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).
According to Thompson, the production was intended for a small theatre, so audiences can feel the intimacy of the play. "I think we always thought of this as something that would work Off-Broadway than on Broadway... Our initial thought was an Off-Broadway, intimate play with Armstrong talking to the audience — we didn't want to get lost in a space that was too big for the play itself."
Receiving high marks from theatre critics (The New York Daily News said he "hits all the right notes" while The New York Post called him "superb — as versatile on the stage as Satchmo was with his horn') Thompson receives the positive criticism with much humility. "I don't know if I mastered it but it's still a work in progress for me," he shared. "I'm still finding things in the text and in the body language... For me it's just been as continual during the show. You keep doing it and keep working on it and always keeping yourself open to new ideas and hopefully finding new things as you're out there performing for an audience. It takes quite a bit of vigor and a lot of intellectual, emotional and physical rigor to actual do this show because its just one person up there. "
Thompson, a former computer software marketing rep who calls the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn home these days, said he immersed himself in research about Armstrong by paying multiple visits to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens and City of New York's Queens College's Louis Armstrong Archives, which provided a multitude of background material, along with four Armstrong biographies (including Teachout's) and many YouTube videos.
"The archives have all of his tapes, his letters, and his music. What was really key for me was studying old VHS tapes of him on television shows like "The Dick Cavett Show" and "The Mike Douglas Show" at his age of 70," he explained. "So I got to see him at this point of his life, and see how he talked, see how he moved, see how he looked at stuff. So I tried to watch those quite extensively to try to get an understanding of Armstrong's countenance, and his carriage and how it moved and how he talked and how he expressed himself at the age of 70."
The New York Times christened Thompson a "Shakespeare Specialist" in 2009 after he received Obie and Lucille Lortell Awards for his portrayal of Othello. It's something he's honored by, but at the same time can't help but to chuckle about. He's also quick to draw a comparison to his latest work with. "There's something very Shakespearean about Louis Armstrong's life if you look at it.
"There's trials and tribulations and comebacks," he added. "His life had a lot of peaks and valleys which is kind of equivalent to some of these major Greek characters and some of these major Shakespearean characters. They still have such a life force to succeed anyways no matter what you throw at them. I look at Armstrong's life as very Shakespearean which, for me, is a good thing because I've been able to address these major Shakespeare characters in my own research and performance style."
Next up for Thompson is the leading role in Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine for Brooklyn's Theatre for A New Audience, directed by Michael Boyd later this summer. Soon after, he said he'll star alongside Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh at BAM.
"I think we kind of bring our life experiences and our life to the work we do," Thompson, 50, stated. "I didn't really know this at the time because I didn't even know I was going to become an actor. But prior to that, you're just living your life and then as you turn into an actor, you start to look back on your life and see there's a lot of grist for the mill — there's a lot in your life that helps you become an actor that you can also use as an actor in your performance and your research and the way you approach characters and how you're going to the work. I'm thankful for the experiences."