John Douglas Thompson Shares the Secret Behind His Award-Winning Performance in Satchmo at the Waldorf

May 27th, 2014 by

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One of the best performances in New York City isn’t happening on a Broadway stage, but rather steps away from Times Square at off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre where acclaimed actor John Douglas Thompson stars as the legendary Louis Armstrong in Satchmo at the Waldorf.

Satchmo at the Waldorf GIF

Thompson has been nominated for pretty much every off-Broadway award there is for his portrayal of Armstrong, his manager Joe Glaser and fellow jazz icon Miles Davis. And he’s won the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance. BroadwayBox caught up with Thompson to find out exactly how he went about bringing these real-life characters to the stage.

“Since Satchmo at the Waldorf is really Armstrong and aspects of his life—his politics, his artistry— my main inspiration is obviously Louis Armstrong. I spent a great deal of time researching Armstrong, and getting as close to that source material as I possibly could. I spent quite a bit of time at the Louis Armstrong House in Corona, Queens—I visited maybe four times. And the Louis Armstrong Archive Center at Queens College has reel-to-reel tapes that he made. He invested in the machine in the 1940s, and he recorded everything: his shows, conversations, phone calls, parties, interviews, you name it. And that was a huge inspiration going through those tapes. Additionally, Armstrong wrote a lot of letters—sometimes typed out and sometimes hand written—and what made the letters fascinating is that they were in his own unique vernacular. You can read his cadence; how he punctates his words, his sentences, his thoughts, and it helped get his speech patterns ingrained in me. I also went to Chicago to visit the places that were his old haunts; I also downloaded everything Armstrong made (one out of every three songs on my iPhone is Armstrong); and I went through his books, the autobiographies and Terry Teachout’s biography.

His manager Joe Glaser is white, Jewish and a mobster, so my inspiration was Edward G. Robinson. I had a tape of Glaser’s speech and he talked in the same kind of pattern as Edward G. Robinson as Little Caesar, so that was a big inspiration.

And thirdly, I also play Miles Davis, and I have a lot of his music and there’s quite a bit of him on YouTube, including a famous 60 Minutes interview.

So because all the three people I’m playing are actually real, I just went to the real source material for inspiration, and often times what I thought and what I found were very, very different things. For example with Armstrong, my perception was that he was a very heartwarming and jolly man, and what I found out, as I was going through the tapes, was that he had a different disposition in private. Armstrong was also extremely politically aware and racially conscious in ways that the people in the world who loved him didn't really know. And through the discovery of all that, I ended up playing a different Armstrong than I thought I would have ended up playing. And the audience is in the same position that I’m in; they come to the show thinking they know Armstrong and leave with a whole new Armstrong.”
Let John Douglas Thompson show you the real Armstrong in ‘Satchmo at the Waldorf’ at off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre.