“Musicians don’t retire,” Louis Armstrong once said, “they stop when there’s no more music in them.”
The legendary trumpeter held fast to his words: American Stage’s “Satchmo at the Waldorf” – a virtual production running February 19 to 28 – is set backstage at the Empire Room of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where Armstrong performed in public for the last time four months before his death in 1971.
The script by Terry Teachout calls for a single actor to portray Armstrong, his white manager Joe Glaser, and Miles Davis. In trying to work American Stage’s season around social distancing guidelines, Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte reached out to a familiar face: L. Peter Callender, director of five productions for the company, and who has acted in one other before Satchmo.
“Who was not familiar with the great Louis Armstrong?” Callender said as he discussed his preparation for the role. Armstrong is a legend and a recognizable icon, but a thoughtful portrayal requires more than a mere impression.
“I learned so much about the heart of the man: his joys and griefs, his passion for his music and love of his mother and friends,” the actor said. “I learned about his great disappointments, the rules he lived by and his thoughts as he knew his time on earth was coming to an end. He was an amazing man. I wish I got a chance to meet him, but doing this play was as close as I could get to being in the same room with him and breathing the same air. He was a true blessing to jazz and humanity, as a whole.”
The Glaser and Miles Davis characters had to be researched as well, and while there is plenty of footage to help Callender capture the character of Miles Davis, Joe Glaser was not a public figure and there was no reference material.
“I had to go by the cadence and the pace of the given text,” Callender said, adding, “These three men couldn’t be further apart in character.”
Callender is not the only familiar face putting this show on its feet. It’s hard not to be jazzed about director Ted Lange, who most famously played the character Isaac, the bartender on the classic television series, “The Love Boat.” Even more interesting? That show is just a footnote in Lange’s extensive, prolific career – and he and Callender have be close friends for most of it.
“Ted and I have known each other for over 30 years,” Callender says. “We met in New York City during a screening of his film of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello.’ We are both great fans of the Bard and bonded immediately. Since then, we both have gone on to our individual works, but when given this opportunity, he was the one I wanted to direct me.”
The two old friends had no trouble navigating the challenge of being in two different places while developing an intimate performance virtually.
“His passion for the piece, knowledge of TV and film directing, humor and amazing storytelling, added a very special touch and professionalism to the work,” Callender said of his director. “He knew well in advance exactly which shots he needed from which camera, etc. Ted is funny, extremely talented and has a sage knowledge for this work. I couldn’t have made a better choice.”
For more, visit americanstage.org.