For the mega talent behind the Cleveland Play House's 'A Comedy of Tenors,' laughs are serious business
CLEVELAND, Ohio – You know you're in for a good time when you enter the rehearsal room at the Cleveland Play House just as Bobby Conte Thornton, an actor with John Stamos eyebrows and bedroom eyes to match, is shimmying into a pair of blue silk boxers.
He's suiting up (or delightfully dressing down, depending how you look at it) to run a scene on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-August, a little more than three weeks before previews of Ken Ludwig's "A Comedy of Tenors" begin. (The show makes its world premiere at the Allen Theatre in Playhouse Square on Saturday, Sept. 12.)
He takes his position on a couch, spooning with actress Kristen Martin, who plays Mimi, the daughter of opera star Tito "Il Stupendo" Merelli, one of the titular tenors and a character first seen in Ludwig's "Lend Me A Tenor," his Broadway smash hit of 26 years ago. The New York Times once called the play one of two great farces by a living writer.
Tito (Bradley Dean) entertains an old flame (Lisa Brescia) in a scene from "A Comedy of Tenors." Photo by Roger Mastroianni
The new play is billed as a farce, too, and it has its share of knockabout physical comedy, sexual innuendo and all around "nuts-iness," as director Stephen Wadsworth puts it.
To wit, awakened from their post-coital snuggle by the slamming of a door, Thornton and Martin spring to their feet like naughty jack-in-the-boxes, he in those boxers, she wrapped in a sheet over her street clothes. Realizing they've overslept, they hear Tito (Bradley Dean) bellowing for a backrub from his va-va-voom volatile wife, Maria (Antoinette LaVecchia), in an adjoining room offstage.
"Oh my God, your father's gonna kill me!" Thornton says.
"This comes perilously close to French farce!" Martin answers with relish, and a lilt in her voice that recalls screwball ingénues of the past, what co-star Rob McClure described as "this wonderful sort of . . . Katharine Hepburn-y, Old World-iness" about the way she's doing it.
"I think I'll kill myself," Thornton replies.
"Let's do it together!" Martin says. "It'll be operatic – my father would like that."
During the antic search for their clothes, strewn around the dummy set, a mock-up of what will be an opulent hotel suite in Paris when the show is on its feet, the lovers are discovered, triggering an avalanche of madcap mayhem that includes a naked swan dive off a balcony, a concussive blow to the head from a swinging door and a jammed zipper that sparks an unintentionally dirty bit of pantomime and convinces Tito that Maria is cheating on him.
The scene ends with Maria, her back to the audience, crossing herself to the first five thundering chords of "Tosca," then exiting while shouting to her husband, "Now roll over – I fix your back!" – accenting the line with a cartoonishly loud crack of her knuckles.
"Great," says Wadsworth, laughing along with the rest of the cast at the piped-in, crunching sound. He's been taking notes on a yellow legal pad, quietly chuckling at some of the moments that already feel like part of an ingenious Rube Goldberg machine in the process of being oiled and tuned up.
"Right off the orchestra cut-off is when you move," Wadsworth tells his Maria. "And we might even scooch it earlier, depending on what we decide, so that you're not a booger in the nose of art for too long'" he adds in a languid drawl.
"I've never heard that metaphor before about my acting," she deadpans.
"Well, it's not your acting," Wadsworth says, smiling. "It's the principle of the thing."
He's not teasing about that last part. Artistic principles matter and must be attended to, even more so in a comedy – particularly a highly stylized one with "farce machinery," as Wadsworth calls it – a genre easily dismissed as pratfall-filled fluff.
For this director and playwright, building a top-notch comedy is serious business, as deliberate and complicated a process as staging a drama or tragedy.
"I think there's a sense in which if it ends unhappily and it's dark, it's important," says Ludwig, in town to rewrite and tweak and shape his play. "But if it's a comedy, it's not important. It's not significant.
". . . 'Twelfth Night' is just as certainly as great a play as 'Othello.' Easily. It's my favorite, favorite, favorite."
Talking to the cast the other day, he made a little joke. "I said, 'When I sit down to write anything, I try to write "Twelfth Night" – it just comes out as "Comedy of Tenors." ' And that's true! I'm not kidding.
"I'm trying to write the best comedy, with more resonance and texture and possibility and reference to great comic tropes and themes, that I can write."
But doesn't loving funny stuff – indeed secretly preferring it to tragedy – point to a certain, um, intellectual lightweight-ness?
"Well, that's the point!" says Ludwig. "It's not lightweight whatsoever. It's a different experience. It's got its own integrity. It's asking different kinds of questions."
Tell it to Christopher Durang. His "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" explored what it means to be human in the 21st century, with the playwright's signature gift for colliding high art and pop culture, and won a 2013 Tony Award for best play.
"I said to people that I am just so lucky that this particular year there wasn't some brilliant play about cancer, because then I would have lost," Durang once quipped. "And I think that's kinda true."
"Any art can be high art in the best sense of the word," says Wadsworth, "in that it has finish and polish and that it has depth and feels layered." A farce can be gorgeous, too, inspiring "wonderment just as much as it inspires delight."
And Wadsworth, the director of Opera Studies at the Juilliard School and head of dramatic studies for the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, knows his way around high art.
He directed Tyne Daly as diva Maria Callas in the 2011 Tony-nominated revival of Terrence McNally's "Master Class" and helmed celebrated productions of Aeschylus' "Oresteia," Wagner's "Ring" cycle, a series of Marivaux comedies – which he also translated and adapted – and plays and operas by Shakespeare, Molière, Handel, Mozart, Shaw, Wilde and Coward.
Given his reputation and range, his dance card is always full. "A number of things have come up that are quite substantial career-wise, and certainly more serious as plays in a sense than this is," he says. "But this is the one that stuck. This is the one that I ended up wanting to do."
For one thing, he says, "it's funny – and so deft. It's so clean."
For another, "there's a sweetness about it. And I love sitting in a room with wonderful actors and figuring out comedy. That's just heaven."
One of those actors is Rob McClure, last seen on the Cleveland Play House main stage in another Ludwig creation, the 2011 world premiere of the holiday whodunit "The Game's Afoot," set in the castle of actor William Gillette, famous for playing Sherlock Holmes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
(McClure has been rather busy since then, what with being nominated for a 2013 Tony for his turn as the legendary tramp in Broadway's "Chaplin" and headlining the movie-to-musical incarnation of "Honeymoon in Vegas" that closed in April.)
"So many people, when they think of Ken Ludwig, they think farce, they think slamming doors, and they think slightly over-the-top, and they're not wrong," he says.
But that doesn't mean the characters in a Ludwig comedy are stock cardboard cutouts. "He writes real people," says McClure. "He doesn't write props that you move around a set in a funny way."
And few harness chaos better than Ludwig, says McClure. "He writes catastrophe so well that all you have to do is realistically put yourself in the ridiculous situation" in order to respond to it truthfully.
Aaron Posner, who directed "Game's Afoot," calls that technique "actually, actually," and McClure is applying it to "A Comedy of Tenors."
"What if you actually, actually were minutes away from a concert in front of thousands of people and your lead tenor quit, and in that moment the bellhop walked in and looked and sounded exactly like the other tenor? . . . What if that actually, actually happened?"
What would you actually, actually do? (Sorry – no spoilers, you'll actually, actually have to buy a ticket to find out.)
McClure is playing Max, a character, like the sparring Merellis, plucked from "Lend Me A Tenor" set in Cleveland in 1934.
Ludwig started missing Max and the rest of the gang after seeing the 2010 Broadway revival, but the playwright doesn't like to use the term "sequel," because he says it carries the unsavory implication of someone trying to cash in on a previous success. (He can hardly be accused of that, given the time between the two projects.)
He's also worried people will think they'll have to see "Lend Me A Tenor" to keep up with "A Comedy of Tenors."
"It's a whole new play," he says during a lunch break at Cowell and Hubbard one Thursday in August. "You don't have to have seen the other play at all. You needn't even know that a play called 'Lend Me A Tenor' ever existed."
Of course, the critics will know, and he's bracing himself for the inevitable comparisons.
"If everybody hates it, well, hopefully they'll still do 'Lend Me A Tenor.' There you have it – there's the life of a playwright," he says with a laugh.
Also returning in "A Comedy of Tenors" is Saunders, the onetime general manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company and mayor of Cleveland. (The man was clearly a Democrat.) The play picks up two years later, moving the action from the city too tough to die to the City of Light.
Saunders (Ron Orbach) has ditched public service to become a full-time producer and is trying to pull off a spectacular concert featuring not one but three tenors, including his former assistant Max, now a professional opera singer like his pal Tito. Naturally, things don't go as planned.
Despite the possible pitfalls of revisiting tried-and-true characters, Ludwig is in rare but good company. Though best-selling authors people their novels with familiar faces – nobody criticized J.K. Rowling for writing another "Harry Potter" book – and Hollywood banks on them, playwrights don't do it that often.
Ludwig started thinking about the history of playwriting, something he does a lot, looking for examples of authors who had used a set of recurring characters from play to play.
He quickly settled on Pierre Beaumarchais, writer of The Figaro Plays, the great 18th century farces that inspired Mozart and Rossini's operas "The Marriage of Figaro" and "The Barber of Seville."
Years after penning the tremendously popular play "Barber of Seville," Beaumarchais furthered the adventures of some of the same characters in "Figaro."
"Beaumarchais was at another point in his life [when he wrote 'Figaro'], so he saw new things in the characters," says Ludwig. "And that's exactly what I tried to do."
"The Marriage of Figaro" was a smash, becoming even more successful than its predecessor.
It was Beaumarchais who brought Ludwig and director Stephen Wadsworth to Cleveland for this, their first partnership.
Wadsworth not only directed the Figaro Plays in rep at Princeton, New Jersey's McCarter Theatre Center in 2014, he also translated and adapted Beaumarchais' original French comedies for modern American ears. Critics swooned. So did Ludwig.
"They were fantastic. As good as I've ever seen, and I've spent a lot of time seeing great comic productions. I said, 'Who is this guy? I wanna work with him.' "
Their collaboration was catnip to William Ivey Long.
The in-demand costume designer has six Tonys on his shelf, one for "Crazy for You," the 1992 Gershwin musical with a book by Ludwig, and rarely works in regional theater anymore.
"I don't – I can barely leave town!" he says, meaning New York, where he spends his time designing inventive, mouthwatering getups for Broadway blockbusters.
He won his last Tony in 2013 for the magical quick-change costuming that turned rags to gowns before our very eyes in "Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella," which toured here in July, and should have won another for his men dressed as wieners in buns, their black socks held up by garters, in Susan Stroman's "Bullets Over Broadway," coming to Playhouse Square in October.
By his count, he's dressed the casts of 75 shows on the Great White Way to date, including Ludwig's "Lend Me a Tenor" in 1989, which earned him one of his first Tony nominations.
He and Wadsworth go way back too. The artists met while doing "A Quiet Place," the opera Wadsworth wrote with Leonard Bernstein in 1983.
It's his bond with both men that brought him to the Cleveland Play House costume shop, where he's finalizing looks for "A Comedy of Tenors."
"At my age, it's the relationships – you do the work because of the people involved. How do you say 'no' to two friends who happen to be the author and director?"
The fact that the play is set in 1936 – smack-dab in the middle of what he considers the most creative time in sartorial history – also doesn't hurt.
"My favorite period is 1936 to 1938. And why is it your favorite period, William?" says Long, sitting on a small chair in an even smaller dressing room, outfitted in an impeccably fitted dark blazer set off by a creamy white button-down oxford.
"Because, let's start with the men. No one ever starts with the men, but I'm starting with the men: The tailoring is the best. You've got broad shoulders, nipped-in waist [and] full trousers. Everybody looks handsome – think Gary Cooper, think Cary Grant.
"And the women?" he continues. "The reason I like it for the women is that it's of course right before [World War II], and all the great couturiers in Paris and London are working at the top of their field."
He rattles off a who's who that would make even the adamantine Anna Wintour weep: Madame Grès, Chanel, Dior and Schiaparelli. A young Charles James, just starting out.
"If you look at 20th-century fashion, every few years, the looks from the '30s are brought back, because they're just good and they're sexy and chic."
He seldom has the chance to design clothing from the period, although he's experiencing a weird but welcome bumper crop of retro assignments of late.
"I just did 'On the Twentieth Century' and [now] this, so I'm very excited," he says. (The Broadway revival, starring Kristin Chenoweth and set in the early 1930s, earned him his 15th Tony nomination.)
"And it's a farce!" Long says of Ludwig's play. "May I just say, who doesn't love a farce? And, as the basis of comedy is truth, it's moving and heartwarming. So there!"
The director couldn't agree more.
"Yes, we push the envelope, especially in rehearsal, in terms of how far you can take that joke, but you have to make sure that you're always hearing the words and hearing what they're telling you," Wadsworth says.
Going from gag to gag is the surest way to ruin the play.
Amid all the supersonic silliness, says Wadsworth, the characters are grappling with big issues. For Tito, who is in "full midlife crisis," as actor Bradley Dean puts it, it's the struggle to accept one's age in a changing world; for Max, says McClure, it's confronting his own evolving priorities and how to define success.
"We have to make sure that for the actors, it's all coming out of their guts," says Wadsworth. "It's high stakes for them, and a lot rides on it that is very, very, very serious in their lives.
"It's always true that if you play comedy for keeps, it can be unaccountably touching as well as funnier."