Louis Will Never Go Away Again!
André De Shields plays the legendary Louis Armstrong in Ambassador Satch.
I had hoped to interview André over dinner so that I could give this article the obvious title; but it didn't work out because he was in the midst of a run of the show at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, prior to its current engagement at the Helen Hayes Theatre in Nyack, New York (March 22-April 6). Instead, we had a phone conversation about this intriguing project.
THEATERMANIA: Hi, André. Are you having a good time in Philadelphia?
ANDRÉ DE SHIELDS: Yes, I'm finding it to be a rather delicious city.
TM: Have you spent much time there before?
ANDRÉ: Yes, some years ago, when we were doing shows in preparation for Broadway -- most importantly, The Wiz. Philadelphia was one of the first cities we visited. And I've got a little bit of family and some friends here. This place has the energy of New York but not its madness. Since we are indeed in a development process with Ambassador Satch, it's nice to not be totally out of my mind.
THEATERMANIA: Is your engagement at the Prince the first actual staging of the show?
ANDRÉ: In its current form, yes. It's the world premiere. The show has had other incarnations but this is the first time it has been realized as a two-act musical commodity. Previously, it was a one-man, one-hour event.
TM: So the woman is a somewhat recent addition?
ANDRÉ: Absolutely -- the most significant addition to the arc of the storytelling. Harriet D. Foy is playing the four wives of Louis Armstrong.
TM: Tell me about your collaboration with James Mirrione on the book of the show.
ANDRÉ: It's a collaboration that has lasted for 11 years so far. And people think that those of us in the theater are just watching television and eating chocolate! They don't know how long we work to get a single concept realized.
TM: If I understand correctly, there's no new music in the show, only standards. Is that right?
ANDRÉ: Yes. They're all taken from the Louis Armstrong discography, which is immense. We hit some of the highlights and some of the seminal, not-so-well-known music from the beginning of his career in New Orleans.
TM: I saw a documentary on Armstrong and, from what I remember, he had trouble with the law in his youth.
ANDRÉ: Well, who doesn't? At least, what man of color doesn't?
TM: According to your research, did he encounter major problems with discrimination or was he somewhat removed from that because he worked mostly in the jazz world during the early part of his career?
ANDRÉ: Well, in the popular version of Louis Armstrong's life, we like to think that he was a great trumpeter and a happy-go-lucky fellow. That's emblematic of his profile, with the big rolling eyes, the flashing smile, the handkerchief, and all that perspiration. But he was a complex man.
TM: It's hard to get away from that song, "What a Wonderful World."
ANDRÉ: We don't get away from it in our production! It's his anthem. And I think it is so appropriate right now, when you look at the world and it's not so wonderful, is it? But to get back to your previous question: Our approach to Louis Armstrong is that he was a person of great humanity but a human being, which means that there were complications in his life. One of the complications was that he was victimized. He didn't particularly see himself as a victim but he did suffer the consequences of racial discrimination. One of the reasons why he smoked marijuana every day of his adult life, by his own admission, was that he thought it was the most effective lubricant against racism -- not to mention that it also helped to soothe the pain of his busted lips from blowing that horn for all those years. One of the vignettes in Ambassador Satch is about his confrontation with President Eisenhower in the during the segregationist standoff in Arkansas in the '50s, when the state government was testing Brown v. Board of Education.
TM: That's fascinating. Did you get to see Dinah Was?
ANDRÉ: Oh yes, I did.
TM: I thought it was very powerful, the way they dealt with the racial indignities that Dinah Washington suffered. It's hard to imagine -- for some of us, anyway -- that people of that stature would have to endure such treatment.
ANDRÉ: That's because we're obsessed with celebrity. But celebrities are people first. And, more often than not, celebrities of color get their degrees from the university of hard knocks. I've been thinking a lot about the excellent Diana Ross film of Billie Holiday's life. The question is: Do you attempt to do a Nicholas Nickleby? Do you invite people to come to the theater for eight hours so they can experience everything that happened to the person? Or do you find one theme, one train of thought, one journey that you follow from beginning to end, and make that representative of the person's huge life? That's what we hope we've done with Ambassador Satch.
TM: And your next stop is Nyack?
ANDRÉ: Yes, that's the second leg of the development process. The dream is that it will ultimately end up on Broadway, but we are a long way from that. We don't have a booking after Nyack; we'll take the opportunity to sit down and sort out what we've learned from the co-production between the Prince and the Helen Hayes.
TM: It sounds like a worthy project.
ANDRÉ: It is. What's so curious about Louis Armstrong is that everyone perceives him as a personal friend, because that's how accessible the man was. While he was living, he was certainly one of the most popular people on the planet. We have the opportunity to offer some wonderful entertainment and, at the same time, a little bit of enlightenment and education about him.
TM: You know, some years ago, I read an amazing statement. The writer felt that there wasn't much racism left in America today and that this was proven by the popularity of Bill Cosby! I guess that goes back to what you said before about the culture of celebrity being separate from the real world.
ANDRÉ: Exactly. And in terms of celebrity civil rights activists, Louis Armstrong was one of the first. In his wake there followed Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and so on.
TM: Well, I definitely hope to see the show in Nyack. Thanks for talking with me about it. And I can't let you go without telling you how great you were in The Full Monty.
ANDRÉ: I appreciate your saying that. I just got an e-mail from a colleague in London -- as a sidebar, I'll let you know I was dragged kicking and screaming into cyberspace. I'm something of a Luddite. Anyway, this colleague of mine is associated with The Full Monty, which is about to open in Hungary. He asked me if I would be interested in coming over as a kind of mentor, to show them what the ropes are and are not. I've never been to Hungary and I'm thinking it might be an interesting little holiday. The Full Monty is also playing in Spain and Italy, by the way. And it's going to Australia and Norway.
TM: Wow. With the success of Chicago, maybe they'll make it into a movie musical.