Crazy For Ken Ludwig, CBS News with Rita Braver. Broadcast on "Sunday Morning"
NEW YORK, April 22, 2001
Ken Ludwig's new musical comedy, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," based on Mark Twain's classic book, will open on Broadway this week, reports CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver.
And ironically, this play about the ultimate goof-off, is written by the ultimate workaholic. After all, when Sunday Morning first profiled Ken Ludwig a dozen years ago, he still had his day job - as a lawyer.
But, even then, he rose before dawn to write his plays in longhand. Then he would put in a day at the office.
He hit it big with "Lend Me A Tenor," his first Broadway show: a story about a touring opera company, where the tenor falls sick just before the big performance.
Was it a little scary when Ludwig finally said, "I am going to make a full-time living writing plays?"
Replies Ludwig, "Yes. It was very scary. I remember very well the first time I didn't get my bi-weekly check from the law firm. I was sort of in shock for a day or two, and I didn't know what to make of it."
What he made of it, was more hits: "Crazy for You," based on the music of George Gershwin, and "Moon Over Buffalo," starring Phillip Bosco and Carol Burnett as a second-string acting couple, longing for a shot at the big time.
The minute she read "Moon Over Buffalo," Burnett fell in love with the script.
"I laughed out loud and picked up the phone and said, 'Yeah, I'm very interested in it,'" recalls Burnett. "It's kind of hard to sit by yourself and laugh out loud at something. But it wasn't hard with this one."
But "Tom Sawyer" is a departure for Ludwig. Rather than sophisticated urban comedy, he's writing about adventures in a small country town. And instead of creating his own cast of characters, he must give life to some of the most beloved figures in American fiction, including Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Thatcher.
Isn't it frightening to take on something as monolithic as Mark Twain?
"It is, and was a great challenge," says Ludwig. "I mean, you work very hard to stay as true to the basic nature and essence of the piece as possible. But that might mean changing things, because to make it true to the novel, you can't stick exactly to the way things are done."
That doesn't mean that Ludwig has made Mark Twain politically correct. The villain of the piece is still "Injun Joe," and Becky Thatcher has not become a feminist. But there is a bit more romance between Tom and Becky, played by Joshua Parks and Kristen Bell, both of whom are making their Broadway debuts.
Ludwig's collaborator, composer and lyricist Don Schlitz, is a Broadway neophyte, too. He's a Grammy-winning Nashville musician with a string of hits, including "The Gambler," made famous by Kenny Rogers. A mutual theater friend suggested Schlitz and Ludwig work together.
Says Schlitz, "And, of course, I don't think Ken had really listened to anything written after 1900, except by the Gershwins, but especially not in the country music genre."
Adds Ludwig, "I heard his music, and I said, 'Hey, this is really great! This is great stuff.'"
Continues Schlitz, "We talked about the structure of the show. We talked about the moment where someone would sing. And I would go off and write songs and send them to him. And then, you know, I remember there was a period where I would sing him a song, and my fax machine would go off at 11 at night, and there would be a scene around that song, that he'd integrated that song seamlessly into it, and a little note saying, 'This is fun. I've never done it like this before.' So we had a good time."
It was an intense time, too. They have worked on the project for five years, fine-tuning the music, conferring with veteran director Scott Ellis, sitting through countless rehearsals and rewrites, and finally getting ready for try-outs in New Haven.
There, the audience seemed to love it, laughing in all the right places. And Variety, the daily newspaper of the entertainment industry, gave the play a promising review, saying in part: "The show pleasingly evokes a simpler time, establishes a rollicking, youthful energy, and honors rather than belittles Mark Twain's Tom."
Very nice words, but the New York critics tend to like stuff that's a little more brooding, a little darker.
"Well, they do like things that are brooding and darker," admits Ludwig. "It is a little worrisome, because this piece is what it is. It's a piece based on that fabulous book, 'Tom Sawyer' by Mark Twain. It's not a 'Cabaret' or 'Chicago' in type. It's not a cynical piece. And if the critics are going to come and only like cynical things, there's just nothing we can do about that."
Nothing but the hope that he and his team have really evoked that Tom Sawyer world that Mark Twain wrote about: "bright and fresh and brimming with life...with a song in every heart...and a spring in every step."