Terry Teachout Part Three

Mood Indigo a Duke Ellington Bio in Progress

By: - Sep 08, 2012

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Wall Street Journal drama critic, Terry Teachout, has written and produced an opera The Letter and a play Satchmo at the Waldorf. He has written two plays and another libretto since then but refuses to reveal details. We dscussed his next music bio Mood Indigo, about Duke Ellington, which he hopes to finish in January. He did admit that he had a multi character idea for a play that would not include Ellington.

This is the third installment of an extended dialogue with more to follow.

Charles Giuliano
Let’s talk about Terry. You were a jazz musician.

Terry Teachout I was.  I gigged on bass and played several instruments. In the world of jazz I was a bassist.

CG You were that. You’ve written a book on Balanchine (“All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine,” 2005)

TT A brief life of Balanchine.

CG You have covered dance and classical music.

TT My first book was a biography of H. L. Mencken (September 12, 1880 - January 29, 1956, was a journalist, essayist, magazine editor, satirist, critic of American life and culture, and a scholar of American English.) I’m an art collector and I’m interested in all of the arts. I write about all of the arts.

CG Now you’ve gone from covering theatre to writing for theatre.

TT Both a play and an opera.

CG How has writing a play changed you? Now, when you sit in the theatre, do you think differently having spent time in the rehearsal room?

TT Some. But I had done a lot of theatre in high school and college. So I wasn’t completely ignorant of the process. What I had never done was working with professionals on the making of theatre. Not till I wrote our first opera libretto. That was the first time I ever saw a professional director stage a show. The Letter is a musical version of W. Somerset Maugham’s play (based on a short story in his 1926 collection The Casuarina Tree) which was filmed with Bette Davis in 1940. If you ever saw the movie that’s our opera. It was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera.

CG With music by?

TT Paul Moravec (It premiered on 25 July 2009). He won the Pulitzer Prize six or seven years ago. Interestingly enough for a piece called Tempest Fantasy inspired by the play The Tempest. We have since written another opera called Danse Russe which is a back stage comedy about the making of the Rite of Spring. It premiered last year in Philadelphia. We have other plans if somebody will write the check.

CG You said that you have written two other plays.

TT Yes, two plays since Satchmo at the Waldorf.

CG What are they about?

TT I don’t want to say. I haven’t done anything with them yet because I’ve been too busy.

CG Are they jazz related?

TT They are nothing like this play and that’s all I’ll tell you.

CG You’re working on Mood Indigo (a biography of Duke Ellington, April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974). That’s what you were doing this summer at the MacDowell Colony. (In Peterborough, New Hampshire, founded in 1907 by Marian MacDowell, pianist and wife of composer Edward MacDowell. She established the institution and its endowment chiefly with donated funds.)

TT I wrote 60,000 words of it this summer. It’s about three quarters done now and I expect to finish it in January. (During time at Rollins College?)

CG Then can we hope for a play?

TT You know, when I was at MacDowell, an idea for an Ellington related play came to me. He himself does not appear and it is not a one character play. I don’t want to say more than that.

CG What about Billy Strayhorn? (November 29, 1915 – May 31, 1967 a composer, pianist and arranger, best known for his successful collaboration with Ellington lasting nearly three decades. His compositions include "Take the 'A' Train," "Chelsea Bridge," and "Lush Life.")

TT Strayhorn is not in this play but he is very prominently in Mood Indigo. There is an entire chapter about him.

CG Did you see the PBS Strayhorn documentary? (Billy Strayhorn; Lush Life, 2006,  Robert S. Levi wrote and directed the Emmy Award-winning documentary.)

TT Oh yeah.

CG It was wonderful.

TT One of the reasons to write a biography of Ellington is because we now know more about him than any previous biographer did. The biggest question is about Strayhorn. We now know exactly who wrote what. A lot of people who thought they knew are looking a little silly today.

CG How did that come about?

TT A Dutch musicologist inspected the manuscripts page by page. He wrote a book which is a distillation of his research. (Something To Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn by Walter van de Leur, Oxford University Press.) Because of van de Leur and some other scholars we now know what Ellington wrote and what Strayhorn wrote. It’s not true that Billy Strayhorn wrote all of Ellington’s best music. But it is true that Strayhorn’s involvement in Ellington’s music is much more extensive than anyone realized after he joined the band in 1939. Increasingly, in Ellington’s later years, up to his own death (1967). The Ellington book will be longer than the Armstrong book because there are more people in it including Strayhorn and members of the band. I figure it will be fifteen to twenty percent longer than the Armstrong book. It will be written along the same lines.

CG My uncle Fred Giuliano owned a record store and I sometimes worked for him on Saturdays. In 1954, when I was 14, for Christmas he gave me my first two jazz albums. One, still a favorite, was Louis Armstrong Plays the Music of W.C. Handy. The other was The Music of Duke Ellington Played by Duke Ellington (1954). Both were pioneering 12” LPs produced by George Avakian for Columbia Records. I wore the grooves out on both albums. Right around that time the first  live jazz I heard was Duke Ellington at George Wein’s Storyville in Copley Square. Another uncle, Jim Flynn, was a lifetime Ellington fan and he took my sister and me to hear the band. Between sets he introduced me to Duke who in later years I got to interview. 

TT Again, lucky you. That band was all over the place. On any night you could never tell how they would be. After the mid to late 1940s they became erratic. When they were on they were on. I didn’t expect to write two books in a row about jazz. Or any other single subject.

CG What about all of Ellington’s suites? It started with Black, Brown and Beige (a jazz symphony written by Ellington for his first concert at Carnegie Hall, on 23 January, 1943). There are others Festival Suite, Far East Suite, Such Sweet Thunder, A Drum is a Woman, Liberian Suite. My favorite is Liberian Suite with “I Like the Sunrise” by Al Hibbler.

TT That was ’47 or ’48. I think his composing powers declined as he grew older.

CG The Nutcracker and Peer Gynt Suites.

TT Those were mostly Strayhorn’s work. Strayhorn wasn’t credited on the suites until Such Sweet Thunder. That’s where it started (1957). He wrote part of Black, Brown and Beige. He wrote the coda of Harlem.

CG Harlem Air Shaft?

TT No Harlem the extended piece (1950). The fact that Strayhorn’s contributions to the band were not consistently credited in the 1940s was a major point of contention between he and Ellington.

CG He thought of him as an employee.

TT No, he didn’t. Ellington knew what Strayhorn was and how gifted he was. Strayhorn didn’t want to be out front because he was homosexual. He wanted to lead his life without being a band leader and thus in the spotlight. They collaborated closely and well. He was quite lavishly compensated. Ellington paid him to do a lot less work than Ellington did because he valued his contributions. But the price that Strayhorn paid was that Ellington was the guy who everyone knew about. When they began to write the suites together, and Strayhorn was not credited for them, who wrote what? If you look at the contemporary reviews Ellington always gets the lion’s share of the credit. Often, specifically, for pieces that we now know were entirely written by Strayhorn. This is one of the things that my book will focus on.

Ellington is like Orson Welles. He’s a great genius, and a great editor, and I think a great composer. But he did like you to think that he did it all himself. He always used that royal we in conversation. People who use the royal we mean me. I don’t want to take anything away from Ellington’s genius. He was a genius but he didn’t do it all himself.

CG Terry are you a genius?

TT No. (emphatic and clipped)

CG Consider all those hats you wear.

TT I’m versatile. I’m a dilettante. I’m a person who professionalizes his hobbies.

CG Are you being coy or understated?

TT No, look, I know what a genius is. A genius is Duke Ellington. A genius is George Balanchine. A genius is Louis Armstrong. I’m a bright guy who has a systematic mind and knows how to make the most of the talents he has. I’m not afraid to try things.

CG Are you restless?

TT No, but I bore easily. It’s not quite the same thing.

CG Do you have ADD?

TT I just get bored easily when people are being boring. (Both laugh)

CG That’s a significant qualification for a theatre critic as I am sure you see a lot of boring theatre.

TT I sure do.

CG How do you endure that?

TT Some nights are easier than others.

CG Do you look at your watch? Do you feel your ass?

TT Do you know the story about Harry Cohn? When he was running Columbia Studios he used to say “You know how I can tell if a movie is going to be any good or not? I go see the rushes. If I start squirming in my seat I know there’s something wrong.” Herman Mankiewicz, the guy who really wrote Citzen Kane, heard this story and said “Imagine the whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass.” Even though that was a very clever line, the truth is, that Cohn was right and Mankiewicz was wrong. If you become physically restless in a performance there’s something wrong. That’s when you start to try to figure out what it is. It’s the first sign that something is amiss.

CG When do you start writing your reviews?

TT It depends. Three hours before the deadline.

CG When I was writing for the daily Herald Traveler we had midnight deadlines. You never stayed for encores hitting the aisle and racing for your car. You were writing the lead in your head on the drive to the paper.

TT During my first work as a critic, which was back in the late 1970s, in Kansas City (Star) was as a music critic. In that first year I was writing for over night.

CG It’s a great discipline.

TT It is. It was terrifying and wonderful. Of course nobody does that anymore.

CG What a pity.

TT It is and it isn’t. It’s good to have done it. It’s good to know how to do it. I can do whatever I have to do. But I really don’t like to write on that deadline. I like to sleep on it. What I saw. At the very least.

CG Do you write next day?

TT If I’m in a departure lounge (at an airport) probably not.

CG I try to write while it’s fresh. The longer I wait the more I lose.

TT I have not found this to be the case. It’s just the way different people’s minds work. I take illegible notes which I never consult. It’s like an act of faith. I find that when I sit down to write the piece, as I did this morning, I just wrote a review of French Without Tears (a comic play written by Terence Rattigan in 1936) everything comes back.

CG So you have good recall.

TT Very good recall. That makes what I do a lot easier.

CG What kind of details do you retain? Reading different critics some focus on the performers, others discuss the director, some include the costumes, light, sound, and set design.

It depends on the show.

CG  Do you see everything?

TT I don’t see costumes. When the lights go down you try to be completely present and put away all of your preconceptions about the show. And see what you’re seeing instead of what you expect to see. I think that I do that well. I do not write well about costumes because I do not understand clothes. (CG laughs) My wife laughs about this all the time.

CG How do you feel about knowing the people you write about? Or having relationships with theatre companies.

TT I have very few such relationships in New York. I have more relationships with regional companies because in some cases I am coming back several years in a row. You just get to know people that way.

CG Do you hang out?

TT Very infrequently. There are half a dozen people in regional theatre whom I would describe as friends. But I do not feel the way that the New York Times does, institutionally, that their critics should have no connection to the world of the art form they write about. You shouldn’t know anybody. I think that’s like being the eunuch in the harem.

CG Frank Rich gave an interview/ lecture here (at the Colonial Theatre) in which he described studiously avoiding any relationships in the theatre world. He said that there was one exception. Stephen Sondheim.

TT Yes. Well, I would say that he learned a lot from Stephen Sondheim. I have learned a lot from all of the people I have casual dealings with. And that small number of friends. The Journal expects me not to fraternize and not write about people to whom I have close personal ties.

CG Do you do interviews and features?

TT No. It’s sad in a way. I love writing interviews. If you’re a working performance critic, ideally, you shouldn’t be writing that kind of piece about people you are covering. It just gets too complicated.

CG Ok. I understand that. But the artist is the primary source. There is such an incredible body of information to be had. To divorce yourself from that is to put yourself out of a learning curve.

TT I know. I agree with you. The main reason I don’t do interviews is because I don’t have time to anymore. I’m always looking for opportunities to talk to people about what they do.

CG If you had the chance to talk to Sondheim would you?

TT Sure. It’s never come up. Fortunately, Sondheim has unfolded himself pretty extensively in interviews, in a very candid biography, and the two new books about the lyrics and in the very good book “Sondheim on Music.” He is interviewed at length by somebody who has considerable technical knowledge of music. It’s enormously illuminating. If I had a chance to meet and talk to him I would.

CG Who are the immortals today? Those individuals who, given the opportunity, you would love to talk with?

Kenneth Lonergan (born October 16, 1962). He’s both a playwright and  screenwriter of supreme gifts. I would really like to sit down with him and talk about what he does. Lynn Nottage (born 1964) is a playwright whom I admire enormously. The play she really hit with is Ruined a play about sexual persecution in Africa. She’s a black playwright whom I think is astonishingly gifted. Whenever people say to me “Who are the playwrights that interest you the most?” she’s one. Tom Stoppard obviously. Brian Friel (born 9 January 1929) is the greatest living playwright writing in English anywhere. There’s a new playwright, a young gal, I think she’s at Yale named Amy Herzog. She’s someone I’m really interested in now. She just went on the list of people who’s work I will travel to see. That’s the category number one. I flew to Chicago to see a play of her's that I missed in New York. When I found out how great she was. Or promising I should say.

CG Did you see Iceman Cometh in Chicago?

TT Sure did. I reviewed it but didn’t say a word about John (Douglas Thompson starring in Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf). We had a top level discussion about this at The Journal. I don’t have a backup. This is an important production. I said “Guys, what should we do?” My editors discussed it and said you should go and review it but you cannot mention John in the review. So I didn’t. Thus making me the only critic who didn’t mention what a brilliant performance he gave.

CG Do you now have to pass on covering Thompson?

TT For a stated period of time. As well as this company (Shakespeare & Company) Long Wharf and any production directed by Gordon (Edelstein who is directing Satchmo). And, as far as the design team goes, I can’t talk about their work during this period of time. We developed this policy, not for this play, but for my first opera. Because it was directed by Jonathan Kent who is a very distinguished British theatre director. It was designed by Hildegard Behrens, costumes were designed by Tom Ford. I was very transparent with the Journal. I said I may be writing an opera. It may be commissioned by a major opera company and we have to figure out what to do. Because there’s no precedence for this. The last time any working New York critic wrote a play that got to Broadway was 1950. That was Wolcott Gibbs of the New Yorker (March 15, 1902 - August 16, 1958). He wrote a comedy called Season in the Sun directed by Burgess Meredith. It had a very respectable run for that time.

CG What chance does Satchmo have?  

TT I have no idea.

Teachout One

Teachout Two

Teachout Part Four

Teachout Part Five