The Seacoast Repertory Theatre launches into 2016 with a look behind the joyful, bright-eyed image of jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong to reveal the deeper life of one of America’s cultural treasures.
Satchmo at the Waldorf opens January 22 at the Seacoast Rep in Portsmouth. The play is a drama based on the private audio diaries recorded by Armstrong over his lifetime. It depicts a journey much like that of jazz itself, from the bars and brothels of New Orleans to the world’s great stages. In addition to his exuberant public image, the play reveals a reflective, sometimes bitter Armstrong, who cursed fluently and was determined to flesh out his own character for posterity.
“There’s a story behind that big warm smile. There’s a story behind his optimism and his joy of life,” said Lawrence E. Street, who stars in the one-man show not only as Armstrong but also as his longtime manager Joe Glaser and the upstart jazzman Miles Davis. “Anytime a person feels misunderstood and wants a chance to tell their side of the story, that’s a great groundwork for a drama,” Street said.
Jeremy Abram, a veteran performer in Seacoast musicals Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Full Monty and Chicago, will be returning to Portsmouth from his home in New York to make his Seacoast directing debut.
New Orleans-born Abram said he was inspired by Armstrong’s character in portraying him for the 2012 off-Broadway musical Louis Armstrong: Jazz Ambassador. With the Seacoast production of Satchmo at the Waldorf, Abram will be able to convey his interpretation of the legend in a dramatic setting.
“It’s a more dramatic piece. It has comedy, and people will learn something about someone that they probably thought they knew everything about,” Abram said.
The critically acclaimed Satchmo at the Waldorf was written by Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout and it premiered in 2011. The story takes place after a 1971 Armstrong performance at New York’s Waldorf Hotel, shortly before his death. Armstrong is weary and unwinding in his dressing room after what turned out to be his last show. As he begins to speak, the production takes the audience through Armstrong’s life, with musical interludes recalling milestones on his artistic journey.
The horn player and singer spent early years in a youth home and in the Storyville red-light district of New Orleans. He matured as a jazz musician along the Mississippi River, in Chicago, and finally New York.
“There was a man who lived a very full life, who was so joyful because he understood for himself where he came from, and the journey from Storyville New Orleans to the world stages, from orphanages to playing for presidents — that was gratitude,” Street said.
The play shows turbulence and hurt behind Armstrong’s charismatic public face, and explores themes that linger in American society. “There are so many moments in this play where the writer has created a space where Louis Armstrong can tell his side of the story in relation to his race, in relation to what he felt like he was doing for jazz, what he felt like he was doing for African Americans,” Street said. “There are several really beautiful moments where this writer just writes in this hurt, this feeling of being misunderstood.”
Despite being one of the great innovators and popularizers of jazz, Armstrong endured unjustified criticisms as lacking intellectual heft. Miles Davis, as depicted in the play, was especially hard on Armstrong, disparaging his musical elder as an Uncle Tom for pandering to white audiences.
“Louis just wanted to play music and he just wanted to make people happy and entertain people, and for some people that just wasn’t good enough. They didn’t get it and so they had to turn it into something else to try to bring him down,” Abram said of Davis’ stance.
“Some people may agree with Davis,” he said. “It’s something that has always been present in black culture; it’s something that I dealt with growing up in Louisiana.”
The other character, Armstrong’s manager Glaser, was a protector and a source of security to a man who grew up without a father. But Armstrong was stung when Glaser died and left him out of his will. “They had a very interesting, very complicated relationship,” Abram said. “Joe was responsible for a lot of Louis’ success, but they had some not-so-great moments as well. There will be times when you have to consider whether their relationship was equal or whether they simply had a manager-client relationship.”
Despite the play’s grounding in Armstrong’s recorded journals – which number in the hundreds – it is not to be considered a verbatim biography. Abram, citing the author’s notes, said “this is a work of fiction, freely based on fact.”
Nevertheless, Street said, the theme of authenticity at the play’s core is a chief attraction for him as an actor. “There is this message of what’s an authentic person, and what is a person’s legacy. To have a character like this, a historic one who actually lived, for a 90-minute play where he’s telling just telling you about his inner world, that’s like the best buffet.”
Satchmo at the Waldorf runs January 22 through February 14: Show times are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available through the Seacoast Rep Box Office, or online at www.seacoastrep.org. For student and senior discounts, contact the box office. The 2016 Seacoast Repertory Theatre’s Season is sponsored in part by Bondgarden Farms, New Hampshire Public Television, and Portsmouth Public Media, MacEdge, and MESH Interactive Agency. Satchmo at the Waldorf is sponsored in part by D.F. Richard, Charles Schwab, and the Holiday Inn.