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Matthew Kelly in Lend Me A Tenor The Musical, playing at the Gielgud theatre (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Matthew Kelly in Lend Me A Tenor The Musical (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Q&A: Playwright Ken Ludwig

Published 25 July 2011

It can’t be often that a playwright can boast of having more than one show on in London at any one time, but Ken Ludwig has that pleasure this summer. In the West End you can see Matthew Kelly in a musical version of his comedy Lend Me A Tenor (to 6 August), while a few stops on the tube and a stroll through the park will take you to Regent’s Park Open Air theatre where Crazy For You, the Gershwin musical for which Ludwig wrote the book, will end the venue’s 2011 season.

No stranger to success, the American writer is the proud owner of an Olivier Award and is a three-times Tony Award nominee. His productions, which also include Moon Over Buffalo, Leading Ladies and last year’s Theatre Royal Haymarket adaptation of Treasure Island, have attracted actors including Lynn Redgrave, Alec Baldwin and Joan Collins to the stage. Added to all of that, he went to Harvard Law School and has a music degree from Cambridge University.

Charlotte Marshall talked to the Washington DC-based playwright about his insatiable love for the stage.

How did you first get into playwriting?

I wanted to be in the theatre ever since I was six-years-old. My mother grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and when she was 16 she was a Chanel runway model, then she wanted to get into Broadway. In those days there was a glamour about it, you stayed in a boarding house with other young hopefuls and indeed she got into the chorus line of a little Broadway show called Hells-A-Poppin. Then she married my father during World War II and she gave it all up. When I was growing up in the farm country of Pennsylvania we would go back to New York once a year to see her family in Brooklyn and my parents would take my brother and me to a Broadway show. I was just star struck; I thought that this was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen.

I was in all my high school and college plays, but then I started to get scholarships to different schools – I went to Harvard and I went to Trinity College Cambridge – all the while knowing I really wanted to be in the theatre and that these were things to help me earn a living, they were day jobs. When I came out of that process, I got my first job, my day job, but I’d write from 04.30 to 08.30 in the morning and then I’d put my suit on and I’d go to work. I did this for several years and I was able to write play after play after play.

Was there a point when you had to take a risk and give up the day job?
There was. My fourth or fifth play, Lend Me A Tenor, got into the hands of a wonderful director here in London named David Gilmore. David called me one day and said ‘I love this play, I want to direct it and I have a producer, a friend of mine, I’d like to show it to.’ I got a little stiff and uppity and said ‘Well I don’t know, I have some interest here in the United States, who’s the producer?’ and he said ‘It’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’ and I said ‘Okay, go ahead!’

Two days later the phone rung and it was Andrew and he said ‘I love your play, I want to put it on in the West End, I’d like to acquire the worldwide rights and I’ll have it in the West End in six months if you say yes.’ So I said yes! When that show was a hit – we had a Olivier nomination for Best Comedy, Denis Lawson was in it, Andrew took it over to Broadway and produced it there – suddenly I was in the commercial theatre and I was in the position to say ‘I can take a real chance now, I can give up my day job’.

How is it having Lend Me A Tenor back in the West End?
It’s great. This is my sixth time in the West End so I come here a lot to work because I love it so much. I love British audiences. I love British theatres.

Crazy For You is also opening this summer. How involved have you been in the process so far?
Quite a bit. The boys have been very generous about that. The director is Tim Sheader who’s fantastic – he’s an old friend of mine – and the choreographer Stephen Mear has been at rehearsals the past couple of days and they’re amazing. I’ve been able to be really involved and roll my sleeves up and do some rewriting, even though the piece was written 20 years ago. It’s given me a chance to revisit the piece and try to enhance it and have a little fun with it.

What was it about doing it at the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre that appealed to you?

It has a great reputation as being such a terrific venue, there’s been such quality work. Tim is a great friend of mine and I trust him tremendously. He directed a world premiere of one of my other plays at Bristol Old Vic.

What inspired you to write Crazy For You? Are you a big Gershwin fan?

I am now. A producer in New York had acquired the rights to the Gershwin canon to make a musical. One day, when he was a boy, Gershwin had visited his family home and he’d heard him on the piano and all his life his aspiration was to be involved with Gershwin in some way. As he became a very successful businessman, he contacted the Gershwins and got them to agree that he could have the rights to produce a musical.

He called me up out of the blue – I’d never heard of him in my life – and said, in his Texas drawl: ‘Look, you have a hit show on Broadway and I want to make this a very funny musical and I think Gershwin music would do well with a good broad, funny book and do you want to write this Broadway musical?’ I thought he probably had the wrong guy but he was very persistent and finally he flew down to Washington, where I live, and we had lunch.

Is it very different writing a book for a musical than writing a play?
It is. The book for a musical has to be very concise, it has to tell the story very quickly in a way that the music really enhances the story and helps to continually tell the story. It’s different being able to relax and write a story about characters you really love and can then expand upon. Some of the best plays aren’t always going to tick over moment to moment, always moving ahead, sometimes they have progressions that enhance them and make them more beautiful. You can’t do that in a musical, you’ve got to be relentlessly forward moving.

What should audiences expect from Crazy For You?
We were just talking about this in rehearsals yesterday and Tim did a wonderful speech to the company saying: ‘This is a genre that is inclusive. This is a genre where we invite the audience in to sit back and really just have a good time. You have a smile on your face and it never leaves. This is not a musical or a play of working your way through troubles; this is an experience when you just go in, hang your troubles up at the door and say, ‘I’m just here to have a really, really good time and laugh a lot and hear songs that I just love, that I’ll remember, and give myself over to this whole bright, fun experience.’

Do you think there are any common themes that unify all your work?
I love writing comedy. My whole life has been thinking about, as a dramatic art form, comedy. I don’t know if it’s because I had a happy childhood or if I saw certain comedies in an unconscious way as an artistic experience, but that is what happened.

How do you go about writing a new play?
I generally write eight to 10 hours a day, religiously. I usually have a premise I’ve been thinking about, maybe a two-sentence idea I’ve had stuck in my head, but then I just start thinking. It’s an odd life because I’ll spend time in my study with my feet up, with my books around me, thinking, sketching ideas, and do that for about five, six months. I just sit and I work sometimes 12 hours a day. Now that I have a family it’s less – there’s picking kids up at school and things like that. But I work big long chunks at a time, you have to work in complete solitude, it has to be quiet.

When I’m ready and the characters are clear in my mind and on paper – I write by hand on yellow sheets – then I’m ready to write. Then it’s a bit like taking dictation because I know what’s in my head, I’ve thought it through. So I actually write the play out in maybe three weeks or so.

You’ve worked with some amazing actors, is there anyone left you’d like to work with?

I’m very good friends with Derek Jacobi and I’ve always wanted Derek to do one of my plays. I don’t nag him about it though! I’ve been very lucky and I’ve had such good actors around me all the time. I’m sure there are 10 people in the British and American theatre that I would love to work with that I haven’t worked with, but it’s more a question of finding people that are really right for the material, who really know the style and will deliver and make an audience happy.

To see someone like Claire Foster for example, or Sean Palmer [in Crazy For You], who are young and vigorous and beautiful to look at and they move and dance and sing beautifully, to take and embody these roles is heaven! I wouldn’t want anyone else, they’re so invested in the theatre and they’re so good at it, that’s where the joy comes.

Is there a moment in your career you’re most proud of?
I think the standout moment was getting commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company [to write Shakespeare In Hollywood]. I’ll never forget it.

Would you be pleased if your children followed in your theatrical footsteps?
I’d be very pleased. It’s given me so much joy. As a father, you think, I’d like them to do something where they’re safe because it’s a precarious profession; it’s difficult to make a living in the theatre. That’s why when I got into Harvard Law School, all those years ago, my parents looked me in the eye and said ‘Look, you have to go because you need to have something to fall back on’. I’ve been very lucky to say the least. So do I wish it? I wish they’d do it if it’s the one thing that will make them very, very happy.

What’s next?
I have three plays opening by the end of the year in the United States, they’re all bunched up, written over the past year and a half or so. One’s called Midsummer Jersey. We have a television show called Jersey Shore in the United States, so it’s about all these Italian-American kids who are there to meet and drink and have fun.

I have a good two-sentence idea, it’s been kicking around for the past five, six months and every time I have a minute to myself I try to sketch the idea out a little bit better. I’d love to tell you about it but I don’t dare!

CM

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