A Yankee In The Court of King Louis - The London Times
The London Times – December 4, 2006 - Times2
When the American playwright Ken Ludwig opens his adaptation of The Three Musketeers in Bristol tomorrow, it will be just one of half a dozen premieres that he’s chalked up in 12 months.
The purveyor of light comedy to Middle America, Ludwig is a one-man comedy factory. There is hardly a regional theatre in America that hasn’t a work of his scheduled. Yet his spiritual home is England. He is such an Anglophile that you wonder that he hasn’t moved his family from Washington to Belgravia and hired a butler. He worships Wodehouse and Coward and keeps Donald Sinden’s autobiography by his bed.
Hitherto his shows — such as Lend Me a Tenor and Crazy for You — were hits in London and on Broadway. So how come he is now in Bristol? “The RSC commissioned from me a play called Shakespeare in Hollywood. Simon Reade was the literary manager there at the time, which is how we met and became good friends. Then he came to Bristol [as artistic director] and we kept in touch socially”.
The Three Musketeers is the result — a perfect piece “for a provincial theatre”, he says, unaware that these days you have to say “regional”. “I never knew that. But, hey, I read the memoirs of Donald Sinden — that’s where I get all my lingo,” he laughs.
Ludwig hails from York, Pennsylvania. He trained to be a lawyer, but for years he scribbled from 4.30am until it was time to go to work. “I probably wanted to be George S. Kaufman and Noël Coward rolled into one,” he says. By the late 1980s he’d quit the law, finding that he could keep the family afloat by writing.
His first musical play, Sullivan and Gilbert, was seen by the British director David Gilmore. “He asked me what I had written lately — I said Lend Me a Tenor, a comedy. Two days later he rang and said: ‘I love this play and I’d like to show it to a producer friend.’ With the stupidity of youth — and I wasn’t that young, so maybe it was just stupidity — I asked who this producer friend was. ‘He’s Andrew Lloyd Webber.’ He had to scrape me off the floor.”
Lloyd Webber was “unbelievably kind” but wouldn’t let him call it by its original title — Opera Buffa — claiming that no one would go to see a play with “opera” in the title. The truth was that at the time he was working on a little thing called Phantom of the Opera and didn’t want any confusion.
Suddenly Ludwig found himself in a life-changing big league. His next show, Crazy for You (a reworking of Gershwin’s Girl Crazy), stormed both New York and London, where it ran for three years. The Gershwin estate has wanted a follow-up ever since. “There has always been a special thing in the Gershwin family about using the title An American In Paris because people know it. They approached me and I’ve now completed a backstage comedy about the making of the movie. It opens in Houston in 2007 and then hopefully it will tour and possibly go to New York. It may even come here first.”
It’s probably fair to say that audiences and stars are attracted to Ludwig’s work more than critics are. His recent stage version in New York of the 1934 screwball movie Twentieth Century was accused of elephantism by reviewers. His last West End show, Over the Moon, starring Joan Collins, died of its wounds.
But Ludwig remains wedded to the business. He has just opened in Washington his version of an unfinished version of The Beaux’ Stratagem by the late American master Thornton Wilder. “Out of the blue Tappy Thornton [the estate’s literary executor] called me and asked if I’d be interested in this half-finished piece by Uncle Thornton. I wrote the second half and worked on the first.” But whose work is it really? “It’s billed as The Beaux’ Stratagem by George Farquhar as adapted by Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig. So I’m in good company.”
Ludwig clearly feels uninhibited when adapting someone else’s work. Of The Three Musketeers he says: “The Dumas book is rubbish. But within it he created these amazing characters. But it’s all boys. I thought: ‘What if D’Artagnan had a younger sister?’ Someone who was cheeky — gets into mischief and so on.”
Apart from the invented female character of Sabine, the Ludwig version promises traditional amounts of swordplay and shouty populism. “When they hear ‘all for one’, the kids are going to chime ‘and one for all’. That’s the real reason why I wanted to do it. It works gangbusters in rehearsals,” he says suddenly sounding very American.
May we, however, put him down as an honorary Brit? “Thank you,” he says. “I couldn’t be happier if you did.”
BE A SWASHBUCKLER IN FIVE EASY STEPS
Richard Ryan, the fight director of The Three Musketeers, gives a hero’s guide to swordplay
1. Have fun “Classic swashbucklers all have the quality of fighting for their lives but enjoying every minute of it. Show panache, bravado and brio.”
2. Get high “Stand to your full height and take your space. Put your best foot forward. Be confident without being arrogant.”
3. Use the furniture “A big curved staircase to fight on, is ideal. Make full use of the wall and the bannister. After that, you can fight on a long wooden table, knocking over a candelabra. Slide down a curtain. Use low lighting so shadows appear on the wall as you fight.”
4. Keep talking “Lock swords with your opponent. It gives you time to get out some plot points and lets the villain deliver some snarling one-liners.”
5. Be a good chap “If you’re a swashbuckler you believe in fair play and honour. You help the underdog. Patrick Crean, Errol Flynn’s stunt double, had a word for it: ‘Za!’ It means stand up, be balanced, be brave.”
The Three Musketeers opens at Bristol Old Vic (0117-987 7877) tomorrow and runs until Jan 20
Copyright: The London Times