A dreamer’s secret stardom: ‘Lend me a tenor’ brings humility to Millburn stage
By Ronni Reich/The Star-Ledger
When Ken Ludwig wrote "Lend Me a Tenor," which opened on Broadway in 1989, he told people that Tito Merelli, the badly behaving opera star at the center of the plot, was based on celebrity singers such as Plácido Domingo.
When Domingo saw the show, he approached the playwright to say, "In my heart, I’m not Tito. I’m more like Max," Ludwig recalled in a recent interview.
Tito and Max constantly get mixed up throughout Ludwig’s often-revived farce, which opens at the Paper Mill Playhouse on Sunday.
The comedy gets rolling when Tito arrives at a Cleveland opera company unable to perform the title role in "Otello." Max, a lowly opera house gopher who harbors a secret dream of singing — and a gift to match — gets an impromptu voice lesson from Tito, his hero.
Soon, he has to use all he has learned when the impresario Saunders asks him to impersonate Tito onstage. The fans get swept up in the act, and so do Tito’s wife and other admirers, including Max’s girlfriend Maggie.
While Tito may have the star power, it’s Max who epitomizes the heart of the story, Ludwig said.
"It wasn’t until after I wrote it that people said, ‘That’s you’ and I did a double take," Ludwig said. "It was."
"I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and I idolized the theater. … If I had my life to live over again, without a doubt I’d want to be an opera star."
The play provides opera fans with selections of Verdi and Bizet to enjoy. But Ludwig attributes the show’s regular presence in theaters of all sizes to the "innate joyousness" of characters like Max.
"It’s really a story about him and what he feels is inside him that nobody can see," he said.
In the upcoming production, John Treacy Egan of Broadway’s "Sister Act" and "The Producers" plays Tito Merelli. Judith Blazer, seen as Eliza Doolittle in the Paper Mill’s "My Fair Lady," plays Maria, his wife. David Josefsberg, whose Broadway credits include "Les Misérables" and "The Wedding Singer," plays Max.
The cast also includes Jill Paice (seen on Broadway in "The 39 Steps" and "A Little Night Music") as Max’s girlfriend Maggie, Donna English (recently in "The Sound of Music") as the soprano Diana, Nancy Johnston ("Elf") as Julia, the chairman of the opera guild, and Michael Kostroff of HBO’s "The Wire" as the grouchy Saunders. Don Stephenson directs.
Ludwig, who is currently working on a new show steeped in the opera world, has often made the stage the subject of his plays. His works also include "Moon Over Buffalo," "Leading Ladies," "Shakespeare in Hollywood," the musical "Crazy for You," "The Beaux’ Strategem," The Game’s Afoot" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."
"Lend Me a Tenor" was last revived on Broadway in 2010 in a production that starred Justin Bartha, Anthony LaPaglia and Tony Shalhoub.
"I write plays with a view of humanity that says that if we work hard and we’re honest and we do things with integrity, we can make the world a little better," he said. "I try to push the ball in that direction.
"However infinitesimal that move is, that’s my contribution."