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Satchmo at the Waldorf
By: Deirdre Donovan

John Douglas Thompson as Louis Armstrong
in a scene from Satchmo at the Waldorf
(Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

Terry Teachout is changing hats from theater critic to playwright with his one-man play Satchmo at the Waldorf which stars John Douglas Thompson as the jazz legend. Both Teachout and Thompson deliver in this Lion-in-Winter portrait of Satchmo at the end of his life.

Okay, this play is a bit of a teaser. You get a dramatization of the ageing Armstrong but little of the astonishing jazz music (sound design by John Gromada) that changed the musical world and cultural landscape of America. In all fairness, Teachout does spritz the soliloquy with snatches of the reel-to-reel music (expect some melancholy beats from “West End Blues” and other Armstrong hits) that the trumpeter toted with him from gig to gig. But these only pepper a show that is generously salted with a raft of anecdotes that Armstrong is supposedly recording for posterity in his Waldorf Astoria dressing room backstage.

Set in March 1971, Teachout’s play is fictive but spun out of a real event in Armstrong’s life. Armstrong surely did perform at the Waldorf Astoria months before he died in Corona, New York, on July 6th of the same year. Teachout plays fast and loose with the facts in this 90-minute riff. However, if it is a conspicuous telescoping for theatrical purposes, Teachout uses a legitimate technique that gorgeously pays off.

The show doesn’t stint on realism either. Its opening scene shows Armstrong, following his stage performance, near physical collapse and inhaling oxygen from a medical contraption that would look more in synch at the intensive care unit of a hospital than a dressing room backstage. The effect that strongly registers, however, is Armstrong as an old warhorse with a show-must-go-on attitude.

While the piece embraces Armstrong’s entire life, Teachout has greatly flavored it with the icon’s deep humanity threaded throughout the narrative. To borrow from the Louis Armstrong timeline in the program and the play itself: he was born in 1901 in New Orleans with no silver spoon. His father William (“Willie”) Armstrong deserted his mother Mary Ann (“Maryann”) Albert when he learned she was pregnant and the young Louis never knew his dad. Though a loving mother to her son, Albert fell on hard times and turned to prostitution. As a boy, he mostly had to fend for himself and would wander through New Orleans’ “Storyville” section. He landed in the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys in 1913—and there took up the cornet. Six years later, he was playing his music in barrelhouses and on riverboat cruises. Ever-adventurous, he migrated to Chicago to play with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, and made his first foray into New York in 1924. Strapped for money, he returned to Chicago, and put down his cornet for a trumpet. He played up a storm at Al Capone’s Sunset Café, met his future manager Joe Glaser, and returned to the Big Apple in 1929. And the rest is history.

Thompson is well-suited to playing the larger-than-life Armstrong. From his first entrance when he half-staggers into the dressing room, he is a presence to behold. In spite of the fact that he is portraying Armstrong in a fragile physical condition, Thompson’s natural physique is imposing. Though one would be justified in saying that he outbrawns the legend with his broad biceps, he still conveys the spirit of Armstrong through and through. In fact, Thompson’s energy as Armstrong never once flags during the performance. He will occasionally shift personas from “Satchmo” to Glaser, to Miles Davis, to Bing Crosby, and others, but the subject of the soliloquy revolves totally around the one-and-only Armstrong.

There’s a whole tapestry of tales woven into Teachout’s play. One of the best is when the trumpeter relates how he beat out the Beatles to Number One on the pop charts with his recording of “Hello, Dolly” in 1964. If that is a fascinating fact, so is the more disturbing one that Armstrong was often looked down upon as a white-man’s jazz musician, and an “Uncle Tom” figure. Never completely accepted by the Blacks who resented his “crossover” success or by white society (Joe Glaser and Bing Crosby never invited Armstrong to their homes, and Glaser overlooked him in his will), Armstrong remains a lonely figure in this bittersweet play.

Teachout, who has written a biography of Armstrong (Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong) is clearly at home with his subject. If there is a flaw in his play, it is simply that it focuses on the legend’s life story and skimps on the music.

Lee Savage’s set design is awash with posh furniture and the accouterments of a dressing room backstage right down to its bare-bulbed lights (lighting by Kevin Adams). It neatly captures the ambience of that historic event at the Waldorf Astoria. Ilona Somogyi’s costumes are handsomely tailored to fit Thompson’s large frame. Thompson wears a traditional tuxedo, with a cummerbund and all the rest. If Somogyi’s costumes are one-note, it is only to serve the play’s compression of time and place.

Satchmo at the Waldorf has already been produced by the Long Wharf Theatre and Shakespeare and Company in the Berkshires. With its arrival in New York (at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs), it gives New Yorkers a wonderful opportunity to get on more intimate terms with the legendary musician. Admittedly, one doesn’t get much of the music in this talkative mosaic of the jazz great. However, if you want an honest interpretation of this seminal artist, look no further than this show.

Satchmo at the Waldorf (tickets now on sale through August 3, 2014)
Westside Theatre (Upstairs), 407 West 43rd Street, west of Ninth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200, or visit
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.