Three Musketeers at Cincinnati Playhouse: An Interview with the Playwright
Playwright Ken Ludwig, whose musical Crazy for You won three Tonys (including Best Musical) on Broadway and two Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Musical for its London run, was crazy for the iconic characters of The Three Musketeers long before he adapted the world-renowned Alexandre Dumas novel for a 2006 debut at Bristol, England’s Old Vic. The theatre was originally interested in producing Ludwig’s adaptation of Treasure Island, but because there was a production of another Treasure Island adaptation scheduled nearby, the artistic director asked Ludwig to recommend another favorite childhood story. “I suggested The Three Musketeers, he said it was a great title and I said, ‘Why not?’ I thought it would be fun to do.
“The thing about The Three Musketeers that is daunting is that it’s a hugely long novel, about 750 pages of fine print. What’s also interesting is that Dumas is not actually a great writer,” Ludwig explained. “It’s very telematic, like watching a whole season of 24. At any cost he gets the characters into a scrape, and then does another adventure/set piece scene. The story becomes terribly convoluted. The trick to adapting it is to find the story line that runs right through the middle of the 750 pages. Dumas’ real genius, to me, was to invent these larger-than-life characters that we never forget.”
While Musketeers is a time-honored tale, there was still the challenge of making it resonate for today’s audiences, Ludwig said. “I think partly you can’t discount that because we’re in an age of movies – we’re not the same as a 1950s audience, an 1870s audience. We know this story inside out.
“I wanted to do two things – first, to shake the audience up a little bit, as in ‘What’s this?’ And second, I wanted to humanize D’Artagnan so that he’s not just a young, handsome, cardboard guy. I thought the way to humanize him was to give him a family,” he explained. “All great adventure stories, they’re all about boys. That’s not who we are anymore – girls have adventures too.”
By creating the character of Sabine, the kid sister of D’Artagnan, “I wanted to make a bold stroke here. Most people love it,” he added, asserting that even though they’re familiar with the story, “99 percent of the people wouldn’t know that Sabine wasn’t one of the original characters. I wanted to give it more of a challenge, more of an edge. I felt that I wasn’t just trying to translate what Dumas wrote – as a playwright, you’re writing fiction, not biography. What you want to do it get the essence of what it is; if you stick to the story strictly it won’t make as good a play.
“It particularly became fun when I created Sabine – an ‘Aha!’ moment. Some people are purists, but most people say, ‘What fun! What a great addition!’ ” It’s also not totally coincidental that Ludwig has a daughter. “When I wrote it she was about Sabine’s age, very spunky and doesn’t like to listen to authority too much.”
And while many people would probably classify The Three Musketeers as a high-drama adventure tale rather than as a comedy, “there is a lot of comedy in the original story,” Ludwig confirmed. “Adventure stories are essentially comedies, structurally and in tone.” But there’s a big “yet,” he continued: “You can’t play them as comedies, you can’t write them as comedies, you have to let the comedy come out of the situations. To make this work, you have to play for the high stakes, the life and death of the situation – you play those stakes and let the comedy come out of the tension. I tried to bring situations to it that enhanced the swashbuckling tone; swashbuckling is essentially a comic tone. You want people to be on the edge of their seats. Who’s going to get run through? Who’s going to get their heart broken? Then comes the comedy. You’ve got to take the story seriously.”
Ludwig also thinks that the Cincinnati Playhouse production will set a bold tone. “I’m thrilled that Blake decided to open his tenure here with The Three Musketeers. It’s very flattering, and he’s a terrific director. He did Treasure Island at Round House and did an amazing job.”
Photo: THREE MUSKETEERS by Ken Ludwig. Jim Kronzer (set), Thomas Hase (lights), Bill Black (costumes), Matt Neilson (sound). Fight direction by Drew Fracher.