A Brass Act

A Brass Act

T erry Teachout has been back and forth from New Haven for months working on the latest production of his much heralded play about Louis Armstrong, Satchmo at the Waldorf. The show opened the Long Wharf Theatre’s 2012-13 season in early October and has been extended a week beyond its originally scheduled run. It now closes Sunday, November 11.

Teachout is based in New York, where he’s the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf stars a well known New York-based actor, John Douglas Thompson. The show’s director, Gordon Edelstein, has had recent New York successes with revivals of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca. Satchmo is also New York-centric, set as it is in the city’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel following a concert by the aged and ailing jazz  icon Louis Armstrong in the spring of 1971.

But for all its Big Apple-tude, the play has much more to do with the regional theater network which has been a major developer of new drama in America for over half a century now. Gordon Edelstein may be a New York name, but foremost he’s the Artistic Director of New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater; The Glass Menagerie he did, not to mention the stage version he directed of Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev, which will open in New York in November, happened first at the Long Wharf, which has been one of the most prominent regional theaters in the U.S. since its founding in 1965.

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Satchmo at the Waldorf’s star, John Douglas Thompson, is himself a product of the regional theater scene, from his time as an ensemble member at the Trinity Repertory Theatre in Providence, Rhode Island.

Even Teachout, who covers Broadway for a living, stands out among his New York critical brethren as a top critic who heads out of town frequently to see great theater elsewhere. “Eight years ago,” Teachout explains, “we were told that the theater coverage was too New York-centric.” Teachout’s editors asked if he could cover events in other parts of the country, and he happily complied. Now, of the 100 or so shows he reviews every year, 50 are outside the city.

As a jazz fan (“all kinds,” he avers), Teachout similarly appreciates the contributions of numerous non-New York scenes. He played in jazz bands himself in Kansas City before becoming a full-time writer.

Developing Satchmo for regional theater audiences meant that Teachout, Edelstein and Thompson could challenge themselves and defy expectations.

As a critic, Teachout had reviewed Thompson in shows such as Richard III and Eugene O’Neill’s modern tragedy The Emperor Jones. “He’s never done anything like this,” the writer says of the actor. “He’s never done a play where he’s gotten a lot of laughter.” As a director, Edelstein’s often worked with small casts (My Name Asher Lev and The Road to Mecca each have three actors in them) but seldom staged one-man shows. The Satchmo project also allowed Edelstein to tap his love for music.

For his part, Teachout is well aware that audiences may come expecting one kind of show and will be receiving another. Satchmo at the Waldorf is about one of the most famous jazz musicians of the 20th century. Nowadays, such icons tend to be given rousing tune-filled “jukebox musicals” in which their greatest hits are played by impersonators. Satchmo, by contrast, begins in the moments following one of Louis Armstrong’s last concerts.

Teachout says he was never even tempted to go the singing/dancing musical revue route. “This is a talking play, not a blowing play,” he says. As for that talk, “the language is very strong. None of us thought anything about that. The swearing is not there to be shocking, but the truth is  (a) Louis Armstrong talked that way, and (b) this is not the Louis Armstrong you think you know.”

There’s an equally vivid character in the play, also played by Thompson, which most audiences will not know: Armstrong’s longtime manager Joe Glaser.

When he decided to write a play in which a single actor plays one of the most famous African-American musicians of all time, then switches abruptly to the white Jewish character of Glaser, the playwright knew it would take a special group of people to pull it off.

Teachout had written an acclaimed biography of Armstrong a few years ago, titled Pops. “When the book came out,” he says, “I got an email from a producer who suggested turning it into a show. I was surprised.” He’d had a little experience writing libretti for operas, but “I was not a frustrated playwright. I hadn’t written a play. I hadn’t thought about it for a moment.” Some fortuitous residencies and retreats were offered to Teachout, and he finally thought, “OK, I’m game.”

Terry Teachout’s new status as a produced playwright has affected his travels as a critic, since he’s now being produced at theaters which he used to review. He and his editors worked out a new conflict-of-interest policy, which means that he won’t be reviewing shows at the Long Wharf—or Shakespeare & Co., or the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, where Satchmo will play in November—for a while.

Satchmo at the Waldorf is fully a product of a regional theater system which prizes thoughtful theatergoers who are up for an intellectual challenge. After Teachout penned the script during a residency at Rollins College in Florida, it was given a world premiere production starring Dennis Neal at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center in Orlando. Teachout directed that version himself. It was shorter than the later versions, and didn’t yet have many of the multi-character elements which fuel the show now. Then Thompson and Edelstein were enlisted, and the script got an extensive overhaul last summer for a staging at Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Massachusetts. “The first draft had just Louis Armstrong,” Teachout recalls. “By the third day of rehearsals in Lenox, I wrote in the third character”—modern jazz presence Miles Davis—which in a few short lines gives the play an added outside perspective, more depth and a more contemporary element.

“I know what kind of one-person play I don’t like,” critic/playwright/theatergoer Terry Teachout declares. “I wanted to give people a real theater piece. I wondered, ‘How’re they going to take this?’ but it’s been overwhelmingly positive. Because we’re giving them a show.”

Satchmo at the Waldorf
Long Wharf Theatre Stage II, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven (map)
Thursdays & Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 2pm through Nov. 11.
Additional performances today, Oct. 31, at  2 & 7pm and Nov. 3 at 3pm.
(203) 787-4282 | info@longwharf.org

Written by Christopher Arnott. Photograph by T. Charles Erickson.

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Christopher Arnott has written about arts and culture in Connecticut for over 25 years. His journalism has won local, regional and national awards, and he has been honored with an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. He posts daily at his own sites www.scribblers.us and New Haven Theater Jerk (www.scribblers.us/nhtj).

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