Playwright Loves Those 'Leading Ladies'
Ken Ludwig Talks About Law, Laughter and the 'Tribal Rite' of Theater
By Becca Bacon Martin
The Morning News, Northwest Arkansas
Ken Ludwig was hooked on theater from the moment he saw his first New York play -- and met legendary actor Cyril Richard backstage -- at age 6. But he took a circuitous path to becoming one of Broadway's most popular comedic playwrights.
"I got into Harvard Law, and my parents said, 'Well, think about it, there are pros and cons -- but if you don't go, we'll kill you,'" he says. "It wasn't a big choice."
In a phone interview from his Washington-area home, Ludwig is as easy and charming as his humor, which earned him two Tony Awards, four Drama Desk Awards and three Outer Critics Circle Awards for "Lend Me a Tenor" in 1989. This weekend, Rogers Little Theater presents a 2004 Ludwig comedy, "Leading Ladies," which is making its Arkansas premiere, and director Ed McClure says the play is "brilliant."
"It is so cool the way the play pays homage to Shakespeare," he says. "Mistaken identities, lovers engaged to others, hilarious secondary characters and love prevailing in the end! It is just like most of Shakespeare's comedies!"
That's no surprise after Ludwig starts recounting his inspirations: the Bard's "Twelfth Night," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Much Ado About Nothing"; George Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man," "The Devil's Disciple" and "Pygmalion"; "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde; Noel Coward's "Private Lives." Asked about the absence of mean-spirited humor in his work, Ludwig is pleased by the question.
"The way producers tend to say it is my shows have a lot of heart," he muses. "I write what I care about. I know that right now it's very hip to be edgy, very hip to be mean-spirited. We live in difficult times.
"I don't write about those things. They're not part of my world. I write plays I would want to see, write about worlds I love and would want to live in. Sometimes that's in fashion and sometimes it's not, but you can't worry about that. Write what's important to you."
Writing meant enough to Ludwig that he still managed to do it while he made law his day job.
"From the minute I got out of school, I got up at 4 o'clock every morning, took a shower, got into my jeans and wrote from 4:30 to 8:30," he recalls. "Then I'd change into my suit, and from 9 on, I worked at this law firm.
"Little by little, my plays started to catch on. They went from church basements to little, tiny theaters where I got paid $15 and a bagel, then off-off-off-off Broadway. Then one day, I met an English director..."
As the story goes, David Gilmore offered to show Ludwig's "Lend Me a Tenor" to a "producer friend" in England.
"I was really stupid, and I wanted to sound like a big shot, not some dumb hick," Ludwig remembers with a chuckle. "So I said, 'Oh, I don't know if you should. I do have some interest from some good producers here in the States.'"
The producer friend, Gilmore explained to Ludwig, was Andrew Lloyd Webber.
"Well, I said, 'OK, show it to him,'" he remembers. "Two days later Andrew called me and said he loved the play and wanted to put it on immediately. Trust me, I said yes; I wasn't that stupid! He had it up in (London's) West End six months later, it won all the awards, he produced it on Broadway, and it got me where I hoped to be all along."
"Leading Ladies," says Ludwig, draws heavily from the comedic legacy he has studied and enjoyed all his life.
"I love this play, and I'm delighted it's being done more and more all over the world," he says. "It's very much in the tradition of 'Lend Me a Tenor' and 'Moon Over Buffalo' -- that tradition that starts with 'Twelfth Night' and continues on up to Kaufman and Hart's 'You Can't Take It With You' -- a tradition of muscular comedy."
In Ludwig's words, "Leading Ladies" is about two British actors "so down on their luck they're doing scenes from Shakespeare at a Moose Lodge in Amish country," his own childhood stomping grounds. Jack and Leo hear about an old lady in York, Pa., who is about to die and leave her fortune to her two long-lost English nephews, and they resolve to pass themselves off as her beloved relatives and get the cash. The trouble is, when they get to York, they find out that the relatives aren't nephews, but nieces. They have a trunkful of costumes -- and hilarity ensues.
"It's very much 'Charlie's Aunt' meets 'Lend Me a Tenor,'" Ludwig says.
Even after a raft of successful plays -- including an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" that just premiered at The Alley Theatre in Houston -- Ludwig is still passionate about what he does. And he wants other people to get in on the act.
"Nothing can duplicate the experience of being in a live theater with live actors, sitting in an audience and enjoying the performance together," he says. "It's a tribal rite, a community experience. Things can go wrong, go right, but what really matters is that it's live. It's what I love best! Is there anything better?"