Terry Teachout on writing Satchmo at the Waldorf
Mr. Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, the critic-at-large of Commentary, and the author of “Sightings,” a biweekly column for the Saturday Journal about the arts in America. He also writes about the arts on his blog, “About Last Night” (terryteachout.com). He has written the libretti for two operas by Paul Moravec, The Letter (commissioned and premiered by the Santa Fe Opera) and Danse Russe (commissioned and premiered by Philadelphia's Center City Opera Theater). His most recent books are Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Harcourt), All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine (Harcourt) and A Terry Teachout Reader (Yale University Press). He is currently at work on Mood Indigo: A Life of Duke Ellington, which will be published by Gotham Books in 2013, and recently received a Guggenheim Fellowship to support the completion of the book. Satchmo at the Waldorf is his first play.
FROM THE PLAYWRIGHT:
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 (as he loved to call himself) 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. You can’t have a 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 four-letter word. But the play 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 has freed me to speculate about things that I cannot know for sure but have good reason to suspect. Gordon Edelstein told me that Satchmo at the Waldorf is about “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 is what happens after you write it. The process of theatrical production is by definition collaborative, and it wasn’t until I started collaborating with Gordon, John Douglas Thompson, and our matchless design team that Satchmo at the Waldorf finally began to metamorphose 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 has been the most gratifying experience of my entire writing life.
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 two and a half years ago to write the first draft. I am, after all, 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 that 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.