From the Page to the Stage
WRITING THE BIOGRAPHY of a performing artist is like standing in the wings to watch a play. You see what the public sees, only from a different perspective. Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, my 2009 biography of the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century, is about the joyous entertainer who sang “Hello, Dolly!” and “What a Wonderful World” and made millions of people feel warm inside—but it’s also about the private Armstrong, who swore like a trooper and knew how to hold a grudge. The fact that Satchmo (his favorite nickname) had two sides to his personality doesn’t mean that the public man was somehow less “real” than the private one. Like all geniuses, Armstrong was complicated, and that complexity was part of what made his music so beautiful and profound.
Biography is about telling, theater about showing. Having written a book that told the story of Armstrong’s life, it occurred to me that it might be a worthwhile challenge to try to show an audience what he was like off stage. This was the seed from which Satchmo at the Waldorf grew. What turned it into a full-fledged play was the idea of having the same actor double as Armstrong and Joe Glaser, his white manager. I don’t care for one-man shows in which an actor dresses up like a historical figure and spends two hours telling stories about what a great guy he was. You can’t have a real play without conflict, and the trick to making a one-man play dramatic is finding a way to make that conflict palpable, even visible. When I wrote Glaser into Satchmo at the Waldorf, it was as though Armstrong’s shadow had suddenly appeared on stage, dark and threatening. All at once I had my villain, the Iago to Satchmo’s Othello—though, like all the best villains, Glaser isn’t nearly as simple, or evil, as he looks.
Satchmo at the Waldorf takes place in March of 1971 in a dressing room backstage at the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, where Armstrong performed in public for the last time four months before his death. Much of what he and Glaser say in the play derives from things that they said in real life, and the way in which both men talk on stage is an accurate portrayal of their habits of speech, right down to the last twelve-letter word. But Satchmo is still a work of fiction, albeit one that is freely based on fact. It’s an attempt to suggest the nature of their personal relationship, which was so fraught with tension that no mere biographer, obliged as he is to stick to the factual record, could hope to do more than hint at its endless subtleties.
Fictionalizing that relationship freed me to speculate about things that I cannot know for sure but have good reason to suspect. Though it may not be apparent at first glance, Satchmo at the Waldorf is, like The Glass Menagerie, a memory play, the story of an artist who has come to the end of his life and is trying to make sense of it. He’s also trying to understand his manager, the man who, for better and worse, helped Louis Armstrong become a star. Gordon Edelstein, who directed Satchmo in Lenox, New Haven, Philadelphia, and off Broadway, told me early on that it’s a story of “love—and betrayal.” As soon as he said it, I knew that he understood what I was trying to do.
The most exciting part of writing a play, of course, is what happens after you write it. The process of theatrical production is by definition collaborative, and it wasn’t until I started working with Gordon, John Douglas Thompson, and our design team that Satchmo at the Waldorf metamorphosed from a black-and-white sketch into a full-color painting. They lifted my words off the page and put them on the stage, and showed me how to change those words in ways that would make them more stageable. Working with these great and generous colleagues was the most gratifying experience of my writing life to date.
I always hoped, though, that Satchmo would someday be staged by other companies, not because I didn’t love what Gordon and John did with it but because I believed, rightly or wrongly, that the script was strong enough to support multiple interpretations. So when Charles Newell asked me if he could direct Satchmo at the Court Theatre, I jumped for joy. I’ve been coming to the Court since 2004, and two years after that I declared the company to be “a shining example of what American theater can and should hope to be.” Charlie deserves most of the credit for that achievement. He’s a director of tremendous imagination and individuality, and I knew that his conceptual, non-literal style, which couldn’t be more different from Gordon’s naturalistic approach, would put a galvanizing new spin on the play.
“So what do you want?” Charlie asked me during our first talk.
“I want Charlie Newell,” I replied. “I want you to do the play the way you want. But I also want something Satchmo has never had before: I want to see it being played in front of racially mixed audiences. So far we’ve never had more than a handful of black theatergoers in the theater. That isn’t right—but I know the Court can fill the house with folks who understand right down to the marrow what Louis Armstrong went through as a black man in 20th-century America. That’s what I want. Can you give it to me?”
“You better believe we can,” he said. I can’t wait.
Satchmo at the Waldorf is my first play, and unlikely as it may sound, I never gave any serious thought to trying my hand at playwriting until I sat down in 2010 to write the first draft. Yes, I’d written an opera libretto, but a straight play is a wholly different breed of cat. Besides, I’m a drama critic—I cover theater for The Wall Street Journal—and though a fair number of critics have written plays, it doesn’t happen very often. We inhabit the world of theory, and rarely if ever do we have occasion to dirty our hands with the theater’s ruthless practicalities. Now that I’ve done so, I think I’ve learned to appreciate them more fully than ever before. Kenneth Tynan, the British drama critic, was kidding on the square when he said that a critic is “a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.” The first draft of Satchmo at the Waldorf was a carefully drawn road map. The version that you’re about to see is—I hope—a journey.