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Carol Burnett in Moon Over Buffalo on Broadway; PC: Joan Marcus

Articles

'Crazy for You': Broadway playwright Ken Ludwig, a York native, is hitting his stride

By Michael Long
Lancaster Sunday News

Published: Jun 03, 2006 11:34 PM EST
LANCASTER COUNTY, PA - When a wealthy producer called up Broadway playwright Ken Ludwig and asked him to write the show that would eventually become the Tony Award-winning musical “Crazy for You,” Ludwig turned him down.

Roger Horchow, a Texas multimillionaire and lifelong fan of George and Ira Gershwin’s music, had acquired the rights to a trunkful of their songs and was itching to stage an updated version of the Gershwins’ 1930 musical “Girl Crazy.”

Ludwig, who in 1990 had the only comedy hit on Broadway in “Lend Me a Tenor,” seemed to Horchow the obvious choice to write the show.

“So I listened to the offer,” Ludwig recalled in a telephone interview from his home in Washington, D.C. “[Horchow] called my home, and I was very flattered, and I said, ‘Thanks for the offer, but I have to say no because I don’t know how to write a musical; I write plays. I just don’t know how to do it.’

“And a week later, the phone rang and it was Roger again and he said, ‘You know, Ken, I think you’re making a mistake. I think this is a great opportunity, and you’re the perfect man to write this,’ ” Ludwig said, mimicking Horchow’s Texas drawl. “And I thought about it, and I talked to him about it and I finally got to the end of the conversation and said, ‘Roger, I hate to say this, but I don’t know what I’d be doing. I’d be fooling you. I’d be taking your money for nothing.’ ”

Not to be deterred, Horchow flew down to Washington to talk face-to-face with Ludwig, who finally relented.

“Crazy for You,” which opens Thursday at Fulton Opera House, premiered on Broadway in 1992 to wide critical acclaim, winning three Tony Awards including Best Musical. Ludwig’s reservations were for naught, and he learned a valuable lesson.

“I learned not to turn down good projects, to keep my mouth shut and say, ‘Yes, thank you.’ ”

Now Ludwig appears to be at the height of his powers, with new, high-profile projects literally showing up at his front door.

Representatives of the estate of “Our Town” playwright Thornton Wilder recently called up Ludwig and said they found a play of Wilder’s that he left half-finished at his desk and asked Ludwig to complete it.

This time Ludwig didn’t hesitate to say yes, and a few hours later on his doorstep landed a Wilder manuscript complete with scribbled margin notes and word balloons. The finished play, “The Beaux Stratagem,” opens at Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, D.C., in November.

And the projects keep coming. Ludwig will premiere three new plays in the next several months. By any standard, he is making a fine living as a playwright, which, as a young man growing up in York, his parents warned him might never happen.

When Ludwig was 6 years old, his parents took him to see a show in New York, and he’s been stagestruck ever since. As a student at York Suburban high school and later at Haverford College, Ludwig was the consummate young dramatist, writing and performing in plays and musicals.

A double-major in English and music theory and composition at Haverford, Ludwig was constantly involved in music and drama. His future appeared to be taking a definite direction when the unthinkable happened: Ludwig was accepted to Harvard Law School.

His parents adopted what most parents would consider a reasonable stance given the circumstances.

“I didn’t have much choice,” Ludwig said. “My parents said, ‘Look, how are you going to earn a living? You’ll never earn a living in the theater. So at least you’ll have this to fall back on.’ I thought there was some sense in that.”

So it was off to Harvard Law, where during his first year he met, of all people, legendary composer Leonard Bernstein, who was in residence.

Bernstein had thrown his doors open to any student who wanted to visit him, especially those students who wanted to show him their musical compositions. Ludwig’s senior thesis at Haverford had been a cycle of Shakespeare’s songs set to chamber music, and he took it to Bernstein, who took an interest in Ludwig.

“[Bernstein] said, ‘Hey, you don’t want to be going to law school, do you?’ And I said, ‘Well, not really.’ He said, ‘You continue in law school, but would you like to join the graduate seminar I’m doing in musical theater?’ So I did.”

Ludwig eventually graduated from Harvard with a doctorate degree in law, and when he left college, he realized his parents were right: He needed something to support himself.

So he moved to Washington to be near his brother and began writing plays by day and practicing law in the afternoons. Today, he remains Of Counsel with the D.C. law firm Steptoe & Johnson, but his renown is onstage, not in a courtroom.

Ludwig’s absolute success in the theater hasn’t lulled him into complacency. He still looks for new worlds to conquer as a playwright, still strives to improve his writing and still returns to his study day after day to churn out more pages.

“I’ve been so lucky. I love getting up in the morning and getting down to work. It’s just what I love to do most. “My dad always said to me, ‘If you wake up in the morning and you don’t look forward to going to work, something’s wrong.’ And I think that’s great advice.”

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