By MARK BLANKENSHIP
You’d think that Lend Me a Tenor couldn’t surprise Ken Ludwig anymore. After all, he wrote the play, a zany farce set in the opera world, over twenty years ago, and it’s been produced thousands of times since. However, during a rehearsal for the show’s current Broadway revival, he saw something new
In a typically madcap scene, a hotel bellhop (Max Klaitz) tries to impress the world-famous opera singer Tito Morelli (Anthony LaPaglia) with his rendition of Figaro, but only Saunders (Tony Shalhoub), the local opera company manager, and Morelli’s wife Maria (Jan Maxwell) are in the room. Saunders commands the bellhop to apologize to Maria for his outlandish behavior, but when the bellhop speaks to her in Italian, she lights up and makes pleasant conversation. She even kisses him on the cheek.
All this happens in just a few seconds, but when Ludwig saw the scene, it felt like a revelation. “It was a sweet moment that took things a little further than in the original production,” he says. “It was the kind of glancing moment of humanity that I strove for in writing the play and that we never really got the first time. It’s more than just a joke: It’s a moment where we see into Maria, and we can see what a good person she is.” (Later, when the plot goes haywire and Maria thinks Morelli has betrayed her, she isn’t nearly so nice.)
Ludwig is primed to rediscover his own play. Since it’s Broadway premiere, he's only seen it performed one time. He says, “I’m particularly quirky that way. I make a thing of not seeing any of my plays after they’ve had that first major production. It makes me feel like I’m living in the past.”
Ludwig clearly defines the moment that he detaches from a show. “When I’m writing, I have my artist hat on,” he explains. “As a playwright, you do your best to create what you hope is a work of art, and even in the stage when you’re first getting the play produced, you keep that artist’s point of view of just trying to get it right. And then after it’s done, you put your car salesman hat on and try to make a living. With Lend Me a Tenor, once it opened on Broadway, it hit its final form as a text, and I knew I could move on.”
As a “car salesman” for his play, Ludwig has been very successful, though even that role has become hands-off. Outside publishers handle the licensing rights for the many stock, amateur, and regional theatres who want to produce the show, leaving the playwright free to simply collect his residuals. The new Broadway production, however, is considered a “first-class revival,” and to get the rights, the producers had to seek permission directly from Ludwig. That got him more intimately involved with the show than he had been in a long time.
Asked how it feels to have his mind back on farce, he says, “It gives me great joy to see how the play can be interpreted in different ways, and it’s also nice to see that the play still works as it was written. It’s like seeing an old friend who hasn’t gotten older.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor