It's not as incongruous as you may think that Shakespeare & Company, rooted in the works of that Renaissance genius, is premiering a play about the 20th-century jazzman Louis Armstrong. For one thing, Satchmo at the Waldorf, which opens next week, joins four other contemporary plays in the company's summer roster. But the play's author and star make an even more compelling case for the show's inclusion under the Shakespearean tent.
"I feel Louis Armstrong's life was just as Shakespearean as any Shakespeare character," says John Douglas Thompson, who knows whereof he speaks, having played Othello and Richard III on the same stage where he's personifying the man known variously as Satchmo and Pops. "I'm attracted to the kinds of characters who are too big for the world they live in," he says, and places this real-life character in that iconic company. "Don't forget," adds playwright Terry Teachout, "John is playing a genius, and that means someone who is 50 feet tall."
Louis Armstrong's life was certainly as epic as any classical hero's: growing up poor in New Orleans, surviving hardship and discrimination to become the most popular and arguably the most influential figure in jazz. It could be said that just as Shakespeare invented the language that defines our culture, Armstrong invented America's defining music.
Teachout's play takes place backstage on the night of Armstrong's last gig, in March 1971, just months before his death. It's a one-actor but two-character play. The great trumpeter, reflecting on his life and career, is visited by his longtime manager, Joe Glaser—who has been dead for two years. "Glaser was white, not black, Jewish, and mobbed up to his eyebrows," Teachout says. "After Glaser died, Armstrong concluded that the man he had trusted more than anyone else in the world had betrayed him. That's the dynamic that propels the play."
Thompson says he's not trying for an accurate imitation of Armstrong, apart from approximating the famous gravelly voice. "If I can capture some of the essence, I will consider that successful. But I'm more into understanding this character's humanity at this point in his life, reflecting on the choices that he made, knowing that he's in the last chapter of his life."
Both men, author and actor, say they've learned a lot from doing this show. Thompson admits that he grew up dismissing Armstrong as "this old guy who sings on TV. He wasn't a part of my musical soundscape. Now I'm falling in love with him for the first time, through the music, through his virtuosity, his personality, his showmanship."
Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and a prolific writer on contemporary culture. He describes himself as "a recovering jazz musician" (he once played bass professionally) and has published a best-seller biography of Armstrong, but Satchmo is his first play. "Hitherto as a writer, I've spent my life in a room alone," he says. "This is much more fun, and there's nothing more exciting than collaborating with people on such a high level of achievement as John and Gordon [Edelstein, the director]. I would say this was my dream come true, except I would never have the nerve to have dreamed it. I should be covered with bruises from pinching myself."
Satchmo at the Waldorf runs August 22-September 16 at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox. (413) 637-3353, shakespeare.org.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.