Does comedy get no respect in the American theatre? There’s certainly a case to be made to that effect, as at least one of my colleagues has done. Consider, if you will, the career of Ken Ludwig, an American farceur who burst onto the scene with 1986’s Lend Me a Tenor, and who has often made it onto American Theatre‘s most-produced plays and playwrights lists, but who is not produced with great frequency in New York, and who receives a mere fraction of the critical attention of many of his peers and successors.
He seems unperturbed by this oversight, at least if his output is any indication. Instead he continues to chug along with a busy regional career that most recently included the plays A Fox on the Fairway, The Gods of Comedy, the Lend Me a Tenor sequel A Comedy of Tenors, and the Sherlock Holmes spinoffs Baskerville and The Game’s Afoot. His other credits include the book for the long-running musical Crazy for You, Moon Over Buffalo, and Sherwood. Coming up next is a stage version of Murder on the Orient Express, written expressly at the request of the Agatha Christie estate, which will open in the West End next season, and another Holmes riff, Moriarty.
Currently at Arena Stage through Dec. 29 is perhaps his most personal work. Dear Jack, Dear Louise is a Love Letters-style romantic comedy based on the real-life correspondence his parents undertook during World War II. I spoke recently to Ludwig about his family, his career, and why his brand of comedy doesn’t rely on jokes.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Many playwrights start out by writing their “family” play, but you’ve obviously taken a different route for most of your career. Why write the story of your parents now?
KEN LUDWIG: I can’t say specifically what moved me. Somehow, inside me, I just felt this is the right time to tell the story. It just feels like this is a time to remember that the country was courageous, that we stood up for values we really believed in, and were fighting a common evil. This just somehow clicked with me.
I had in my mind for a few years to write a play about my mom and dad. My mom was a really zany, wacky, fun person, very outgoing, and show business was her dream. And Dad was shy—he had a sly sense of humor, and it was sweet, sweet, sweet, but he was quiet. They couldn’t have been more different. So I always thought it would make a good play. At one point I thought I might set it at the Army base in Medford, and it would have been a play for eight actors, with a very realistic set. I thought about it and took some notes, and then I was reading Pete Gurney’s Love Letters, which I admire very much, and I thought: Wow, what a wonderful way to tell a story about two people and to actually really focus on them.
Did your parents actually court by letter, as pen pals put together by their parents, before meeting in person? It almost sounds like a version of an arranged marriage.
Well, it wasn’t an arranged marriage, but it was definitely this sort of typical thing where parents go, “Hey, I have a boy and he’s in the Army and he ought to meet your daughter.” It was the fathers who specifically set them up on a date, like a blind date, only 3,000 miles away. “Here’s his address and here’s her address; I hope you two will have the good sense to get in touch.”
But the play is not just two folks sitting reading letters, is it?
I directed two readings before we got to production where I put them behind desks and they sat and read them. But the play is in fact very animated now; Jackie Maxwell has done a terrific job directing this, and the two actors are fantastic. They’re up there changing costumes; Linda Cho did the costumes, Beowulf Boritt did the sets, and so it’s beautiful. The actors are getting up and sitting on the edge of the desks, and when they go on their travels there are suitcases and coats. It feels completely like a play in the sense that it’s not just two people behind desks.
Reading it, I got a sense of how it might be theatricalized, especially as the formal correspondence sort of breaks down and it becomes more like a dialogue.
Yes, but they never look at each other. That’s one of the cardinal rules of the production, which I think is exactly right. It’s more like when you write, you write the ether and the person is somewhere in your head.
It’s conversational but still written—almost like texting.
Are the letters in the play based on the actual letters between your parents?
No, it’s inspired by the letters, which we heard about growing up, and my memories of my parents. I had to recreate the actual correspondence, because my mother actually burned all of the letters—she thought they were too personal and didn’t want anyone to see them! I had to do some imagining.
Did your mother continue in showbiz, or did she at some point give up those dreams?
After she had this wonderful opportunity to get into the road company of Hellzapoppin’, she married my father and they settled in his little town of York, Pa., where I was born and raised. Then she was in all the community theatre things, and my brother and I would go and sit in the front row and watch her in one show after another. That became her way of living this dream she loved so much. There’s a wonderful little theatre in York, now called the Belmont, and they honored her with a wonderful party five years ago. She’s passed away, but they were doing one of my plays and they had a wonderful day for her.
Did you parents encourage you to follow the same dream?
They did in the sense that when I visited my grandparents in Brooklyn, we would always go into New York City and see one Broadway show a year, because we couldn’t afford more. But then when I got serious about wanting to be in the theatre, it was, “Well, wait a second, you are going to go get a professional degree, you are going to go have something that you can actually live on.” Even from my mom. So I went to Harvard Law School.
But it didn’t stick.
I still wanted to do nothing but write and be in show business. But when I got out of law school, I didn’t have any money. So I did practice law for a couple of years and wrote four hours every morning—I mean, religiously, I would get up at four in the morning, write from 4:30 to 8:30, and then I’d go to the office. And then, lo and behold, I was on my fourth or fifth play, and it was about the third year out of law school, when I met an English director named David Gilmore and he said, “What have you written lately?” I’d written Lend Me a Tenor. I gave it to him and he said, “I love this play, I want to show it to a producer friend of mine.” I tried to act as if I was a big shot, so I said, “Oh, well, I have producers interested also—who’s your friend?” He said, “He’s Andrew Lloyd Webber.” So Andrew called me three days later out of the blue and said, “I’ll have this up in the West End in six months if you’ll license me the rights.” Of course I did. Andrew produced it there and on Broadway as well. And it was that point that I said, Oh wow, I think I can see a way to make a living here. So I went part-time at the firm. I was so timid! And then I got call out of the blue from a guy named Roger Horchow and I wrote Crazy for You for him. So I had that on Broadway and that was the point where I said, okay, you know, I’m just gonna take the plunge and become a full-time playwright.
Most lawyer/writers seem to write mysteries or procedurals—I’m thinking of Scott Turow and John Grisham. You’ve dipped into mystery of a kind with your Sherlock plays. But comedy has always been your entry point, right?
Yeah, my careers never really overlapped. It’s not like writing for law is anything like writing a play; they’re different skills. I think what the law taught me, when I think about it, is discipline. You learn: This is how you work really, really hard at something. I work really, really hard at being a playwright.
As for comedy, I’ve dreamed about doing this since I was young. Aside from my obsession with Shakespeare, I was all about Goldsmith and Sheridan, and then Farquhar and the Restoration period. I had a scholarship to Cambridge for two years and I studied Restoration Drama. The kinds of comedies I’ve wanted to write more than anything in the world are like She Stoops to Conquer—I think that’s the greatest comedy ever written after Shakespeare. It’s perfect.
Not only were you schooled in English comedy, but it seems that English have returned the favor. Do you think your work, and comedy in general, is more appreciated across the Atlantic? For one thing, you’ve won some Oliviers, but no Tonys.
I don’t know that that’s true, but look, they had such a different trajectory timewise. They were able to write great comedies in the 1600s, and the great late 18th-century comedies—that was a wonderful time. Comedy seems to bubble up. You know, there’ll be decades and decades between any good comedies, and then suddenly there’ll be three or four great writers or comedies. The Restoration was that way.
I’m thinking of a speech that Jason Zinoman, the comedy columnist for the Times, gave this past year at the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C., where he basically said that comedy is eating theatre’s lunch—that the American theatre is losing the kinds of audiences and relevance that standup has gained because theatre has mostly abandoned doing comedies. I imagine you might have some thoughts about that.
I have some very strong thoughts about that. I couldn’t agree with him more! When I lecture about these things, I talk about starting a Comedy Institute of Drama, or a journal about it, or at least a conference about it. You know, when my kids took the Shakespeare course in high school, they got Hamlet, right? Then Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and the Scottish play. I thought, this is crazy, why aren’t they studying Twelfth Night? Why aren’t they studying Much Ado About Nothing? These are equally great plays, but people always act as if, oh well, that’s not serious. Of course it’s serious. It’s serious about what it does, just as much as a tragedy is serious about what it does.
It’s also really popular. People like to laugh.
Right. The critical community also tends to think of comedy as lesser, that the great plays are the ones where people die. It’s just wrong.
It strikes me that a number of your plays are set backstage. So that while this might be the first play with your actual parents as characters, your mom probably inspired some of the stage people in your other plays.
Oh yeah, and my dad too. The two characters in Moon Over Buffalo—that’s very much them, ’cause he’s kinda matter of fact and she’s just going off in her wild way. A Fox on the Fairway also mirrors them in many ways, the two leads in that.
In the documentary about the staging of that play, Moon Over Broadway, I remember you confessing that you’re not really good at writing jokes, which made me think about what makes comedy funny. It’s not always one-liners, not always Neil Simon rat-a-tat rhythms.
No, it’s not at all. You know, he had a genius for those one-liners. Nobody could do it like he did. And there are times in every one of my comedies where I go, “Oh man, I could use a big laugh there.” But that’s not how I write. You know, the biggest laugh in this show is one word. It’s the part where she asks, “Do you dance well?” He says, “No.” And she says, “Why?” “Oh, nobody ever taught me.” And she’s kind of relieved, she says, “Would you want to learn to dance?” And he says, “No.” That gets a big laugh.
Right, it’s the whole comic structure that makes it funny, but no one’s gonna hire you to come in and punch up their script with one-liners.
Right, and you can’t punch up this script with one-liners. The comedy in this play only really lands when you’re really invested in the people.
Tell me about your Sherlock Holmes shows. There’s another one on the way, isn’t there?
Yes, Moriarty opens next season, and it’s the same idea as Baskerville: One actor plays Sherlock, the other Watson, and then three people play all the other 40 parts. I wrote another one, The Game’s Afoot, which is not about Holmes and Watson but about William Gillette, the actor who played Sherlock Holmes for 30 years. And it’s a mystery.
Another backstager, then?
Yeah. And it led to great things, because it won the Edgar award for best mystery, and that led to the Agatha Christie estate asking me to do Murder on the Orient Express for the stage.
The Sherlock idea sounds very theatrical, a bit like The 39 Steps from a few years ago. But in all your plays, you’re thinking very theatrically, is that fair to say? You’re not writing movies for the stage.
That’s absolutely on the button. What I try to do is think about how the stage can be special—about why seeing this particular story on the stage is the only way you can tell the story, and why the theatre enhances that story. My last play was called The Gods of Comedy, and it was about Dionysus and Thalia coming down to earth. One of the things I thought about was why more people don’t use the conceit when somebody says, “I am invisible”—like Oberon in the moment when the lovers run past him and he’s invisible. It’s so marvelous. That’s what happens in The Gods of Comedy: When the gods want to be seen, they’re seen. And nothing else can do that the way the theatre does. In the Sherlock Holmes plays it’s people changing characters and the story constantly evolving; suddenly you’re in the moors of Devin, and then you’re in Baker Street. The theatre does all that better than any other medium.
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