Over the weekend I received this e-mail from Paul Moravec, my sometime operatic collaborator:
My brother Matt visited us yesterday. Apropos of nothing, he said, “I saw somewhere that Terry is opening a restaurant
at the Waldorf.”
Word gets around!
I’m relieved to report, however, that I’m not going to be making my debut as a restaurateur any time soon. Satchmo at the Waldorf opened last Friday at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, and it was–and is–a rip-roaring success.
This is not to say that John Douglas Thompson, Gordon Edelstein, and I don’t plan to do a fair amount of further tinkering prior to transferring the production to New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre in October. Some “fine sandpapering” (as Gordon says) awaits us. That said, we’re pleased with Satchmo as is. Tickets are selling famously, and the audience response to the two previews and first five performances has been…well, let’s just call it emphatic.
The most interesting part of seeing the play performed several times in a row has been the chance to see how different audiences react to it. When I wrote Satchmo at the Waldorf, I never imagined that anybody would find it amusing–I expected it to get no more than a half-dozen laughs–and when Dennis Neal and Rus Blackwell staged the show in Orlando last fall, I was astonished to discover that the first two-thirds of the script played like a comedy. Much the same thing is happening in Lenox, albeit with the same wide variability of response that I first observed in Orlando. I suppose the best way to put it is that some audiences receive Satchmo at the Waldorf as a serious comedy and others as a funny drama. What’s more, I can tell within a minute and a half of the beginning of the show which way it will be received on any given night.
Time and again, though, people are laughing at lines that didn’t strike me as especially funny when I wrote them, and in one or two cases I still don’t understand why they’re laughing. Early in the play, for instance, Louis Armstrong delivers the following lines: “See the write-up in the paper today? Man say I’m ‘a walking Smithsonian Institution of jazz.'” This is a direct quote from John S. Wilson’s New York Times review of Armstrong’s last gig, but it comes across as a joke, and even after seven performances, I’m damned if I know why.
I mentioned to John at the first rehearsal in Lenox that he’d probably be getting some laughs once we opened. He asked me not to tell him where they’d be. “If you do, I’ll be tempted to play those lines too broadly,” he explained. I kept my mouth shut, and when we opened last week, I could see that he was astonished by the audience’s response. If you read Alec Wilkinson’s profile of John, which appeared in The New Yorker in May, you’ll know that he’s long felt doubtful about his ability to get a laugh on stage. The subtitle of the profile was He’s been called our greatest classical actor. Can he learn to be funny? Well, John took his first course in comedy on opening night, and graduated summa cum laude at evening’s end.
Anyway, that’s the news from Lenox. We very much hope that you’ll come see the fruits of our collective labors, either here or in New Haven, where Satchmo at the Waldorf begins previews on October 4 and runs from October 10 through November 4.