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December 2009 Archives

December 18, 2009

Lend Me A Tenor on Broadway & the Music Box Theatre

LMAT_Poster%2Cjpg.pngLend Me A Tenor is going to be revived on Broadway this spring and of course I’m thrilled about it. This revival has been in the works since the summer, when the producers first got in touch with me. The conversation went something like this: “Hey, Ken. It’s Matthew. The guys and I would like to produce a Broadway revival of Lend Me A Tenor with Stanley Tucci directing. We’re thinking about Tony Shaloub for Saunders. Do you have any interest?”

“Well, let’s see now …”

I’ve been wanting to talk about it here in the blog, but I’ve been waiting dutifully for the official announcement. Well, it’s now official, so please read the press release on the home page of this site. Party hats are welcome.

Stanlely Tucci is indeed the director, and Stan and I have been casting the show for a couple of months now. We’re all crazy about the casting, as well as the creative team, and we can’t wait to go into rehearsal.

Tony Shaloub is onboard (last week he finished his 8th season as Monk and my family and I were glued to the series finale); and the rest of the cast includes Anthony LaPaglia, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Mary Catherine Garrison, Jan Maxwell, Brooke Adams and Jay Klaitz. The creative team includes Ken Posner, John Lee Beatty, Martin Pakledinaz and Peter Hylenski. I’ve worked with Kenny and John Lee in the past, but everybody else is new to me – and I’m very psyched.

One of the biggest thrills about the show for me is that we’ll be in The Music Box Theatre. I’m always excited by the histories of the theatres where my shows are put on, and the history of The Music Box is pretty breathtaking:

It was built in 1921 by Irving Berlin and Sam Harris especially for Berlin’s Music Box Revues. Since then, it has housed the original productions of Dinner at Eight, Stage Door, The Man Who Came To Dinner, Bus Stop, Picnic and The Homecoming, to say nothing of The Male Animal (a favorite of mine since I appeared in it in high school), The Pleasure of his Company (which starred one of my favorite actor/directors of all time, Cyril Ritchard), Sleuth, Deathtrap, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Set To Music and Of Thee I Sing.

So I’ll be tramping around the same stage where Noel Coward, George S. Kaufman, William Inge, Harold Pinter and George and Ira Gershwin tramped before me. Be still my heart.

So please mark your calendars and please come. Performances start March 13th.

December 7, 2009

The Genesis of Shakespeare in Hollywood

Seeing my dear friend Simon Reade just before Thanksgiving, I was reminded of first meeting him a few years ago while he was the Literary Manager and Dramaturg at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Simon and I met when Adrian Noble, then Artistic Director of the RSC, commissioned me to write a play. The result of this commission, as many of you may know, was my play Shakespeare in Hollywood.

Simon talks about the genesis of the play and, indeed, our friendship in his introduction to the Samuel French edition. I thought you might enjoy reading it as you read about Simon's book, Dear Mr. Shakespeare, featured on the homepage.

by Simon Reade

The name rang a bell. “He’s called Ken Ludwig, Simon,” said Adrian Noble, then Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “He’s in Stratford. Big supporter of the RSC in the States. He’s got some ideas he wants to run past us.” Ken Ludwig? Surely not Lend-Me-ATenor-Crazy-For-You Ken Ludwig? What on earth would that master of American screwball comedy want with a classical, Shakespeare ensemble? As Literary Manager at the RSC at the time I was a champion of poetic theatre, pursuing commissions that tended towards political epics. The imp in me surmised that the RSC could well do with upsetting its own applecart; but it is a state subsidised theatre. This Ken Ludwig is the darling of commercial theatre.
Curious, I met the guy.sih_Arena-Post-Card.jpg

Well, never judge a writer entirely by his output. Just as Dostoevsky probably wasn’t all doom and gloom, wisecracking Ken Ludwig’s got his serious points too. Sure, he’s fun, full-of-beans. But he’s also exceptionally well-read, bright as a button, with an enthusiasm for comedy and music theatre across the centuries. He’s an expert who kept – who keeps putting me to shame in my lack of appreciation of the popular stage, of the movies. And I don’t just mean the cheesy matinees we’d snigger and sneer at today. He can extemporise on the clown in European Renaissance drama, on the wit of the 18th century playwrights, on the inter-War stars of the Silver Screen… On our first meeting, in the sunshine of Stratford-upon-Avon, he charmed me, he delighted me. And, canny fellow he is, he’d pitch several ideas at me before I’d even realised
he’s started.

Some had been long in gestation: a rewrite of a Regency Tony Lumpkin sequel to She Stoops to Conquer. We read the original and realised why it necessitated a rewrite. It was trash. We decided not to go there. Some ideas had been dreamt up on the hoof: inspired by walking backstage, along the narrow passage where the huge 1930s Royal Shakespeare Theatre collides with the Elizbethan-style Swan Theatre, Ken had seen the actors from contrasting shows comingle, mid-performance. What if, in this collision, the modern dress performers get confused with the doublet-and-hosed, take a wrong turning and end up on the wrong stage in the wrong play, mused Ken. We laughed and laughed as he improvised and then had the good grace to admit Michael Frayn had written Noises Off, Alan Ayckbourn House and Garden. Ken’s is still an even wilder idea, but we didn’t pursue this either.

We also talked about the whole Shakespeare industry and how the recent movies – from Ken Branagh, via Baz Luhrman, to Shakespeare in Love - had introduced the plays and the man to a whole new generation who’d rejected the works in the classroom or in the lyric theatre. Shakespeare in Love in particular inspired us. Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s marvelous screenplay had illustrated how the Elizabethan Theatre of ruthless producers and jobbing script writers, wasn’t a million miles away from the Hollywood studio system.

It was then that Ken mentioned something in passing and we both had that ‘ping’, light-bulb moment. A film I should have known about, but didn’t – Max Reinhardt’s 1936 movie of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – was even more amazing in its making than the finished product itself. It was a story which got right to the heart of the commercialisation of art, the opportunism of Hollywood, the use and abuse of the most venerated writer of all time, Shakespeare. It charted the creative quirks of a meister of mittel Europische Kinema, Max Reinhadt. And it had a cast of starlets: Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Cagney. And the more he talked, the more animated he became. Ken explained to me about Will Hays, the daffy self-appointed censor, whose application of the Hays Code to the sexiness and magical realism of Shakespeare’s dream play was an outrage –very funny, but an outrage nonetheless. And there it was, the embryo of a play which embraced the Shakespeare industry, Hollywood exploitation, US cultural imperialism, the clash of ideologies (liberal and philistine, European and American), of dreams versus nightmares with fascism in Germany a distant but significant rumble. I saw a serious play in the making. I guess Ken had the genius to see that its seriousness could be conveyed through an accumulation of
farcical mayhem.

Key to that, and what I learnt from Ken as we developed it first with the RSC (who didn’t produce it, internal political changes getting in the way) and most recently in a try-out reading at Bristol Old Vic where I am now joint Artistic Director, is this brilliant genre which I believe is peculiar to the American psyche: high-jinx, screwball comedy. British people would never be that zany. We’re too knowingly cynical. Funny, yes. But don’t we just know it. It is a genre specific to the American stage and screen of the mid 20th century. And Ken is the modern master of it, his passion for its vaudevillian high-octane antics fuelling his messianic zeal to recapture its essence for contemporary audiences.

Ken’s passion for Shakespeare (his family, even his personal email address all seem to be named after one Shakespeare character or another) is also evident in his new play. Shakespeare in Hollywood is thus a deeply personal play as much as a popular play. And in the spirit with which I used to commission plays at the RSC it’s also poetic and political and, let’s not be afraid to say it, something of a mini-epic. Yet it’s also got a screw loose, the playwright’s having a ball. Screwball. Good comedy. Good drama. Good fun.
Simon Reade is joint Artistic Director of Bristol Old Vic where he has adapted Jill Tomlinson’s The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark. He has worked extensively in film and television, for the BBC and Tiger Aspect in particular. He was Literary Manager and Dramaturg at the RSC 1997-2001 where his adaptations included Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid. He was Literary Manager at London’s Gate Theatre in the early 1990s.