On cultural excursions that go beyond the usual routes in Bronzeville, tour guide and historian Shermann “Dilla” Thomas often takes the Chicago Mahogany Tours bus to 421 E. 44th St. He pulls up in front of a townhouse at .
“This is a private residence now,” he told a group recently as everyone looked across the street, “but it was also Louis Armstrong’s home.”
Louis Daniel Armstrong, who went by various nicknames including “Satchmo”, “Satch” and “Pops”, has been dead for more than 50 years and only lived in Bronzeville for about seven years before escaping to the shores. But this period in a thriving small town in the 1920s was an extremely productive time for trumpeters, vocalists and eventually world-class celebrities.
Armstrong played in Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band at Lincoln Gardens at 459 E. 31st St. He made his first studio recordings with Oliver in Richmond, Indiana. And Armstrong met and married his famous second wife, pianist and bandleader Lil Hardin, who vowed to “ride the country out of him” and by all accounts was successful in doing so. With Chicago.
Armstrong’s years in Chicago also explain the presence this week of beloved Broadway star James Monroe Iglehart, best known for his role as the Genie in Disney’s original 2014 Broadway production of “Aladdin,” at a cafe on Randolph Street. A. success of power It’s an acting that somehow manages to pay homage to Robin Williams’ vocal performance in the animated film and physicalizes it as if it were entirely his own.
Like the man he’s here to celebrate, Iglehart just arrived from New Orleans on Wednesday to play Satchmo in the new musical “A Wonderful World,” which opens Friday at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theater in a production with Broadway in the spotlight. He was ready to play. .
The show was first performed in New Orleans, the cradle of jazz, where Armstrong was born and raised. “They were so happy for us to be there and play,” says Iglehart, who didn’t have time to put down her bags and look out the window at Randolph Street.
“These are cities that were very important to Louis Armstrong,” he says, looking at the pavement as people walk. “And I know a lot of Broadway shows come here first.”
“Wonderful World” is essentially a biographical musical, but it has an unusual structure consisting of the multiple marriages of its subject. “We tell the story of Louis Armstrong through each of his four wives,” says Iglehart. “It took him a long time to understand himself. And he had a wandering eye.
Famously so. Satchmo is known to have had hundreds of relationships. Marriage-wise, he was committed to Daisy Parker (“He met her when he was 17,” says Iglehart, “and who knows anything about marriage at that age?”), Hardin, Alpha Smith, and then his most successful match, Lucille Wilson. . As Iglehart says, the series uses these spouses to depict four different stages of Armstrong’s life; from youthful lack of self-awareness to power struggles and creative explorations with strong, artistic women and the eventual discovery of a loving soulmate. (According to the jukebox rules of Broadway musicals about male stars, last marriages tend to work better.)
The show features a live stage orchestra. (Iglehart plays some live, but there’s also a trumpet-playing dubber on stage.) The film also stars Ta’Rea Campbell as Wilson, Jennie Harney-Fleming as Hardin, Brennyn Lark as Smith, and Khalifa White as Parker. Conceived and directed by Christopher Renshaw, the work features many of Armstrong’s greatest hits, including the iconic “Wonderful World” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” (“Hello, Dolly” is again famously associated with Armstrong, but it’s not there yet, at least because it comes from a separate Broadway show due to rights issues.) But considering the length of Armstrong’s career, there’s no shortage of material.
But Iglehart says Armstrong’s relationship to racial issues is also on the table here; Of course, Armstrong was seen by some as overly subservient to the racist entertainment culture that dominated much of his success period. “I think when you see him standing next to Danny Kaye or Bing Crosby, he was playing a character in a lot of ways,” Iglehart says. This sounds familiar to me as an African American artist. There were some moments in his life when America finally discovered that Louis Armstrong was, in fact, Black. Although he was criticized during the civil rights movement, he supported the movement. “He did it his own way.”
“Wonderful World” is produced by Thomas E. Rodgers, Jr., Renee Rodgers, Andrew Delaplaine, Liz Curtis and Martian Entertainment (Carl D. White and Gregory Rae) and recently added Vanessa Williams to the production team.
In a phone interview, Williams said he was very creatively involved in the production and planned to be at the theater in Chicago on opening night. “I love diving into the script,” she said. “It was amazing to have a voice and see my ideas and suggestions come to life.” Williams’s hands-on presence helped bring others on board the project, including Wynton Marsalis, who is generally considered a key keeper of Armstrong’s artistic fire.
Williams also said “Wonderful World,” which has its origins in a separate Miami production with a different cast, is now searching for the right Broadway theater and is competing with many other new musicals for the limited inventory of Broadway homes.
This situation is complicated by the fact that Iglehart is also set to star as King Arthur in the upcoming Broadway revival of “Spamalot” (he said he has a crazy schedule right now, performing in one show and rehearsing another), but it seems like one possible outcome here: “ Wonderful World” will debut in the 2024-25 Broadway season with Iglehart returning to the show.
“I put a lot of effort into Louis Armstrong,” Iglehart said, grinning like Satchmo. “I’d like to go back to it.”
“It’s a Wonderful World” through Oct. 29 at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.; 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.