Young musical with a horn

AUGUST is to Broadway what spring training is to baseball - a season for unreasonable hope. Every pre-Broadway production, trying out on a stage in Atlanta, Washington, or Boston, exists as pure promise, enjoying the privileged status of a new-born baby, presumed to be innocent, smart, and beautiful until proven otherwise.

In August, if a new musical on Napoleon - say, ``The Littlest Singing Corporal'' - were to be announced, with Sean Penn in the title role and Madonna as Josephine, even the critics would throw their tricornered hats in the air and cry, ``Magnifique!'' - a French superlative they picked up last season from ``Les Mis'erables.''

Why then, in the warm, theater-tolerant air of late summer, with everything else in the world to worry about, should one worry - sight unseen, of course - about ``Satchmo,'' self-described as a ``musical sensation celebrating the life and music of Louis Armstrong''?

The answer has nothing to do with the worthiness of the particular musical, but quite a lot to do with musicals in general, and with the ways Americans turn real-life people into show-biz personalities, on stage and off.

You have to start by asking an unfair question of those who witnessed Louis Armstrong's charming but deadly self-caricature in his later years - shuffling and chuckling and crumpling his famous handkerchief: Why would anybody want to see another actor do the same business? Why would anybody want to hear another musician growl the Satchmo voice and play the Satchmo notes?

The real problem is that Louis Armstrong was a genius of a minority art known as jazz, who did not believe himself that there was a large enough or knowledgeable enough audience to appreciate who and what he was; and so he converted himself into something less accomplished, something more simplified - a minstrel man, an entertainer.

The irony implicit in a Broadway musical about Louis Armstrong is that a Broadway musical is what life turned him into. Like more than one American artist - Ernest Hemingway is the obvious example - Louis became his own big production number.

The young Louis, playing in the '20s with his Hot Five or at most his Hot Seven, qualified as a founding father of an art that was chamber-size - certainly small enough to be intense - shaping its lines, now lyrical, now humorous, now angry, through the daredevil form of improvisation. When the last note blew, you had either pulled it all together or you hadn't. Louis with his broad, singing tone - and heart to match - did things nobody else at the time could keep up with, except maybe his pianist Earl Hines.

The virtues, the ambitions of a Broadway musical are about as far from jazz as you can get. The musical depends on rehearsal and big effects - a miscellany of effects, from dazzling costumes to technological sets. The musical is a kind of marvelous distraction. The one thing the musical does not trust is music.

If it belongs to anybody, the musical belongs to its choreographer. It is the ultimate statement of restless motion. A musical does not so much ``hear a song coming on''; it feels a dance coming on, everything building to the finale like a chase scene.

``Satchmo'' has taken music seriously enough to cast musicians as actors instead of vice versa - notably the Count Basie band's trumpet player Byron Stripling as Louis.

From ``West Side Story'' on - indeed from ``Porgy and Bess'' on - it has been demonstrated that the musical does not have to be the Dr. Feelgood of the arts, merchandising happy plots, happy songs, and happy feet.

And yet, and yet.... The musical depends so much on the values of youth and high energy that it tends to become its own myth - the national embodiment of an optimistic faith that one can sing and dance one's way through life on sheer physical exuberance.

It has been said that Americans confuse their history with their movies - especially good-guy, bad-guy westerns. How about musicals? There have been times when British foreign policy has played like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. There are times when United States foreign policy plays like an American musical - Jimmy Cagney in ``Yankee Doodle Dandy,'' wrapping himself in the flag for a show-stopping climax.

Well, that's a long way from Louis in his minstrel days, laying on a smile as wide as a chorus line and singing, ``Wrap your troubles in dreams, dream your troubles away.'' Or is it? Music, said Plato, is a form of propaganda.

``Satchmo'' may, in fact, turn out to say everything about Satchmo that needs to be said - extolling the virtues of the small, the intense, the pure, and yes, the bluesy as these things seldom get extolled in a culture where the general popularity of big-lavish-and-happy can lead a young cornet master astray to the high note of a safe success.

In August, one has the seasonal hope that ``Satchmo,'' in its final form, will tell all.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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