Being in the right place at the right time can really pay off. It was less than a year ago that Aurin Squire—playwright, reporter, and writer for television (This is Us, The Good Fight, Evil)—was in Miami for rehearsals. His play Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy was getting ready to have its world premiere at Miami New Drama. Inspiration hit during a conversation with the play’s director, Michel Hausmann, who is also the theatre’s artistic director, and novelist Andrew Delaplaine, who lives in Miami.
Delaplaine had an idea for a musical based on the life of jazz icon Louis Armstrong. And Hausmann and Squire—friends and colleagues from the days even before Hausmann had a name for the theatre that would become Miami New Drama—sparked to the idea. Though Squire was still completing work on The Good Fight from afar, and in the midst of world premiere, he got to work on A Wonderful World, which begins performances this week at Miami New Drama’s Colony Theatre (it runs March 5-April 5).
Squire had been inspired by Armstrong 10 years prior when he worked in the administrative office at New School for Jazz. During that time, he got a crash course in jazz history, and the man towering above it all was undeniably Armstrong. His musical genius, over a career that spanned five decades, made him a model for jazz musicians ever since. And his sensational rise to international superstardom as a Black man in the ’20s makes his story and achievements even more remarkable.
Enter Christopher Renshaw, a Drama Desk winner and Tony nominee who has helmed plays and musicals in London’s West End and on Broadway, most notably 1996’s Tony award-winning revival of The King and I, who just also happens to live in Miami Beach. It wasn’t long before Squire and Renshaw were in a hotel room on South Beach kicking around ideas.
Prime among those ideas was Armstrong’s fame itself.
“We’re in a great state of re-analyzing and looking again at our heroes,” Squire said. “Our culture is so celebrity-obsessed that the persona is almost as important as the art. I feel like Armstrong is an icon who traversed most of the 20th century and was the first great cultural icon. People all around knew Armstrong—his likeness, his smile, his hoarse voice. He was probably better known than the American president in a lot of countries. And this is an icon who is bigger than the man. We wanted to look at where the icon ends and where the complex, brilliant, hilarious, triumphant, conflicted man begins.”
Indeed when Renshaw was first approached with the idea, he worried that the subject was too big. “Then I read more and more about the man and was awestruck and delighted by his story. As a Brit, I discovered so much about the United States in the 20th century through Louis’s life. It was useful being an outsider to see things more clearly about Louis’s impact on the world. When I learned about Louis, the kind, vibrant, over-the-top, and strong man at the center of so much music we love, I found something to hang my hat on. I was ready.”
The first draft was completed in four to six weeks, taking inspiration from an observation Renshaw made: Armstrong had four wives and lived in four very different U.S. cities: New Orleans, Chicago, Hollywood, New York. The decision was made to link these to the four seasons of Amstrong’s life. Black women played such a huge and often unacknowledged role in Armstrong’s development as an artist and man that this focus seemed like a fresh and natural fit. “When I learned about Daisy, Lil, Alpha, and Lucille,” said Renshaw, “I felt compelled to tell their story and how they influenced Louis. This feels like the right moment to share these women’s stories.”
Featuring songs Armstrong made popular, the show is a sort of bio-musical, taking an in-depth look at the man who transformed jazz into a quintessentially American art form through decades of racial tension, including the Civil Rights era. Named after Armstrong’s hugely popular song “What a Wonderful World,” the new musical is also one of the most ambitious shows to date for Miami New Drama, whose goal is to make theatre in conversation with South Florida’s unique multicultural and multilingual community.
For Renshaw, a highlight of working on a Wonderful World has been its rapid development. “You either spend seven years on [a musical], or you do it in a year and a half. I’ve had huge support from Miami New Drama—whose theatre I can see from my window! It’s doubly exciting to have lived in Miami Beach for 12 years and now be finally working here as a director, and especially inside an interesting, diverse, and tantalizingly new theatre space, the Colony Theatre.”
As with most ambitious musical undertakings, the producers and creatives behind Wonderful World do have their sights set on a life beyond Miami. “I would love for this musical to travel to as many different places and interact with as many different people as Louis Armstrong did in his life,” said Squire, mentioning London, Broadway, regional theatres, and South Africa as possible future destinations. “He always saw the best in people, and people tended to see the best in him. I guess that I hope that A Wonderful World is able to represent his spirit and legacy.”