I flew out to Los Angeles yesterday morning for Tuesday’s sold-out preview of Satchmo at the Waldorf, which officially opens tonight at Beverly Hills’ Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. We rehearsed in the afternoon, and when we were finished, Gordon Edelstein, John Douglas Thompson, and I tried to figure out how many performances John had given to date of Satchmo. Since he’s done it in Lenox, New Haven, Philadelphia, and New York, where Satchmo ran off Broadway for eighteen previews and 136 performances, our best guess is somewhere around three hundred times.
That’s a modest number compared to the herculean efforts of the elite corps of actors who’ve appeared in long-running Broadway shows for more than ten years. Still, it’s a not-inconsiderable achievement for John. Satchmo, after all, is a ninety-minute-long solo show in which he plays three sharply contrasting characters, never leaving the stage until the final curtain. He speaks some twelve thousand words at each performance, all of them committed to memory. That’s roughly the same number of words spoken by the title character in an uncut performance of Hamlet. Small wonder, then, that John, who is best known to the world as the outstanding American classical actor of his generation, has no trouble staying interested in my far more modest effort. While Satchmo is, to put it very mildly, no Hamlet, it’s complicated enough to hold his attention night after night.
This is, by the way, the first time that I’ve seen Satchmo at the Waldorf, as well as the first time that I’ve taken part in a theatrical rehearsal of any kind, since the show closed off Broadway a year ago. Yet mere seconds after I walked into the theater, I felt as if I’d never been away, and I was as fascinated by the audience’s response to the play as I was when it was premiered by Dennis Neal in Orlando in 2011. The first nighters in Beverly Hills were quiet but attentive, bearing out something that hit me four years ago: some audiences experience Satchmo as a serious play with funny moments, others as a comedy that turns serious at the end. What’s more, I can always tell within a half-minute of the start of the show which kind of audience is in the theater—though not a second sooner.
This is also the first time in ages that I’ve been in Los Angeles, which I found utterly mystifying when I came here in 2007:
“I kissed him, but I never knew him,” Ingrid Bergman is supposed to have said about Humphrey Bogart. That’s sort of how I feel about my first visit to Los Angeles: I spent three days there, but I still don’t quite know what I saw.
Los Angelenos, I gather, are sensitive to stereotypes, especially the ones they come up with themselves. Now I understand why. I saw enough of their home town to know that it would take me a lifetime to see the rest of it, and though one cliché turned out to be painfully self-evident—the traffic is really, truly awful—I can’t say I found any of the others useful. I’ve never seen a city that was more resistant to generalization, not even the one in which I live.
I still feel the same way, though I’d forgotten how completely alien Los Angeles seems to me—like another planet, really. You drive through a scruffy residential neighborhood, then suddenly there’s a movie studio on your immediate right. Alas, I won’t be here long enough to savor the strangeness, or even to see any of my friends. All I have time to do is rehearse the show, attend three performances, and make a couple of Satchmo-related appearances, after which I head straight back to New York to resume my day job, which always awaits me.
Two transcontinental flights in four days is well over my personal quota, which doubtless explains why I’m still feeling a bit fuzzy around the edges. I was awakened early today by a phone call from a polite but urgent-sounding young man who wanted to know whether I was on my way to an appointment of which I knew nothing whatsoever. I was still blurry from Tuesday’s travels, but within a few seconds I realized that someone had blundered, very possibly me. Finally my head cleared and I said, “Wait a minute. Who are you? Where are you? And who do you think I am?” It was, much to my relief, a wrong number. Even so, I was inches away from throwing on my clothes and running to the theater. That’s what too much travel in too little time does to me. Or maybe it’s just Los Angeles.