By Bill Hirschman
The creation of a new musical – a tumultuous journey stretching over years — always contains as much, if not more, drama than what ends up on the stage.
But then there is the pain, joy, anguish and celebration that commandeered the pre-virus birth and now this winter’s resurrection of A Wonderful World – a complex ambitious show focused on jazz legend Louis Armstrong that closed the night before it was to open at Miami New Drama in March 2020.
The pandemic then erected disheartening, discouraging hurdles that required commitment from a cadre of resilient artists and a faith in humans’ need for theater in order to reach this month’s re-opening night.
The artistic odyssey required re-financing much of an initial seven-digit investment, nearly five times what the company normally spends mounting a show. It meant replacing half of the two dozen actors and musicians who had found other jobs or quit the business.
And it meant the responsibility inherent in its existing depiction of racism through the 20th Century had been amped up by the tumult of Black Lives Matters, the death of George Floyd, and the manifesto “We See You, White American Theater,” a high-profile expression of outrage by artists of color about how theater has treated them in recent decades.
Therefore, now more than before, “It’s not just the life of Louis Armstrong; it’s about race relations in America in the 20th Century all (presented) in a layer of song and dance,” said Michel Hausmann, artistic director of Miami New Drama, who has been a godfather/matchmaker for the piece.
The musical entering previews Dec. 4 and premiering Dec. 11 is not a revue but a highly theatricalized biography in which numbers from Armstrong’s catalog are infused as part of the plot, character-revealing reveries and wry commentaries by the narrators.
This piece — named for Armstrong’s 1967 standard “What A Wonderful World” — always had used his personal journey to parallel the plight of African-Americans. Often, Armstrong angrily challenged racist norms while keeping a beatific exterior for self-preservation’s sake as he played in the South. He followed the advice of actor and vaudevillian Stepin Fetchit to “put on a shine for the white people.” Then later, he was criticized by another generation for being an accommodating sellout.
And the musical was and still is meant to be a behind the scenes tale of the iconic trailblazer from the 1920s through the 1960s as trumpeter, composer, band leader, vocalist and actor. It portrays the musical genius behind the jovial charisma as a complex and flawed human being.
The show is not meant to be sanitized hagiography. Instead, it depicts only four of the major arcs in his multi-faceted life by having his four wives narrate his evolution from his hometown of New Orleans, through his professional breakout in Chicago, his status as a world-renowned icon in Hollywood and then his later years in New York City.
“It’s a story of love, redemption. It’s a story of finding oneself. It’s a story of wanting, needing, desiring. And it’s an uplifting story,” said Juson Williams, the young actor who weathered heartbreak during the pandemic to return to the lead role he was creating when the pandemic struck. “Maybe his words weren’t, but his mind, body and soul were in the right place. And his purpose was to impact people who came after him because he was impacted by people who came before him.”
From The Downbeat
The roots of the project date back a decade when Florida businessman Thomas E. Rodgers Jr. was entranced by a massively-long biography of Armstrong. Other than piano lessons, much of the music of his childhood had been the sound of jazz that his father – a director of advertising at Radio City Music Hall—adored to the point that he helped transfer the Newport Jazz Festival to his venue for a few years.
Then about three years ago, Rodgers was dining with his brother-in-law, the writer Andrew Delaplaine, and Christopher Renshaw. Renshaw is a British director who has lived in Miami for 13 years and who helmed a Tony-winning The King and I in 1996, as well as Broadway’s Boy George musical Taboo.
Rodgers suggested this might be the heart of a musical, although Rodgers had little experience in theater. He wondered if they could find out who had the rights to the catalog of songs associated with Armstrong.
Renshaw, who lives around the corner from Miami New Drama’s base at the Colony Theatre on Lincoln Road, had become a fan of the troupe since seeing its 2018 The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, the satire of race relations and pop culture seen through the prism of faux wrestling.
Hausmann took Renshaw’s Armstrong idea to Aurin Squire, the Dade-raised playwright and television writer who co-authored the company’s 2019 Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy and one of the pieces in its street-front Seven Deadly Sins staged during the pandemic and winning national attention.
Squire recalls the serendipity of the assignment: “I completely related to it because they didn’t know this, but I was the gig coordinator for the New School for Jazz…. I sort of immersed myself in jazz and a lot of the studies of the students were doing revolved around Louis Armstrong, and then going to more experimental like Sun Ra and later Miles Davis. And on that Christmas, I got a free gift from the Secret Santa in the office, which was a Louis Armstrong biography. So I went home and I read this massive biography and I was amazed and stunned by the richness of this person’s life.”
But Squire and Renshaw developed a different approach than the classic straight narrative biography paradigm. Armstrong had lived the vast majority of his life married or deeply involved with four women who witnessed each of those phases first-hand. Why not have them be the narrators and have them sing songs from his catalog along with a lead actor portraying Satchmo?
The vision morphed into a classic non-naturalistic musical theater paradigm, something used in Jelly’s Last Jam among other shows chronicling real-life music masters.
“It’s like a collage of his life through snapshots… from the women, what the women knew of what he gave to them,” Renshaw said. “And through them, we see his development.”
The script evolved relatively quickly. Songs from Armstrong’s repertoire were chosen not just for their familiarity to an audience but because they commented indirectly on his maturation and about the status of race relations around him.
“Normally musicals can take five to six years,” Renshaw said. “The fact that we bonded and found a home page for us both (meant) we got some ideas out pretty quickly…. (Aurin) doesn’t take forever and he doesn’t have a huge defense system. So it’s very open.”
Somewhere along the line it became obvious to people on the creative team that this had the potential to be a major new musical headed for future productions and a landing on Broadway.
National-level talents were brought in: The score based on nearly 40 Armstrong hits and lesser known pieces was created, arranged and orchestrated by married couple Anastasia Victory and Michael O. Mitchell whom Renshaw had worked with in New York. They developed underscoring for the dialogue scenes, similar to a film. Rickey Tripp was brought in to choreograph and stage musical numbers.
Auditions were held locally and in New York City for Equity union actors. About half either were living in South Florida or had roots here.
Soloist in an Ensemble
The key piece of casting was Williams, an affable and ebullient actor who, while simply being himself in an interview, looks very little like Armstrong nor sounds like him.
No one expects nor even wants him to create a nightclub impressionist’s summoning of a voice and vision to compete with ingrained memories in the audience’s mind. But when he rehearses on stage wrapped in a knit cap and scarf, many of Armstrong’s mannerisms emerge down to a shake of his head, a huge smile and unique vocal characteristics in a transformation.
Research has been key for him, reading a seminal biography “An Extravagant Life” and studying online clips. He recalls “I did watch videos to get his facial expression right, (how his) eyes light and (the voice) ‘Yeah, babies’ ”
He connected immediately with the icon’s core as he discovered personal resonances with multiple aspects of Armstrong’s life. “I lost both my parents when I was eleven. He really grew up on his own…. He had so much loss, so much hurt, so much damage in his life…. I haven’t been as poor as him, but I relate to a lot to his soul.”
Of course, there’s the issue of actually playing the trumpet. Williams doesn’t. “However, I picked up a trumpet and put it in my mouth and I blew out some notes. Not the greatest, but I did it.” Instead, he studied the fingering and how to hold the instrument while playing it, almost a choreographic effort “because there will be some instrumentalists in the audience who will be like ‘What are you doing? You can’t hold it like that.’ ” Another performer visible on stage will play the trumpet live while Williams mimes the moves.
Getting Up On The Bandstand
In August 2019, the company did a two-week workshop and readings in New York City with several of the actors who would later be cast in the production. The first rehearsals were held there in January 2020.
When it came time to rehearse in earnest, the company moved back to Miami. But the troupe’s home at the Colony Theatre wasn’t large enough to hold the simultaneous rehearsals for singing, dancing and/or acting. So many rehearsals were held at different venues including the gilded Olympia Theatre in downtown Miami.
Period costumes were designed. A two-story set arose in a solid floor-to-rafters array of time-worn trunks that seemingly had travelled across the country.
The process gathered speed until it was ready to preview with all the polish and verve of any Broadway hopeful production.
The Day The Music Died
Although the troupe was “submerged” in the hectic preparations for the coming opening, news of the growing COVID pandemic outside their walls worried everyone, not least of all Hausmann and Managing Director Nicholas Richberg. They conferred with city leaders and others about what potential preventive measures might be instituted.
Finally, the full production played in previews beginning March 5. But everyone was aware of news coming out of New York in which producers were trying to decide whether or if they could stay open. Some had already cut back audience capacity to adhere to new city and state mandates.
But while the leaders of Armstrong musical didn’t distract their artists’ concentration, Williams said, “I remember specifically saying for two days, ‘Oh, my God. Are they going to say something to us about the thing that’s happening?’ ”
The show began its six-performance slate of previews.
Williams remember that one day, “when I came to the theater after lunch, they decided to say, ‘We’re waiting on something. We don’t know. But right now, be prepared. We don’t know if we’re closing down or not.’ ”
Then on March 12, Broadway producers shut down everything in New York partly because illnesses had mounted out of control in the city and partly because the Actors Equity union insisted on protecting the health of its members.
Richberg wrote, “We told the cast the day before, during an afternoon rehearsal, that the next evening would be our last performance.” Opening night slated for the day after that was cancelled. As was the rest of the schedule.
The show would not go on.
Renshaw promised everyone that they could count on being rehired when the show reopened. As with most theater observers, most people guessed that might mean a few weeks, maybe a couple of months.
The cast, crew, support staff and creative team were crushed. Not simply by the delay, but because the length of that “temporary” delay was unknown.
“(It was) an incredibly difficult moment and one filled with a lot of confusion and fear since for so many of them (because) going home meant (going back to) New York City. At the time, the city was saying it would be a 30-60 day shutdown but I think we all knew deep down it was bigger than that,” Richberg wrote.
Many people pledged to stay with it. “Everybody had a feeling that we were doing something important,” Hausmann said.
As a morale-setting leader in the company, Williams had to hold together in public when the news was announced, although his chance of a lifetime might be slipping into the ether. “I held myself up until I went to dinner, and by myself, I fell apart…. They didn’t know what I was going through.”
But as with many of his colleagues, profound pain sunk in deeper as time went on. “You may take for granted what you’ve been a part of… and then all of a sudden, there’s a realization that it (comes) to an end before you finish it. And for me, not finishing a project is the most horrifying thing to me. Like if I’m starting something, I’ve really got to see it through.”
The company paid off everyone per Equity rules. The theater paid apartment rent for two months for out of towners who had moved to Miami for the show, and could not or did not want to return to New York right away.
Williams settled in West Palm Beach for five months “because New York was in a crazy state, and I was like, I don’t know what this is. My uncle had passed away in my home, and I didn’t go back to that home…. The theater put me up, and I just took advantage of finding myself again.”
The hoped-for “few months” stretched out further and further. Williams said, “I was like breathing heavier. I had gained some more weight; I guess they call it pandemic weight. But it’s real. I did not know what was going to happen, was not receiving any unemployment at all.”
Williams’ personal situation mirrored that of many of his colleagues. Emotionally, the hiatus – was it going to be a hiatus? – was difficult for everyone.
“I felt like the world needed some healing, including myself. I lost about 40 people during this thing, close family members as well as friends and colleagues during this time, and… there were some suicides. There was a whole lot of things going on… but I’ve always felt like rising above that stuff. Even when you’re feeling what you’re feeling, you’ve got to keep moving forward.”
Like everyone else in the cast, he struggled to find ways to make ends meet. “Thank God, I do other things. So I’m able to get (funding) from other places like ASCAP and BMI and stuff like that… and the Actors Fund,” Williams said.
He kept his skills sharpened by performing in a regional Connecticut production of Smokey Joe’s Café, a show he knew from his role in a national tour. He returned to his duties as the artistic director of JW’s Inspirational Singers of New York City, a choir group he help start in 2015. In June, they appeared on the America’s Got Talent television program to encouraging acclaim.
But Renshaw, Squire, Hausmann and Richberg were unshakably committed. Again, with no idea when the show could reopen, Squire, Renshaw and the rest began tweaking the material. Williams was drafted into writing thank you postcards for boosters.
“We’ve had time to refine,” Renshaw said. “Aurin has rewritten the script, but it’s rewrites done through knowledge of what he’s got, rather than major upheavals.… The orchestrations and vocal arrangements have improved massively. Both Anastasia and Michael enriched them in hindsight. So it’s kind of hindsight rewriting rather than the major structural changes.”
But artistic concerns aside, a key was money. Much of the $1.4 million production cost – nearly five times what Miami New Drama usually invests in a show – could not be recouped: the salaries and union guarantees were paid out, the rented sound and lighting equipment needed to enhance the existing infrastructure had been returned, most of the usual costs were lost, other than the set which was too expensive to dismantle and store somewhere.
So to resurrect the show, a huge re-investment would be needed. The company has been increasingly well funded from contributions and grants during its meteoric rise over five years with a current operating budget of nearly $5 million. But this was beyond its grasp.
Fortunately, fiscal angel Rodgers had never wavered in his desire to see the project become a reality. Over the years, Rodgers had made money catering to victims of Hurricane Andrew, invested in a children’s TV show Jelly Bean Jungle and said he even thrived in the stock market during the pandemic. So even at the start of the dark period in spring 2020, Rodgers foresaw the likely need and “put money aside.”
“I like to finish what I start,” Rodgers said.
And as vaccines became available and other encouraging signs surfaced, the team began to resurrect getting the production back on its feet.
Half the cast had found other jobs (an actress playing one of the wives is a now the alternate performing the role of Persephone in Hadestown on Broadway); some had simply quit the business for more reliable incomes. They all had to be replaced as well as most of the seven-member band. Understudies were hired to ensure that a positive COVID test did not shut down the show.
Rehearsals resumed Nov. 2. The first day featured a “director of social responsibility” to encourage the troupe to acknowledge what they had been through and adjust to returning to work under uncertain circumstances. “It really broke the ice. This wonderful company were talking very honestly about their hopes and fears, and …then it was like a family,” Renshaw said.
A key was making the newcomers feel welcome as they slipped into a show where many of the actors, all of the creative team and much of the support staff had already been involved in finalizing something that had been hours away from opening night.
At a recent rehearsal, the effort seemed to be working. When a featured dancer hammered through a complex tap routine – while wearing sneakers — his colleagues spread out across the auditorium stopped what they were doing and vigorously applauded.
Actors searched for increased inspiration drawn from the tragedies and lessons of the previous 20 months. Williams said the show “seems brand new now. Because now we have so much more to bring to it because of all that we’ve endured in these two years that passed. That’s a lot of stuff in …two years of not working, of not knowing what we’re doing next. And I’m talking about breathing, living, eating everything, the government.”
New Equity rules and the company’s own precautions against COVID were considerable. Nearly everyone wears masks when they aren’t on stage rehearsing, and sometimes even when they are rehearsing. Frequent testing is ubiquitous, even for visiting journalists. This is of some comfort to people like Williams, a self-confessed germaphobe.
As the journey approaches the milestone of opening night, everyone involved is optimistic that the odyssey will continue toward Times Square because most Broadway musicals these days have a similar origin in a regional theater. But many don’t make the transition, such as Actors’ Playhouse’s similarly targeted Havana Music Hall in 2018, which cost $2 million, and the Jimmy Buffett/ Herman Wouk Don’t Stop the Carnival at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1997.
But for the moment on this troubled journey, the artists like Williams feel their faith has been reaffirmed.
“We didn’t know when we were coming back, but we knew that we would. So here we are now.”
A Wonderful World from Miami New Drama, previews beginning Dec. 4, opening night is Dec. 11, playing through Jan. 16 at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach. Shows 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sundays, 1 p.m. Saturdays. Tickets $45-$85. Visit miaminewdrama.org or https://www.colonymb.org or call (305) 674-1040.