Terry Teachout is an American author, critic, biographer, playwright, stage director and librettist. Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary. He is a published author, one of his books being “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.” His plays include “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” which premiered in Orlando in 2011, and “Billy and Me.” Teachout took time out of his schedule to answer a few questions for American Stage about “Satchmo at the Waldorf.”
What inspired “Satchmo at the Waldorf” when you originally wrote it?
“I had just published a biography of Louis Armstrong called Pops. A theatrical producer e-mailed me from out of the blue to say that he thought there might be a play in it. I’d never seriously considered writing a play—that’s not something drama critics usually do—but Hilary, my late wife, told me she was sure I could and nudged me into giving it a try. Then the idea came to me. Pops contains a photograph of Armstrong sitting backstage in a Las Vegas dressing room the year before his death, looking weary. One day I looked at that and thought: this is the play. It’s Armstrong sitting in a dressing room after a show, telling his story.”
As we celebrate the work and achievements of Black artists all month long this February and beyond, tell us why this play about Louis Armstrong is so timely as our country continues to struggle with civil rights issues.
“Satchmo (that’s what he liked to be called) was an artist of color who had seen and lived through racism at its worst from childhood on. Yet he never let it corrode his spirit: he remained optimistic and devoted to his art, and the goodness of his personality shone through in his music and on-stage demeanor and inspired successive generations of white people who had never opened their hearts to a person of a different race to do so and be changed. That seems to me to be a story of permanent interest—and the story of one of the greatest Americans of all time.”
Why did you choose to have this production performed by a sole actor?
“I like one-person plays like Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife in which a single actor plays multiple characters. I thought that having the same actor play Satchmo and Joe Glaser, his white manager (I added the character of Miles Davis at a later stage), would provide an exciting challenge, especially to an African-American man. Very few one-person plays have been written for such performers, and I love watching different actors take it on.”
What do you hope that audiences will walk away with after seeing this production?
“Louis Armstrong isn’t as well-remembered today as he should be. I hope that people who see Satchmo at the Waldorf will go home wanting to learn much more about him—something they can easily do by reading Pops, though you needn’t read the book to understand and enjoy the play. Just as important, though, I hope the play will inspire audiences to listen to Satchmo’s music, which remains as exciting and moving as ever.”
Learn more about “Satchmo at the Waldorf” at americanstage.org/satchmo