NEW YORK (AP) — Playwright Ken Ludwig isn’t a fan of seeing his old shows, no matter how successful they’ve become. It makes him feel like he’s not moving ahead.
But Ludwig has lately found an ingenious way to look back and forward at the same time. He’s revisited one of his most beloved plays and flipped the characters’ genders.
“Lend Me a Soprano” inverts Ludwig’s madcap screwball comedy “Lend Me a Tenor” by having women take the three lead parts, a change he initiated so that a whole new raft of comedians could shine.
“I have a responsibility, I think, and the joy of saying, ‘All this comic talent out there, male and female, why not make this now, at this moment in my life, into a play about three very strong, competitive, interesting, tough women?’”
“Lend Me a Soprano” makes its world premiere this fall at the Alley Theatre in Houston, and the two-time Tony Award nominee Ludwig has been rewriting during rehearsals, tweaking the language to accommodate his changes.
“You may change lines, you may try to get laugh lines to be better lines. You may endow the characters maybe with a little deeper backstories. But if you’ve got that strong structure, you’re OK. So I haven’t had to change the structure of this play as I’ve adapted it into a play about women.”
The plot revolves around an opera company’s attempt in 1934 to corral a hard-drinking, lascivious opera star into performing the lead role in “Pagliacci” for a one-night-only gala. Chaos ensues when he is mistakenly believed to have died and an impersonator must be found to keep the show from cancellation.
In the new play — running Sept. 16-Oct. 9 — the manager of the opera is now a woman, as is her mousy but determined assistant and the eagerly awaited diva soprano. Ludwig has been surprised to find that he hasn’t had to overhaul the dialogue.
“I kept looking to say, ‘Well, maybe these speeches should be expressed differently because women don’t always talk the same way. What surprised me is how often they do,” said the Washington, D.C-based playwright. “I think it says something about our common humanity.”
Rob Melrose, the artistic director of the Alley Theatre, said Ludwig has written a different kind of comedy with a more poignant end. “‘Lend Me a Tenor’ was already a good play. And I think he’s improved upon it significantly.”
This is not the first time Ludwig has returned to his famous play. He wrote “Tito’s Revenge,” a sequel set two years after “Lend Me a Tenor,” borrowed some characters for “A Comedy of Tenors,” and went into the original to replace blackface with clown makeup. “I did it wrong the first time and got it right the second,” he said.
Ludwig has had a busy several months, with the new show in Texas, back-to-back shows at Chichester Festival Theatre in England — a crackling revival of “Crazy for You” and his adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” — and a new opera he wrote during the pandemic, “Tenor Overboard,” for the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York.
“I haven’t seen my home in ages. I’m just constantly on the road going from one to the next working on them and for a playwright, that’s just heaven. It’s just like the luckiest guy in the world.”
He’s also just finished fast-paced comedy “Moriarty” for Cleveland Play House, which features the characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Five actors account for some 40 roles in the play. Slated for next year, it is a return to the great detective that Ludwig first explored with “Baskerville.”
Ludwig is undoubtedly the king of the modern farce, but he prefers to use other terms, like musical comedy or screwball comedy. “That’s just because I think people think, ‘Oh, farce — it’s trivial and we don’t have to take it seriously.’”
Ludwig knows how hard they are to write, the good ones are perfect jewel boxes of timing, internal logic and silliness, punctuated sometimes by a door slam. “I just think that it’s a really major part of the American contribution to the history of comedy. I like to try my damnedest to keep it alive,” he said.
He considers “His Girl Friday” with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell to be the epitome of screwball, and he just ordered a new DVD of the film because it included some archival interviews and featurettes he hadn’t seen before. He’s also a huge fan of “Bringing Up Baby” and “It Happened One Night.”
“They’re all set in an innocent fairy tale world of real intelligence and wit and great clothes,” he said. “That’s influenced me more than anything. I love them so much. There’s not enough of them.”
Often Ludwig’s works are set backstage or backstage-adjacent, like “Moon Over Buffalo,” “Crazy for You,” “Leading Ladies,” “A Comedy of Tenors” and now “Lend Me a Soprano.” Those spring from his childhood growing up in York, Pennsylvania.
“I wanted to be in the theater more than anything else, but there was little chance to expose myself to that until I got older,” he said. “It always therefore had a very magical quality to it. For me, it was like a life that was something I could never attain until I got out in the world and became more sophisticated.”
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