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Arts & Entertainment

WaterTower Theatre Invites Audiences Backstage for an Evening with Louis Armstrong

Terry Teachout’s first play, SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF, shares details about Louis Armstrong after one of his final shows.
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The play takes audiences backstage at The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1971 New York, only four months before Armstrong’s death. Paris Marie Productions

Whether he’s writing, directing, or performing, jazz is a part of Sam Henderson’s life. Miles Davis’ music, in particular, stands out as an important part of the Baylor assistant professor of theater and film’s life. Part of his thesis was a one-person Miles Davis play, and he even named his son Miles.

Around a decade ago, a connection through Baylor gave Henderson a perusal copy of Wall Street Journal Drama Critic Terry Teachout’s first play, SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF. The one-person, three-character play takes an intimate, backstage look at Louis Armstrong after one of his final shows. Armstrong records deeply personal reflections on his life throughout the play on a tape deck, with commentary from his longtime manager, Joe Glaser, and famed trumpet-contemporary Miles Davis.

SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF certainly piqued Henderson’s interest at the time, but discussions surrounding a possible co-production were fruitless. “It’s been logged in the back of my brain for a long time,” Henderson says. It wasn’t until Addison-based WaterTower Theatre announced its 28th season in January 2023 that Henderson finally had an opportunity to perform in the play. “I was like, I don’t care what I’m doing. It’s not a guarantee that I’m going to be a part of this, but I’m auditioning,” Henderson says. “If I’m in freaking Australia, I’m coming back to audition for the show because this is like a sign from Heaven for me to be this close to this show again.”

After a successful audition, Henderson now has his chance to star in SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF when WaterTower Theatre’s production, directed by Feleceia Wilson, takes the Addison Theatre Centre Terry Martin Main Stage from April 17-28. Henderson sees the production as “tailor-made” for his combination of interests and skills at this stage in his life, calling it “a perfect fit.”

The play takes audiences backstage at The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1971 New York, only four months before Armstrong’s death. Audiences will see Armstrong reflect on his life just as he’s come from the stage after his performance. Wilson says the play stays in Armstrong’s present rather than acts as a flashback, with each character “telling their own story.” “That is what makes it all the more interesting,” Wilson says.

She credits Henderson with bringing the nuanced approach SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF requires to play the show’s three characters. She explains that it would be easy for an actor to play each of these characters with an assumption of how they would act or say a particular line, but the script requires a multifaceted approach to the characters.

From the opening line of SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF, it’s evident that the Louis Armstrong Henderson will play on stage is more like the man heard on the musician’s tape recordings versus that of his public persona. In fact, Teachout used Armstrong’s recording as the basis for his biography on the famed musician. “What I think is so wonderful about the play is that there’s mystery that runs through all of these characters,” Henderson says. “There’s almost this kind of wink from Terry Teachout, ‘You know what, we really don’t know who these people are, but if I gave it a good old college try…it might go a little something like this.’”

The script opens with the note, “This is a work of fiction, based freely on fact,” which Henderson says summarizes “the principle of the play.” Nonetheless, audiences will still learn facts about Armstrong and see Henderson capture “the spirit of these people” in the play. Henderson and Wilson both heavily researched Armstrong and his manager prior to the production to get a better, true-to-life sense of who they were.

Henderson searched for interviews that captured more of Armstrong’s personality off the stage, comparing his approach to playing the private side of Armstrong’s personality with his approach to starring as Martin Luther King Jr. in a production of The Mountaintop. He also looked for information on Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s Al Capone-connected manager, whose treatment of Armstrong and relationship with the celebrated musician is a prominent topic within the play. Wilson says “it should be fun for the audience to watch” Henderson switch between playing Armstrong, Glaser, and Henderson within the show, emphasizing how the first few transitions between the characters happen somewhat unexpectedly.

Wilson also researched Armstrong’s personal life. She traveled to New Orleans, where Armstrong was born, to get a feel for the city. “It’s a beautiful city with a lot of soul, and you feel it when you walk the streets,” Wilson says. She watched documentaries and read Armstrong’s autobiography of his early years. The director is a longtime jazz fan herself, having forged her working relationship with WaterTower Theatre by performing as Ella Fitzgerald for the theater’s Ella’s Swinging Christmas concert recording during the pandemic. She says jazz is “the music of our modern history, so whenever you have the chance to be involved with something like this, to not do so would be foolish.”

Wilson hopes audiences walk away from the show with a newfound appreciation of Armstrong, similar to the one she has after reading and working on SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF.

“I walked into this process with some assumptions about who I thought Louis Armstrong was…but I think at the end of it all, Louis Armstrong was a joyful man who was appreciative of his life,” Wilson says, adding that many musicians like Miles Davis had their own preconceived notions of who Armstrong was and how he conducted himself and his career as well. “How he lived (his life) is fascinating, and it’s something that I hope that the audience walk away with a deep appreciation about.”

Author

Brett Grega

Brett Grega

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