"Giving birth to Be My Baby" The Alley Theatre talks with Ken Ludwig
Tell us about how your first visit to the Alley sparked the world premiere of Be My Baby.
I was lucky enough to be invited to the Alley’s major fund-raising event in the spring of 2004, the year the Alley celebrated Thornton Wilder. Two of the other guests at the event were Hal Holbrook, for my money the greatest actor in America, and Tappan Wilder, Thornton’s nephew and literary executor. I met Hal and we hit it off like a house on fire. At one point, I said to Hal, “I know this is going to sound pushy, but there’s a play of mine that has a part in it that would fit you like a glove.” And, Hal – a genuinely fine man who could have made any excuse not to read the play – says (in his Hal Holbrook imitation), “Sure! I’d love to read it. Send it on!” When I got back home I sent it to him, and about four days later, I get this message from Hal: “Ken! I got your play, and holy cow, am I relieved! Ya know, when you meet somebody and you get to like them and then they say, ‘I got a play you ought to be in,’ your heart sinks. Well, I read your play and I just fell in love with it. Count me in.” It was one of the great phone messages of all time – I saved it for weeks! We began talking about who should play the woman’s role opposite him. Needless to say, his wife Dixie Carter is marvelous, and I desperately wanted her to do the part. So I suggested, delicately, that – with his permission – my agent could overnight a copy of the script to Dixie, with the message that she shouldn’t feel obligated to even read it.
And, he said, “Well, we can do that. Or, I can walk across the room and hand it to her.” About two hours later, the phone rings and Dixie says, “Ken, I love this play. I’ll do the part.” It was music to my ears.
Since the Alley brought us all together, I hoped that the Alley might consider producing a reading of the play. So I called Greg (Gregory Boyd, artistic director of the Alley Theatre), and told him I wanted him to read a new play of mine – and at the time, my other new play Leading Ladies was scheduled to debut at the Alley that fall. Without missing a beat, Greg said, “Of course, we’ll do a reading. Name the date.” That’s the kind of response a playwright would give his right arm to hear. To have the artistic director of the best theatre in the country respond with such enthusiasm is beyond anything I could have hoped to happen.
What were the particular challenges of writing Be My Baby?
I knew the story I wanted to tell, but in order to write it properly, it had to move from one location to another – all over the map. It moves from a farm in Scotland to an airplane to a hotel in San Francisco to a cruise ship, and so on. My plays generally unfold in one location – a green room or a hotel room – so writing in this form was a new challenge, akin to writing a screenplay. From there on, I was able to focus on the characters and make them richer and more interesting.
Let’s talk about the characters in Be My Baby. What inspired the characters of Maud and John and their love/hate relationship?
I sat down to write this as a tribute to my children. I was trying to convey how much they meant to me and how having a child in your life is the greatest gift in the world. It changes your life – turns it upside down and makes you look at all your relationships differently. It makes you look at life differently. So I invented this man from Scotland, who was hard-nosed, opinionated, stubborn (Ludwig pauses mid-sentence). You know, I just realized it. These two are really my father and mother. My dad, who was a doctor in York, Pennsylvania, was a son of immigrants. He worked his way through college and then through medical school by working in steel mills during the Depression. My mom was a Brooklyn girl, who was a beautiful young woman, a runway model for Chanel, and then a Broadway showgirl. They were as different as night and day. That’s who John and Maud are. My parents would have titanic arguments because they were both such passionate people. But then they’d make up, of course. They were the finest parents and the finest people imaginable.
Talk about the musical references in Be My Baby. Are you a big Elvis fan?
I am a fan, but wouldn’t say I’m an Elvis aficionado. However, I know the era, the late ’50s and early ’60s, and I love what Elvis represented for that era. Both of the main characters change enormously in the play in wonderful ways. John keeps his values, but he becomes less stiff-necked and intolerant. At one point, he returns from a shopping spree and says, “I like this America. It frees you up!” A great representation of this feeling was the pop music of the time. Elvis’s music was symbolic of that. That doesn’t mean that we won’t use other music. The title, after all, was inspired by the song “Be My Baby” by the Ronnettes.
As if Be My Baby weren’t enough, there were two other projects that came out of that first trip to the Alley. Can you fill us in?
Over lunch in Houston, I mentioned to Tappan Wilder that after going to Harvard Law School, I had done graduate work at Cambridge University and studied Restoration comedy – that period of comedy from 1660 to the first decade of the 18th century. Tappan mentioned that his uncle, Thornton Wilder, had started an adaptation of a Restoration comedy by George Farquhar called The Beaux’ Stratagem, but he died before he could finish it. He wrote this brilliant first act. But along came the war in 1939 and he abandoned the play to get involved with defending America. He went on to write The Skin of Our Teeth, which won the Pulitzer Prize, but sadly, he never got back to the Farquhar piece. We discovered that we both lived in Washington D.C., and when we returned home, he called with the proposition that I finish the Farquhar adaptation. I was flattered beyond words. Co-authoring a work with Thornton Wilder? Be still my heart. Later that day, I received a copy of a manuscript with handwritten notes by Thornton Wilder! So that same summer of 2004, I wrote the second act of the play and slightly revised the first act to make them fit together. The world premiere is now scheduled for the fall of 2006.
The Alley also commissioned you to write an adaptation of Treasure Island.
During that same gala weekend, Greg and I discovered that we have a similar interest in certain great traditions in the theatre – one of them being big, popular swashbucklers. I love the idea that theatre can be a place where you can go as a family and hear great, timeless stories. So Greg suggested that I write a play that would appeal to adults and kids alike – a real rip-roaring evening in the theatre. In our early conversations, we talked about writing an adaptation of Treasure Island. It is the quintessential adventure tale of the last 200 years. There’s a reason it’s been filmed about five times. Greg has some wonderful ideas about how to tell the story and shared copies of the Orson Welles’ Moby Dick and John Barton’s The Greeks – huge epics – that might inspire me in telling a tale of this magnitude. I directed a reading of it in September and the audience loved it.