John Grisham's best-selling novel A Time To Kill, told Playbill.com. "My parents saw Armstrong twice in England and he was an icon. He is an American icon, very important for African Americans and I never understood that. And I really wanted to know who this man was. So I wanted to get behind the smile and behind the horn and get to the real private Armstrong — not the public persona that we've often been confronted with. So, during the process and the research of learning about this man, I grew an affection for him. My whole impetus was to understand this man who brought so much joy to so many people around the world. And I just needed to get a proper context so I can understand and support it.
"Obviously I got that and working on this play, it kind of brought me full circle to really understanding who this man is," he continued. "And also telling his story, expressing Armstrong's pain, his art, his politics, his contribution to civil rights, I really wanted to be a part of his story that a lot of people don't know about him, whether there are people who are novices or people who knew him but still didn't really know about him. I really wanted to be a part of this whole educational process of bringing this aspect of Armstrong's life to the public so they can fully understand the man."
This latest incarnation of Satchmo at the Waldorf, directed by Gordon Edelstein, follows sold out-runs at Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre and Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts. Thompson said that he became attached to the project after Teachout, who also authored the definitive Armstrong biography, "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong," sought him out and approached him while he was performing in The Berkshires three years ago. "I was really into Miles Davis, and John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter and some of those guys that were coming up from the electric jazz, and the Bop movements," he said. "I was never really into Armstrong but I read the play and I really liked it and I liked the conceit of it, the changing characters and how the play structured on Armstrong and his relationship to his manager Joe Glaser. So that's how it got to me and that's how my interests in it grew."
Set in March of 1971, Armstrong was already revered as one of the greatest music icons in the world. But he felt as if he was forgotten or dismissed by the new generation of jazz lovers — and even by the African Americans he so proudly represented on a global stage. The Grammy Award-winning icon would perform the final string of shows he would ever play at New York's famed Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Teachout's story is a backstage look at the man many knew as "Satchmo" during his last days. Satchmo at the Waldorf is in the same vein of other recent theatrical productions centering on the behind-the-scenes lives and thoughts of international showbiz legends past their prime, such as End of the Rainbow (about Judy Garland) and Lady Day (about Billie Holiday).
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