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McKenna Kelly-Eiding, left, is Watson and Sara Richardson is Holmes in “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” at Park Square.

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The secret of one of America's most prolific playwrights

By Rohan Preston for the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Some playwrights famously tweak their shows well after opening. Not Ken Ludwig.

“Once my plays are launched into the world — be it Broadway, West End or a major regional [theater], I tend not to be very involved,” he said.

That approach — working feverishly on a play or musical, then totally letting go — is one reason he has been so prolific. Ludwig’s 27 shows include his 1986 breakout comedy “Lend Me a Tenor,” which won two Tonys, and “Crazy for You,” the 1992 musical drawing from the George and Ira Gersh­win catalog that ran on Broadway for five years.

But Ludwig’s work, which tends toward comedy and the commercial, hasn’t been produced much in the Twin Cities. Park Square Theatre is remedying that with the regional premiere of “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” Ludwig’s comic take on Sherlock Holmes’ 1901 classic “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

The playwright doesn’t care if the hellhound in the play, up through Aug. 5 in a gender-blind production — women play Holmes and Watson — is depicted by a person, puppet or, for that matter, a real-life pooch. He just wants it to be done imaginatively.

“It’s entirely up to the directors and designers of each production as to how they embody the hounds,” he said.

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The ensemble for Park Square’s Baskerville. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.

A Harvard Law School grad, Ludwig ditched what could have been a lucrative legal career to pursue writing for the stage. We caught up with him by phone from his home in Washington, D.C.

Q: You have interesting roots for a playwright.

A: Well, I knew I wanted to be in theater since I was a kid growing up in York, Pennsylvania, which is Amish country with all these glorious apple farms. My parents took me to New York [in 1958] to see Gore Vidal’s “A Visit to a Small Planet” on Broadway. It’s a political comedy about a Martian who came to Earth. I’m sure the politics were lost on me. I was bowled over by the beauty.

After college [at Harvard], my parents said: ‘What are you going to do next?’ I said: ‘I want to be in the theater.’ They said, ‘Surely, you want to do something else so you can eat.’ So I applied to Harvard Law School, and went, and had a fellowship for two years at Cambridge. [But] I really wanted to be a playwright, so I moved to Washington.

Q: Not New York?

A: Should I have had more confidence in myself? If you’re an actor, you can go to New York and for your day job, you wait tables or temp. As a playwright, you really have to put in the first six months or year to understand how to write a play. In D.C., I felt like I could have a small apartment and some privacy, roll up my sleeves and write plays.

Q: But you were also practicing law.

A: What I would do is write from 4:30 to 8:30 every morning. I did that for, gee, four, five years.

Q: Until …

A: Inspired by “Henry IV, Part 1,” I wrote this play about [Renaissance lovers] Abelard and Heloise. Lo and behold, it got done by a local theater group in a church basement. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was up in front of people. Then I wrote a second and third piece, building my craft. Then I wrote this play, “Opera Buffa,” which an English director happened to get a hold of.

Q: You had some awkwardness there, didn’t you?

A: Well, he said, “I love this play. I’d like to show it to a producer friend of mine.” Not wanting to sound like a country bumpkin I acted like a complete jackass. I said, “I know some producers, too.” Then I asked, ‘Who’s your friend?” He said, “Andrew Lloyd Webber.”
Lo and behold, one week later to the day, the phone rings and it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber. He said, “I love this play. If you just give me the rights, I’ll have it up in the West End in six months.” We made a deal on the phone. A week later, he flew me over to London. A terrific guy. Six months later, he had it up on the West End under the new title “Lend Me a Tenor.”

Q: Now that you’ve written 27 plays and musicals, what distinguishes a Ken Ludwig work?

A: I write about what I deeply care about — things that move me and that I hope move the world. I suppose down deep I do harbor a strong optimism about life. I hope people recognize the craftsmanship. A playwright is like a wheelwright or a boatwright — someone who makes things with their hands and is a real craftsperson. I write virtually all comedies, some mysteries, and adaptations of adventure stories.

Q: Which brings us to “Baskerville.”

A: It came about in a lucky accident. When I think about what I’m going to write next, I often wander around my bookshelf. And sticking out was this wonderful volume of adventure classics. I said, “Wow, what a great story with timeless characters. Sherlock and Watson have never waned in popularity.” I’d done two or three adaptations of classic novels. I rolled up my sleeves and started writing.

Q: How does one focus such a sprawling story for the stage?

A: I realized that in order to tell it coherently, I would need — well, there are 20 characters at least, plus porters and taxi drivers bringing it to 40. I tried something I’d never done: write this play for five actors, one Sherlock and another Watson and the other three would play all the other characters. I tore through it — wrote it quickly and sent it off. Last year it was the most-produced play in the U.S., excepting Shakespeare. Isn’t that amazing?

Q: Did you intend it as a sendup?

A: Not at all. You’ve got to tell the story for the real stakes. It’s a life and death situation. People are dying. You have to get to the bottom of it. The biggest laughs in the play should be when someone says “yes” or “no.” The humor is because of the context. I tell college students to never mug, never try to be funny. Play the stakes of the situation and the humor will bubble up.

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