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April 6, 2010

Ken Ludwig Traces the Amazing Real-Life Journey (with Andrew Lloyd Webber, No Less) of Lend Me a Tenor


It’s been nothing but joy having Lend Me A Tenor revived on Broadway. And that joy has come in many guises.

One of the best parts of the process has been working with a new cast of such high caliber. Tony Shalhoub, Jan Maxwell, Justin Bartha, Anthony LaPaglia, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Mary Catherine Garrison, Brooke Adams and Jay Klaitz: how lucky is that? Noël Coward famously assembled a remarkable group of actors for his historic revival of Hay Fever at the National Theater in London in 1964 and remarked that they could read the Albanian Telephone Directory and people would come. I contend that my cast of Lend Me A Tenor could read the plumbing section of the Albanian Telephone Directory and people would come. So deal with it, Noël.

Another great joy of this revival has been the flood of memories it has evoked of the earliest productions of the play twenty years ago. Lend Me A Tenor began life (under its original title, Opera Buffa) at a summer theatre, The American Stage Festival, in Milford, New Hampshire. The play was wonderfully directed by Larry Carpenter and it starred the great actor-director Walter Bobbie as Max. (Walter has since directed my adaptation of Twentieth Century with Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche at the Roundabout Theatre as well as this little production of Chicago I’ve heard about …) Also in the cast of that first summer theatre production was the remarkable Ron Holgate as Tito. Ron went on to star as Tito in the London and Broadway productions of Tenor and he remains, to this day, one of the miracles of American Musical Comedy.Marcus%20Photo%20Bartha%20and%20Shalhoub.jpg

Soon after the summer theatre production, I met an English director named David Gilmore who was visiting the United States. He happened to see a production of my play Sullivan and Gilbert that was being produced at the time by the Kennedy Center, and as we discussed it, he asked me casually what else I had written lately. I told him about Lend Me A Tenor and he took a copy home to England with him.

A few days later David called me from his home in Wimbledon and said that he had enjoyed the
play, would like to direct it and, moreover, would like to show it to a “producer friend” of his. I remember thinking at the time, “If I just hand this play over to David he’s going to think I don’t have any real connections of my own and that I don’t know how to deal in big-time theatre circles.” With this imbecilic notion in my head, as though my brain had been invaded by some alien species with the ability to make humans stupid at a moment’s notice, I said “Well, David, I don’t know… I don’t want the play to look shopped around. I do have interest from some big-time producers. Who’s your friend?” To which he answered, “Andrew Lloyd Webber.”

Fortunately, the aliens from the Planet Idiot left my brain as quickly as they had entered and I said calmly, “Well that’s nice. Why don’t we show it to him.”

Two days later, the telephone rang and an English voice came over the line and said, “How do you do? This is Andrew Lloyd Webber. You don’t know me.” I said that I had, in fact, heard of him and was delighted to be speaking with him. He then said that he thought that Lend Me A Tenor was the funniest play he’d ever read and asked me if I had licensed the performance rights to anyone else yet. I said no. He asked if he could acquire them. I said yes. And that was that.
Two weeks later, I found myself on a plane to London. Within an hour of landing, I joined Andrew and his friend Richard Stilgoe (the librettist of Starlight Express and co-librettist of The Phantom of the Opera) at the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel. As always (I came to learn) Andrew was brimming with energy and ideas. He has always reminded me of Charles Dickens - bursting with new projects and filled with the seemingly endless energy to accomplish them. The first words out of Andrew’s mouth were not “How do you do, I’m Andrew,” or “Welcome to London.” They were, without preamble: “Listen, Ken, I have a great idea for the poster! Covent Garden is about to produce Otello with Placido Domingo, and I think I can arrange a deal where we both use similar posters and help each other with publicity!”

True to his word, Andrew had Lend Me A Tenor open in the West End at the Globe Theatre (now called The Gielgud) within six months of that first call to Washington. Andrew was supportive and kind from the first day on, and couldn’t have been a better, more involved producer. And David Gilmore and I became great friends during the process and we remain dear friends to this day. The production starred Denis Lawson and Jan Francis, went on to garner the Olivier nomination as Comedy of the Year and enjoyed a long, healthy run.

Tenor next jumped from London to Broadway. I was blessed with another remarkable director, Jerry Zaks, and another cast of the Albanian Telephone Directory variety. (Victor Garber and Tovah Feldshuh were at the opening night party on Monday night for the revival, and it was just like old times.) I remember with particular fondness the art deco set for the Broadway production that came out of Tony Walton’s head, along with the amazing costumes by William Ivey Long. In a way, these memories make all the more joyous seeing the sets and costumes for this Broadway revival by John Lee Beatty and Marty Pakledinaz, who have matched the earlier brilliance pound for pound in their own stunning ways.

So here I am after opening night of the revival on Broadway feeling wonderful about the joy that people are having at the Music Box Theatre every night. As Tito would say, “it makes a-me feel proud.” Proud to hear the laughter of the audiences, proud to see them leaving the theatre with smiles on their faces, and proud to have my play reinterpreted for a new generation of theatre-goers.