Caldwell changes 'Tenor' with latest show
By Hap Erstein
Palm Beach Post Theater Writer
Saturday, July 14, 2007
A funny thing happened to a farce by Broadway's Ken Ludwig about 18th-century theater impresario David Garrick, the Stratford Jubilee of 1769 and a case of backstage mistaken identity.
"I figured out that it probably was not the most commercial idea I've ever had," says the former entertainment lawyer-turned-playwright, speaking by phone from his home in the well-heeled Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. "So I rewrote it and the result was Lend Me a Tenor," the long-running, Tony Award-winning comedy from 1989, which kicks off the summer season at Boca Raton's Caldwell Theatre on Wednesday evening.
Ludwig updated the idea, at least to 1934, and set it instead in Cleveland, as improbable a town as any for a world-famous opera tenor named Tito Merelli to come for a benefit gala. But when Merelli shows up too ill to go on, a timid underling of the local impresario has to find the courage to fulfill his dream of performing, passing himself off as the opera star disguised in Otello blackface.
"Courage is very much the theme," concedes Ludwig, who had to find that quality in himself to quit his lucrative day job and devote his life full-time to writing comedy. "You could say that Lend Me A Tenor is really my story, but I didn't know that at the time I was writing it," he says. "Someone pointed it out to me much later and sheepishly I had to admit, 'You know, you're right.'
"It's not treated seriously, but at its heart, it is a serious story," says Ludwig, 55. "This guy, Max, desperately wants to be taken seriously, wants to achieve things. He thinks there's more to himself than meets the eye and then, through a series of circumstances he finally gets the chance to prove it."
Although it is a very American story, Lend Me a Tenor premiered in London three years before it landed on Broadway, when a copy of the script made its way to Andrew Lloyd Webber. The wildly successful stage composer insisted on producing the comedy and, in fact, it was his lyricist colleague Richard Stilgoe who came up with the play's title — a pun on the slang term for a 10-pound note.
Ludwig's original title for his play was Opera Buffo, the term for comic opera. But Lloyd Webber talked him out of it. "As he said, and he was quite adamant about it, 'No one will come to a show with "opera" in the title,' " Ludwig recalls. Yes, about that time, the composer was working on a trifle called Phantom of the Opera, which went on to defy that show business caveat.
Ludwig went on to write the book to Crazy for You, the 1992 Tony Award-winning musical built around existing songs by George and Ira Gershwin. The story concerns the son of a banker who needs the courage to follow his dream and become a song-and-dance man. OK, so it is Ludwig's story all over again. The show proved so lucrative for the Gershwins' estates that they have come back to him to adapt the 1951 Oscar-winning movie An American in Paris for the stage.
With two other comedies — Shakespeare in Hollywood and Leading Ladies — trying out on the regional theater circuit, inching their way to Broadway, Ludwig is pretty confident that his days as a lawyer are behind him.
"The best thing I ever did was quit my job so I could write full-time," he says. "The last time I looked, Lend Me a Tenor had played in more than 30 countries around the world and it gets maybe 150 to 200 productions a year in the United States."