INTERVIEW: Ken Ludwig returns to the world of ‘Lend Me a Tenor’ at Paper Mill Playhouse
By John Soltes / Publisher /
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Celebrated playwright Ken Ludwig has created some of the most memorable, gut-bustingly funny moments on Broadway and stages across the world. Whether it’s Twentieth Century, Moon Over Buffalo or Crazy For You, Ludwig’s output has been consistently rewarded with accolades and applause.
One of his most cherished comedies is Lend Me a Tenor, which depicts the behind-the-scenes drama that occurs when Tito Morelli, a world-famous singer, descends upon the Cleveland Grand Opera Company for a performance that is memorable for all the wrong reasons. The show was revived a few years ago on Broadway and starred Tony Shalhoub, Anthony LaPaglia, Jan Maxwell and Justin Bartha. Regional theaters, including New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, have often mounted productions of Ludwig’s classic farce.
What makes Paper Mill’s production from a few years ago so historic is that they’re getting the gang back together again. Paper Mill has aligned actors’ schedules just right to welcome back the Lend Me a Tenor cast to perform in Ludwig’s followup piece, A Comedy of Tenors. Rarely does a playwright revisit a classic work, and even rarer does the same cast of actors get to flex their creative muscles across two plays.
“I’m very excited,” Ludwig said recently in a phone interview. “I think it was a brilliant idea to use the same cast because [director Don Stephenson] had put together such a terrific production of Lend Me a Tenor a few years ago, and I never would have had this idea. And I think it’s great because I love them all in the roles, and it’ll be really fun to follow them now as their lives continue.”
The production, which begins performances Feb. 1, stars Judy Blazer as Maria, John Treacy Egan as Tito, Donna English as Tatiana, David Josefsberg as Max, Michael Kostroff as Saunders, Jill Paice as Mimi and Ryan Silverman as Carlo.
“The funny thing is I had never ever thought of doing that,” Ludwig said of revisiting these characters. “It’s something I never ever dreamed about. I don’t tend to go see my own plays after they’re written, after they’ve been done in their, sort of, first big production like on Broadway or the West End. So I haven’t seen, oh my gosh, I don’t know, Moon Over Buffalo in years and years. I haven’t seen Leading Ladies in years and others, but Lend Me a Tenor is revived a lot. I see references to it all the time, and then there was a Broadway revival. … And then it was done as a musical in London, so I had seen the play again and became reacquainted with these characters. And I sort of love them. I fell in love with them again. I loved seeing how much the audience enjoyed being with them.”
A Comedy of Tenors takes place in 1930s Paris where the stage is set for a record-breaking concert for Tito, but Saunders, the producer, needs to keep the tenor focused and punctual otherwise the whole performance will fall apart. The action takes place at a ritzy hotel that’s attached to a soccer stadium. The addition of the sporting venue was because A Comedy of Tenors pays homage to the real three tenors — Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras — who performed one of the most popular concerts in history in a similar venue. Of course, the real three tenors had their concert in Italy, while Ludwig’s comedy is set in Paris.
The characters in the piece are “crazy as loons,” the playwright said with a laugh. Here’s why Ludwig likes writing for these comedic parts: “Tito because … writing accents is fun, and Maria was the same thing. Saunders because he’s so apoplectic all the time. He’s just incapable of taking life on an even keel. Max, who is sort of the Woody Allen in all of us. He’s going to calm down now that he’s married in the new play, but Saunders works him up into a tizzy again. And then I’ve added some new characters very much in the same spirit.”
Ludwig’s goal with both plays was to create a muscular comedy in the great tradition of English farce of the early 20th century. This decision leads to a lot of opening and closing of doors, and tons of physical comedy. “So when I start to write a play, I’ve already thought through where the setting is,” he said. “I’ve thought about the play a lot. At that point, I just see it spooling it out in my mind, so I know where everybody is. … In this case, they’re going down to the basement of the hotel to rehearsals for the big concert that’s about to open that night, or this one stomps off because they’re angry. And they go shopping because they’re so angry, so I know where everybody is.”
A Comedy of Tenors actually premiered at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, in a 2015 co-production with the Cleveland Play House. Ludwig was more hands on during that production; he hasn’t made any changes as the play traveled north to Millburn.
“It was a co-production of the McCarter and the Cleveland Play House, so I got sort of two bites out of it at the time,” he said. “I was there with sleeves rolled up, fashioning the play into what I hope was the final text. … Now this will be the second time that I’ve seen it in a major production. It’s been done abroad. It’s been done here and there, but it’s just being launched right now because the Paper Mill is such an important theater and has so much clout, so much prestige.”
Of course, Paper Mill is a little closer to the Big Apple, and one wonders if A Comedy of Tenors is headed for a Broadway run. “Wouldn’t it be great if this inched its way to Broadway,” Ludwig said. “It’s going in the right direction, and that would be fine.”
No matter what happens at the Paper Mill, Ludwig focuses his attention on his next writing projects, which are numerous. He writes long hand when creating a new piece; he’s never typed a play on a computer. He writes these shows because he loves his craft and feels privileged to be a professional playwright.
“Ever since I was little, I wanted to be in the theater, and then that sort of focused on writing as I got to around college,” he said. “I’m just so lucky to be able to support myself as a working playwright in America. Sometimes I do say to myself, geez, I ought to find a hobby to get the heck out of here. I have different places I write. Sometimes I write outside my studio, but I’m writing a lot everyday because I love it so much. Right now I’m writing a newly commissioned play, and I’ve got to finish it in the next three weeks. I agreed to write a play for the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, one of the great, great theaters in America. … They called me and asked me if I’d write a play for this coming summer season. I was flattered to meet the band and thrilled, and I’m working on that right now, just finishing it up.”
Even before his San Diego engagement, Ludwig will premiere an Agatha Christie adaptation at McCarter in March. The production is his take on the classic Murder on the Orient Express with detective Hercule Poirot. “The Agatha Christie estate asked me if I would do a version for the stage, and we open soon,” he said. “So I have enough things going on in my life having to do with playwrighting that I’m pretty much always playwrighting, but since I do truly love it and just love what I do, I can’t wait to wake up in the morning and do it.”
He added: “I stay on my next writing project and let them fall where they may because there’s nothing I can do about it. Once a play is out in the world, sometimes a little later they move to Broadway. Some plays are for Broadway. Some plays flourish in the regional theater better. My life has been spent in what I consider the national theater of the United States, which is the network of regional theaters that we have that are the most innovative, risk taking, creative. That’s really where the great world of our theater gets developed in this country, and some plays have started in the regionals and gone to Broadway. Some plays I’ve done started in the regionals, and then they just go from regional to regional. And suddenly they’re playing in 15-20 places at the same time. That’s what I hope for all my plays eventually because I want audiences to enjoy them and really get to see them. That’s why I write.”