The year is 1971. The setting is a rather spacious dressing room in the Waldorf Astoria. In 90 minutes, an elderly Louis Armstrong (played magnificently by John Douglas Thompson) recalls his career.
The concept seems simple enough, but Satchmo at the Waldorf is unlike any one-man show most theatre goers would expect. This is drama critic Terry Teachout’s first play, and it springs from his definitive biography, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was, of course, a trumpet virtuoso and ingratiating entertainer whose career spanned more than 50 years. The play is not meant to be an evening of pleasant recollections. It portrays a complex artist who struggled to accept the many injustices and disappointments in life, but still thought he was lucky and that life was good.
There is a lot that the audience learns in this play. Teachout describes racial discrimination in detail, the relationship between blacks and Jews in the U.S., and the evolution of jazz in addition to showing the audience an unsentimental portrait of a legend. Armstrong used enough salty language to choke a horse. He was in trouble with the law and had a run-in with the mob in Chicago. He was a womanizer and a pothead. Yet he also had some of the purity that made him an easy target for exploitation and that still makes him much-loved all over the world. He also made a lot of collages, traveled with a manual typewriter which he used to write voluminous letters, and tape recorded a myriad of conversations.
Although so much is packed in the play, it unfolds gracefully under the agile direction of Gordon Edelstein and equally nimble John Douglas Thompson as Armstrong, manager Joe Glaser and Miles Davis. Thompson is not a dead ringer for Armstrong in appearance, but he nailed his voice and mannerisms. He is also thoroughly convincing as Glaser and Davis. A solid part of the play focuses on Armstrong's relationship with Glaser, a theatrical manager with mob connections and a criminal background. Their professional relationship was based on a handshake, and over the decades Glaser dictated Armstrong's grueling schedule and accompanying artists. The nagging criticims that Armstrong pandered to rich white people paled in comparison to the painful realization that Glaser cheated him out of his share of the business. Thompson changes characters in a heartbeat, going from the gritty-voiced Armstrong at various stages of his life to the all-business all the time fleshpeddling Glaser and haughty Davis. This intensifies the conflict, and Thompson truly delivers a tour de force performance. Don't take this critics word for it. Everyone in the packed theatre gave Thompson a standing ovation, and the show has been extended.
Armstrong is still relevant. His music was featured in the recent films, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Wall-E. Elementary school students are taught the song, “What A Wonderful World.” Armstrong is still popular. He said “music has no age. Most of the great composers – musicians – are elderly people, way up there in age – they will live forever. There is no such thing as on the way out. As long as you are still doing something interesting and good, you are in business as long as you’re breathing.” This holds true more than 40 years after Armstrong’s death.
Satchmo at the Waldorf plays at the Long Wharf Theatre Stage II until November 11. 222 Sargent Drive New Haven, CT 06511 (203) 787-4282. Longwharf.org.