In the fall of 1970, Louis Armstrong flouted doctor’s orders to play his last gig, at the Waldorf Astoria’s Empire Room. It may have been a crowd-pleaser, but it was no easy feat—he kept an oxygen tank in his dressing room. He would die of a heart attack 11 months later, at age 69.
That famous final engagement sets the stage for Satchmo at the Waldorf, the first play from Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout, which opens March 4 at the Westside Theater. In the play’s opening scene, Armstrong, finished with the show, retreats to his dressing room for a puff on his oxygen tank. Once there, he kicks back, flips on his tape recorder—ostensibly for the autobiography he’s dictating but actually for you, the audience—and, after he cleans his horn and packs his gear, as he climbs out of his tuxedo uniform and into his hunting-lodge street attire, he casually tells you the story of his life. Telling the story of Armstrong’s life took Mr. Teachout 475 pages in his 2009 biography, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, and just under 90 minutes on stage.
“The Armstrong that you think you know is real, but that’s not the whole man,” noted Mr. Teachout in a recent interview. “In this play, I try to show you—as I do in the book—what the man backstage was like, what the real man was like. He was a man capable of great love and great anger. He was a man who knew the score about race. He was no Uncle Tom. No matter how he seemed in public, he understood the way the world works. I just wanted to put that onstage. In a biography, you have 500 pages to tell the story of somebody. In a play, you just show them that person, especially when you have somebody like John playing the part.”
That would be John Douglas Thompson, who was born in Bath, England, to Jamaican parents and brought up in Montreal, Canada. At age 50, he is one of the most compelling classical actors of his generation.
Mr. Thompson’s Armstrong is not an impersonation so much as it is a portrayal that emerges organically. “I’m not trying to match Louis’ voice,” he insisted. “It’s way too difficult, and it’s so uniquely a part of his character. I think Terry gave me the essence. Then, I just kinda be myself in the context of that. If anything, I’m trying to get more into his age, and that has its own unique thing, whatever comes out of me through my voice.”
His way of fast-forwarding a couple of decades is “watching my dad. He’s 84. Just getting out of a chair becomes a sport.”
The first clue that you are watching the authentic Armstrong is the torrent of purple prose pouring from his mouth. “This play not only contains the N-word,” said Mr. Teachout. “It also contains the M-word.”
The vulgarity, he feels, has validity. “Armstrong was one of the first people in America to buy a tape recorder. He made tapes of himself talking about his life. He taped candid conversations backstage. More than 600 reels of these tapes survive in the Armstrong archives at Queens College. They were one of the primary sources for my book. John has listened to some of the most significant ones, so he knows what Armstrong really sounded like all the way backstage without any self-protection at all. He has done almost as much research on this play as a biographer would do.”
Author and actor first huddled about the project in 2011. Gordon Edelstein came aboard as director the next year for a workshop in Martha’s Vineyard and followed that with a staging on Mr. Thompson’s home turf of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., and then at Mr. Edelstein’s own Long Wharf Theater in New Haven.
“John is an actor who acts with every fiber of his being; the characterizations are in his corpuscles,” said Mr. Edelstein.
An extraordinary aspect of Mr. Thompson’s performance is that it is not confined to Louis Armstrong. He turns on a dime into Mr. Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, an enterprising Chicago Jew chummy with the Capone crowd. The play starts after the end of this beautiful friendship, with an angry Armstrong feeling bitter about being slighted in Glaser’s will.
Glaser’s flat-blat, tough-guy sound comes from photographs, said Mr. Thompson. “We have pictures, and they are quite telling. The shots of Armstrong and Glaser speak a thousand words, so I started to build the character out of those images. Then I heard a little bit of audio of Glaser and tried to place his voice at least in my ear so I’d have it, and Terry was smart enough to write the cadences and rhythms of Glaser’s voice.”
It is the tension with Glaser that keeps the play’s narrative surging forward. “Gordon said to me early on, ‘You know this is a love story. This is the story of a love gone wrong between Armstrong and his manager,’” said Mr. Teachout. “And Gordon, in saying that, showed me something—that I hadn’t fully understood what the play was about.”
Mr. Edelstein had another little surprise when Mr. Teachout walked into the first rehearsal for the first production in Lenox: “Why don’t you try writing Miles Davis into the play?” Mr. Edelstein blithely suggested. The jazz legend already existed in quotes in the play. (Davis admired Armstrong’s musical virtuosity but had little patience for the sweaty-clown-with-handkerchief shtick Armstrong paraded in front of white audiences.) Mr. Teachout swallowed hard, went home and came back with the first draft of Davis speeches reconfigured as a third character in the play.
To catch Davis’ gravelly voice, Mr. Thompson zeroed in on a 60 Minutes interview. “When I listened to him on that show, it sounds like he’s whispering. You have to really lean into the TV to hear him.”
There’s a story to go with that whisper, Mr. Teachout explained: “Miles developed a case of nodes, and they operated on him. They said, ‘You can’t talk for six weeks’ or however long it was. Two days later, he got in a yelling fight with his manager. That was it! He talked for the rest of his life the way you hear John talking. True story.”
Four more voices/characters have since been added to the mix, including that of Lucille, the fourth and final Mrs. Armstrong. “I’m trying to do Bing Crosby, too,” said Mr. Thompson. “I’m still working on it. It would be Armstrong’s interpretation of Crosby’s voice and the smoothness of how Crosby would say something.”
Mr. Teachout puts a big fat asterisk on the Crosby camaraderie. “In an interview that he gave to Ebony in the early ’60s, Armstrong mentioned, in passing, that even Bing Crosby had never had him over to his house. That stuck in my mind, because Crosby really did do all these things for him—recorded with him, gave him his first starring film role. In so far as Bing Crosby really liked anybody, because he was a distant man, he liked Armstrong. His brother said that Bing kept himself in a cellophane bag. I would say Crosby felt no racial prejudice toward Armstrong. He treated everybody that way, but there’s reason why Armstrong would know that.”
Danny Kaye and Armstrong affected a similar raucous rapport in the 1959 flick The Five Pennies, but the scene Mr. Thompson carried away from the picture involved Barbara Bel Geddes, who played Kaye’s wife. “She comes up onstage to congratulate the band and kisses all the musicians on the cheek, but she doesn’t kiss Armstrong. He’s the only black musician, and he gets a handshake. Armstrong is smiling through that moment, but you can’t help wondering what’s going on with the man behind the smile.”
That big, broad, ear-to-ear smile masked a lot of heartbreak and a hard-knock early life growing up the son of a New Orleans prostitute. “He was totally unselfconscious about that particular fact, too,” said Mr. Teachout. “He accepted what he was, and I think he knew what he was. He wouldn’t have ever said it, and as far as I know, he never even called himself an artist, but Louis Armstrong knew what he was—or he wouldn’t have saved those tapes. He was a genius who changed world culture.”