Starlets, Scandal, and Shakespeare: Haverford Alum's Play Brings the Bard to the Backlots of Hollywood by Brena McBride
German theater director Max Reinhardt knew he had a challenge on his hands when he helmed a film version of Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with an all-star cast including Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, James Cagney, and Mickey Rooney. But if last-minute injuries, a studio head’s dizzily dopey mistress, and the oppressive shadow of the Hays Office Production Code weren’t enough trouble, there’s the real Oberon and Puck, bluffing their way onto the set and wreaking familiar romantic havoc among the cast and crew.
Shakespeare in Hollywood is a festival of mistaken identity, unrequited love, chaos, and confusion recalling the days of the great “screwball comedies,” and is the latest work by prolific playwright Ken Ludwig ’72, author of the Tony-nominated Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twentieth Century, and Crazy for You, which won the 1992 Tony for Best Musical. The rollicking, literate comedy had its Philadelphia premiere at the Wilma Theatre in December.
Shakespeare in Hollywood was created when London’s famed Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned Ludwig to write a comedy. Originally, he had a different Bard-centered theme in mind, but it was already being used in a future play. “Overnight,” he says, “I had to come up with a new idea.” Because Ludwig often wrote about backstage antics in theater and the movies, he decided to set the play behind the scenes during the filming of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1935.
At first, Ludwig knew next to nothing about the film except that it existed. He did some research and unearthed biographical information on Reinhardt, the story of Mickey Rooney’s (Puck) broken leg (which, in the play, allows the real Puck to temporarily take over), the objections raised by the Hays Office, and the peculiar politics and topsy-turvy relationships that defined Hollywood in the ‘30s. It was a tale ripe for the telling.
Shakespeare in Hollywood took six months to research and write, which is a typical time frame for Ludwig: “I usually complete one new project a year.” The play premiered at Washington’s Arena Theatre in September 2003, and won the 2004 Helen Hayes Award for Best New Play. Ludwig hopes to make the Broadway move in the near future.
The play speaks to Ludwig’s deep and abiding affection for all things Bard. His first exposure came by way of his parents’ Hamlet album, starring Richard Burton. “I listened to it again and again,” he says. “I was drawn to the drama of the world.” At Haverford, where he majored in English and music composition, Ludwig felt fortunate to study Shakespeare under former English professor Ralph Sargent. “He was a great scholar, a great man, with a broad, civilizing overview of the work,” he says.
Ludwig has several new projects simmering on the front burner. A play called Be My Baby, starring Hal Holbrook and Dixie Carter, premiered at Houston’s Alley Theatre this fall: An older couple travels 6,000 miles to take an infant to her new adoptive parents in Scotland, but in the process, they fall in love with each other—and the baby. One of his latest plays, Leading Ladies, was a hit in Washington and Houston and is now headed for Broadway. The estate of Thornton Wilder has asked Ludwig to complete the late author’s adaptation of a Restoration-era play, The Beaux’ Stratagem, which will have its world premiere next fall. He is also adapting Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island for the stage, the estate of George Gershwin has requested a theater version of the Gene Kelly classic An American in Paris, and he has been commissioned by the Old Vic Theatre in Bristol, England, to write a show for next Christmas.
What’s especially impressive about Ludwig’s success is that he never took a class in playwriting or theater, not even at Haverford, although he did write music and lyrics for Class Night skits and directed a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
While working as a corporate attorney in Washington, he taught himself to write plays by attending and reading as many as he could. “When I teach courses in theater and writing,” he says, “I tell my students to read and keep their eyes open, and not get caught up in technical jargon.” It’s sound advice of which even Shakespeare would approve.
— Brenna McBride