I flew down to Florida last Friday morning and started rehearsing my Palm Beach Dramaworks production of Satchmo at the Waldorf that same afternoon. We put in two more full days of work on Saturday and Sunday. On Monday I flew back to New York to see Shuffle Along on Broadway, writing Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal drama column on the plane. I returned to West Palm Beach yesterday morning and resumed work on Satchmo promptly at noon, a bit underslept but not too much the worse for wear.
Much of this is par for the course when you’re putting on a show, but not the part where you have to fly to New York for one night to cover a Broadway opening. The problem, if you want to call it that, is my day job with The Wall Street Journal, which I take with the utmost seriousness. Yes, I’m making my professional debut as a stage director, but this is also the last week of the current Broadway season, which means that opening nights are coming fast and furious. Even if I’d wanted to take a month off to work on Satchmo, I couldn’t possibly have left the Journal in the lurch at this crucial time of year. So I decided to use the same mule to pull both carts—me, with my friend and colleague Ed Rothstein pinch-hitting for two shows that I simply couldn’t make it back to New York to see—and it was every bit as grueling as I’d expected.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that I’m having the time of my life anyway. Here’s how good a time I’m having: if I were thirty years younger, I think I might want to spend the rest of my life directing plays. I feel as though I’ve made a very important discovery about myself, just in the nick of time.
Mike Nichols made the same discovery when, at the age of thirty-one, he directed his first play, Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. “In the first fifteen minutes of the first day’s rehearsal,” he later said, “I understood that this was my job, this was what I had been preparing to do without knowing it….I felt happy and confident and I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
Needless to say, I’m no Mike Nichols, and I’m twice as old as he was when he staged Barefoot in 1963. But I think I have some notion of how he felt that fateful day. No sooner did I walk into Palm Beach Dramaworks’ rehearsal room on Friday morning and say “O.K., let’s get going” than I felt confident of my ability to get Satchmo on its feet and put a personal stamp on the resulting staging, one that extends well beyond the mere fact of my also having written the script. What’s more, my confidence has so far been justified: at the end of two eight-hour rehearsals, the entire show was blocked, a full week ahead of the schedule that I drew up before coming to West Palm Beach.
It goes without saying that I couldn’t have done any of this without the help of my wonderful production team, starting with Jimmy Danford, Satchmo’s virtuoso stage manager, who sits at my right at each rehearsal and makes the impossible easy. On top of that, I have the further advantage of working with a brilliant actor, Barry Shabaka Henley, who just finished doing Satchmo forty times in Chicago and knows it cold. Nevertheless, I’m the one sitting in the driver’s seat, and somehow I seem to have known what I was doing there right from the start. I don’t understand how or why, any more than I understand how I was able to write Satchmo in the first place. Apparently this is how it works with directors: either you can do it or you can’t, and it seems that I can.
I’ve been involved with theater long enough to know that we’re more than likely to hit some fearfully bumpy stretches of road between now and May 13, when Satchmo opens. But I now feel reasonably confident that the show will be ready to go by then, and that I’ll still be having the time of my life. For whatever reason, I’m at home in the director’s chair—and I hope with all my heart that this won’t be the last time that I get to sit there.