Whenever you write a book or play in which a famous person of the relatively recent past is portrayed, it’s more than likely that you’ll sooner or later meet somebody who knew the person in question and is eager to tell you what they thought of what you wrote. I’m used to that by now, but I admit to having been a bit unnerved—more than a little bit, truth to tell—by the West Coast premiere of Satchmo at the Waldorf, my play about the relationship between Louis Armstrong and Joe Glaser, his manager. No sooner did I take my seat last night at Beverly Hills’ Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts than I realized that I was sitting in the midst of people who had known Armstrong and Glaser. What’s more, I was introduced after the show to Van Alexander, a composer, arranger, and big-band leader who, like Armstrong, was managed by Glaser and thus had known him extremely well.
I’m relieved to say that all of these people (including Alexander, who is one hundred years old and as sharp as a stiletto) hastened to assure me that I portrayed Armstrong and Glaser accurately. And I’m downright delighted by something that happened at Tuesday night’s preview performance, when Gordon Edelstein, John Douglas Thompson, and I did a post-show “talkback” with members of the audience. After we were through, a black man came up to me and said, “I was really surprised when you came out on stage at the end of the show. I figured the guy who wrote that play had to be black!” I was reminded (though I didn’t have the nerve to say so) of something that Count Basie is supposed to have asked Peggy Lee: “Are you sure there’s not some spade in you?”
With two performances of Satchmo under our belts, I can report that Gordon’s staging of the play is in excellent shape after the eleven-month layoff that followed the end of the off-Broadway run. If anything, John’s interpretation of the triple role of Armstrong, Glaser, and Miles Davis has actually grown in richness and subtlety since then. It’s strange to think that he’s appeared in highly acclaimed revivals of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine in between productions of Satchmo. I’m keeping fast company these days.
The Wallis, as it’s known in these parts, is a brand-new theatrical complex (it opened less than two years ago) situated in the heart of Beverly Hills. The staff there has been wonderfully helpful, and the 150-seat Lovelace Studio Theater, in which we’re performing, couldn’t be better suited to an intimate one-man show like ours. I wish I could stick around a little longer and enjoy the fun, but I have to cover a Broadway matinee on Saturday afternoon, so I’ll be flying back to New York first thing tomorrow morning. I can’t even take this afternoon off—I’ve got to write a piece!
Satchmo closes on June 7, and tickets, I’m told, are selling briskly. If you live in the Los Angeles area, do come. I think you’ll like what you see.