[Jeremy Daniel / Saenger Theatre]

"A Wonderful World" has a Friend in James Monroe Iglehart's Louis Armstrong

20:37 October 01, 2023
By: Robert Witkowski

"Louis Armstrong is such a different character to play because he was a real person with so much material—recordings, writings, film—so there's no character to draw from except the man himself," says James Monroe Iglehart who took to the Saenger Theatre stage as the jazz legend in A Wonderful World, A New Musical About The Life and Loves of Louis Armstrong in New Orleans for tonight's opening night, Sunday October 1. "And for all his celebrity, he was still considered a 'Down Cat.'"

The Broadway-bound musical making its debut this evening in Satchmo's hometown is more than a oeuvre of his works. The play charts the musician's life, success, and ultimate search for love and acceptance through the eyes of his four wives. This innovative approach from the play's creator and director Christopher Rensahaw helps contain what is a "massive story" into "the four seasons of his life through his four wives."

The King and his Queens

Iglehart (center) as Louis Armstong with his actress work wives, from left: Khalifa White, Jennie Harney-Fleming, Ta'Rea Campbell, and Brennyn Lark [courtesy Saenger Theatre / Jeremy Daniel]

Married for over 21 years to Dawn Phelps, Iglehart says "the fun part is watching Louis go from a young man in New Orleans who thinks he knows what he wants with Daisy Parker [played by Khalifa White], maturing to Lil Harding [Jennie Harney-Fleming], dating a much-younger woman in Alpha Smith [Brennyn Lark], until finding his match with Lucille Wilson [Ta'Rea Campbell]. I went through all these steps with one woman, so I can relate to all these steps in his life."

"Everything happens for a reason," Iglehart observes. "Lil Harding taught him how to read music and dress presentably for different occasions, and he became mature enough to find Lucille to say 'Let's do this.' With our five kids full-grown, my wife and I are in that place now."

Drawing on his experience as a husband has proven valuable as well in crafting this role as the show developed with Renshaw, who is unmarried.

"There'll be this scene with one of the wives, and I'd say 'A married couple wouldn't do that.'" Iglehart laughs. "Chris Renshaw would ask, 'Are you sure?' and I'd reply, 'I know what an angry wife sounds like!'"

Iglehart doesn't take his successful relationship for granted, however. The actor confides that while he is proud of his awards and accolades, "my biggest accomplishment is to have been a performer and have a family my entire career. They are all grown up now, and some have kids of their own."

However being a successful theatre parent has its pitfalls, too.

"They've become theatre snobs," he laughs. "If they like a show and I don't, they'll say 'Oh, Dad, you don't know theatre,' and I'll be like, 'What? I'm in theatre!'"

"A Wonderful World" world premiere in Miami [courtesy Miami New Drama Production]

Dream a Little Dream of Me

A Wonderful World has a rocky world premiere in Miami during the pandemic that almost killed the production entirely. The production's Broadway aspirations have largely kept alive by the faith and commitment of producers Tom Rogers and Vanessa Williams. But over the time and challenges since the 2021 Florida premiere required an evolution, including recasting many roles, including Louis Armstrong.

Iglegart captured the role of Louis Armstrong coming off of playing J-Soul in Freestyle Love Supreme. However, it was his Tony Award-winning turn as Genie in Disney's Aladdin on Broadway he is best known for with fans. Having won Best Featured Actor in a Musical, he is honored at being recognized for his playing such a memorable character created by comedian Robin Williams in the animated film.

"Winning the Tony meant a great deal to me, but more so because that character is so dear to my heart," Iglegart says. "I am a Disney geek, and Goofy and Genie are my favorites." Without being intimidated by the expectations by fans of the film—especially the kids in the audience—he just "embodied the role and put my own spin on it. And its still running ten years later."

He approaches the challenge of stepping into Satchmo's skin with a similar approach.

James Monroe Iglehart as Genie in Disney's "Aladdin" on Broadway [Disney]

All of Me

"I want to make sure the essence of the character is there as an African-American performer and put my own spin on it, and hope the audience digs what I do," Iglehart says. "But I need to trust the research and let the chips fall where they may."

Indeed, Iglehart immersed himself into all things Armstrong, reading everything he could, listening to the music, and studying film footage, including movies and TV appearances to emulate his mannerisms and the way he moved. He even learned how to play the trumpet for the role.

"I first learned to play the trumpet at ten years old but gave it up because it was to heavy," he says. "It's not easy, but my brain remembered what to do, so it's been a fun journey realizing how fun it is to get back into this." However he confesses, "I don't play the whole show. A very talented trumpet player will play the extended music."

In preparing for the role, Iglehart was surprised in discovering unexpected revelations he never knew.

"I realized there are two types of trumpet players: before Louis, and after Louis." he says. "It surprised me how good he truly was. His trumpet playing is still being studied today."

Louis Armstrong, 1947 [New York Sunday News / CC]

Beyond that, Iglehart is also struck by the personal intensity and privacy of the man as conveyed in his writings. "He was a prolific writer," he notes.

"People saw the entertainer. Most don't realize how smart, innovative, he was," he says. "He loved playing and spending time with fiends, but very private."

"Unlike rappers today who are who they are for all to see, he didn't share himself with America as a whole. He couldn't. America wasn't ready for the whole Louis. When he was older he began to show you little more of Louis—when I was working for Disney, I couldn't show my whole self," he says. "Many don't know how hard he worked for Civil Rights, but behind the scenes."

Autumn in New York

Much like Pops himself, A Wonderful World will leave for Chicago before looking for a home in New York. With the uncertainty of a theatre in Manhattan at this point, Iglehart will return to Manhattan as King Arthur in Spamalot when the show closes in Illinois.

Having played the role in a special Kennedy Center performance last February which spurred Spamalot's Broadway revival in November, Igleghart is excited to assume the throne.

"I make my own amalgam from my studies of King Arthur; Graham Chapman originating the role with Monty Python; being a Disney fan, I think of Arthur's character from Sword in the Stone," Iglehary explains, "but then, I'm a black man as the King of England—what does that look like? So, I add my spin through homages and having fun with it through that lens."

In the likely event A Wonderful World finds a home stage in New York, what of the Louis Armstrong role? Who would—who could— blow that horn to take audiences "way down yonder to New Orleans" after Iglehart has literally set the stage?

"No idea, but with my ego, I see no one else but myself," he intimates. "We'll see. I'll just have to cross that bridge when I come to it."

On the Sunny Side of the Street

Until he crosses the Crescent City Connection (or is it the Brooklyn Bridge?), James Monroe Iglehart will masterfully emulate the gravely voice of Louis Armstrong—in itself a tricky feat for a trained dancer and singer on Broadway.

"[Vocal teacher] Deric Rosenblatt helped me with the gravel without hurting myself. then I come home and shut it down to rest the vocal chords," Iglehart says. "I live like a hermit and don't talk to anyone with the exception of family. There's no leeway in playing around with that."

But that doesn't mean Iglehart is depriving himself of Armstrong's hometown. After leading the cast in a second line along Tremé to the Saegner Theatre when the company arrived, he embraces the city early in the mornings when its quieter.

James Monroe Iglehart (white tee shirt and parasol) leads the cast of "A Wodnerful World" in a second line down Rampart Street [Where Y'aytstaff]

"This city is not New York. It's not like anywhere else. New Orleans is specifically New Orleans," he says. "It has its own feel—a classy retro feel, yet present and up-to-date. It kept its history but has a 'today' feel. Everyone gets it. The music. The energy. This community is musical. When we did the second line, a worker came out of a gas staton as we went by, and she was dancing in the parking lot."

More than isolating himself to preserve his voice however, the well-known actor has made a bigger sacrifice—losing his moustache and beard. James Monroe Iglehart shaved off his trademark goatee (as noted by IMDB) to play Louis Armstrong.

"I've only shaved it off twice: once for The Wiz in 2009, and now, I admire Louis Armstrong and he didn't have any facial hair, so I did it for him," he says. "I'll grow it back, I promise you that!"

A Wonderful World runs through Sunday, October 8 at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans.

Read Where Y'at's interview with actress Khalifa White playing Daisy Parker

Read Where Y'at's interview with director Christopher Renshaw

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