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STAGE

What a wonderful world

Terry Teachout's play about Louis Armstrong reveals the man behind the smile

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And it does seem as if destiny has played a part in this venture. Both Armstrong and Blackwell hail from the Deep South – Armstrong was born in New Orleans and Blackwell grew up in Pass Christian, Miss., just miles from the Big Easy; Neal grew up in Harlem, where African-American artists like Armstrong created a national artistic renaissance. Blackwell’s father was a professional singer, as was Neal’s mother and his stepfather, Jesse Stone – who not only wrote the standard “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” but who actually knew Armstrong in his younger days. All of these interesting intersections have convinced Neal that this is, in fact, the role of his lifetime.

Teachout insists that his play is a work of fiction and that its language is his alone – not a staged version of his book. It is, however, based on the facts of Armstrong’s life, as well as some 650 reel-to-reel tapes that Armstrong recorded over many years and which are now housed in the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, N.Y. During the course of Teachout’s biographical research, he had unlimited access to the material. So while the book is a scholarly treatise written in the author’s voice, the play mirrors the actual thoughts, words and inflections that Teachout imbibed from endless hours spent listening to Armstrong’s own autobiographical musings.

Neal also takes pains to point out that his performance in Satchmo at the Waldorf is not an impersonation of the great musician. There is no trumpet playing in the script, and Neal will not be crooning “Hello, Dolly.”

“This play is not an imitation. We’re going for the essence of the man.”

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