A couple of years ago, thanks to Kevin Landis, we managed to bring America’s greatest living classical actor out to visit. Was he really that great? The New Yorker profile said so, but most of us had never seen him, some had never heard of him. That’s because John Douglas Thompson is that rare bird, a genuine stage actor who has not crossed over to movies or television, and most of the time you’d have to get to New York see him at work.
So John Douglas Thompson came here and wowed the students and entertained our audiences at a Sunday Prologue. He had generously agreed to be our special guest that evening at a fund raising event out at Forest Edge Gardens, and I drove him up there. On the way we talked some about Othello, a part John had recently played, and rather well too. Everyone said it was the best Othello of the 21st century. Driving past Rockrimmon I thought of my friend Chris Lowell, who had played Iago for us two decades ago, and who I was sure remembered every one of his lines (he’s fond of repeating them any chance he gets). I told John about Chris, and in a fit of sudden and ridiculous inspiration asked him if he would consider doing the famous temptation scene at our garden party. You should never do this. A great actor rightly protects his craft and his work, and saves it for the proper circumstances. But John said, “Sure, why not?”
I called Chris and he was game too, and so it came to pass that an hour later the two of them, without any sort of rehearsal, did the scene in front of thirty people gathered on a home deck. John downloaded the play on his iPhone which he held throughout, since he hadn’t done the play in over a year—but he hardly glanced at it. Was this the most definitive temptation scene ever played? Well, it could have used a bit more rehearsal—actually any rehearsal. But I know everyone who was there got it—in form, in voice, in power and in largeness of soul there was a great Othello right there in front of us among the ponderosas of Black Forest. It was positively mind blowing.
Can you begin to understand why this is a man we wanted in our theater whenever and if ever possible? Amazingly, it is actually about to happen. Thanks to good timing, John’s own generosity, and our production team’s energy and skill, we are bringing him here to play in Satchmo at the Waldorf, the same production that ran for many months off-Broadway in New York and now has gone on the road for a three city tour: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and . . . Colorado Springs. If you want to get a head start and preview the show, you can fly to California next month and see it in the thousand-seat Geary Theatre. Or you can exercise discipline and wait to see it in our 200 seat home right here in town. Really nothing this great has happened around here since Sarah Bernhardt played the Tabor Opera house, and she was further away from most of the audience than you will be in the Bon Vivant.
As you might have guessed, Satchmo at the Waldorf is about Louis Armstrong. It’s a work of fiction, but it is strongly based in fact. The play was written by Terry Teachout, the excellent theatre critic of The Wall Street Journal. Teachout is also a musician, and the author of Pops, a much praised biography of Armstrong. His play takes place during Armstrong’s last gig, four months before he died in 1971. When the great man enters his dressing room after finishing his set, he is not at all well. He staggers over to an oxygen tank, takes a few good gulps, dabs his sweaty brow, and tells us he lost control of his bowels in the elevator. But hey, this isn’t just any old man nearing the end of his tether. This is Louis Armstrong, once “The World’s Greatest Trumpet Player” and now a celebrity, regularly seen making guest appearances with Ed Sullivan and Bing Crosby. He’s not going quietly into the good night—not before he records his life stories on the tape recorder in the dressing room. As you might imagine, he’s had quite a life and has a lot to say.
Over the course of the evening we learn a lot about this extraordinary man and his music, whose life and art covered much of the 20th century. At first you might think John Douglas Thompson is miscast in the role---he is not an old man and there is nothing frail about him. But over the course of the evening Armstrong gains in strength and energy, and we begin to feel the power and passion that propelled him from humble beginnings (his mother was a prostitute in New Orleans, and his dad left before he was born) to becoming an American icon and household word.
Armstrong’s life journey was not a steady smooth ride to the stars. For one thing, his early music was revolutionary, and revolutions don’t come easy. Anyone alive in the 1920’s hearing the now legendary recordings of his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens would have found this music as bracing and edgy as some recent modern jazz many are still struggling with. Furthermore, Louis Armstrong was a black man moving upwards in a bigger whiter world, and he needed some help. It arrived in the form of Joe Glaser, his manager from his early days in Chicago. Glaser was Jewish, tough, aggressive, and he believed in Armstrong and his music. He stood up to Al Capone and his boys. He formed the All Stars band. He kept Louis on the road touring year after year. He worked the record deals and the television shows that made Satchmo universally beloved. Glaser was perhaps Armstrong’s closest friend and colleague, and certainly his greatest advocate, yet at the end Armstrong felt bitterly betrayed when Glaser died without leaving him the rights to any of his music. At times in the play Thompson channels Glaser, who speaks for himself and complicates the story.
We hear another voice occasionally, too. It’s that of Miles Davis, the trumpet player whose music succeeded and displaced Armstrong’s. Miles was of another generation, another background (he was the son of a doctor), and another spirit. He admired Armstrong as a musician but not as a man, especially not as a black man. He hated the way Louis came on stage with his hankie, jumping around and grinning “like some kind of old-time darky.” Miles was no clown; he was a fiercely angry man who once said, “If somebody told me I only had one hour to live, I’d spend it choking a white man.” In other words Miles was no Satchmo.
There’s a constant tension in the play, and in the life, between Armstrong’s private and public selves. In life he increasingly became not only a musician but an entertainer. He sang more than he played. Satchmo made us all smile, he was adored. He started making records with string orchestras. And then along came his recording of “Hello Dolly,” which topped the hit parade charts, even briefly beating out The Beatles. He didn’t think much of the tune, but he played it every time he performed.
He was a sunny man for the most part, and he loved making people happy---no one did it better. Late in life he sang, memorably, “It’s a Wonderful World,” and he tells us he liked the words: “Blue Skies, white clouds. The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night.” He put all that into his music.
But in the dressing room of the Waldorf Astoria we hear someone else too: Louis Armstrong off stage, and off the record. And just so you know, it’s Louis Armstrong. Glaser introduced him every night as “Louie,” but Armstrong says “I ain’t no goddam Frenchman, ain’t no Creole, ain’t no 'Lou-ie.' I’m black. Black as a spade flush. Woke up black this morning, black when I go to bed, still gonna be black when I get up tomorrow. Don’t like it, you can kiss my black ass.” It’s another voice entirely—salty, emphatic, vigorous and frequently profane. It’s the voice of the black man and not the public entertainer, and you will learn quite a lot about this man too.
Is the black man the real Louis Armstrong? Yes he is. But the Satchmo of legend is also the real deal. He wanted to go on and on making us happy, and he did, well past his available resources. The force was with him, as it is with the remarkable John Douglas Thompson. Put the pair of them together and the force will be with you too, forever.