Interview: Ken Ludwig on Transforming Lend Me a Tenor into Lend Me a Soprano
The playwright revises his greatest hit for a cast of female comedians.
Ken Ludwig might just be America's greatest farceur. The playwright made his Broadway debut in 1989 with Lend Me a Tenor, a door-slamming comedy set in a posh hotel suite at the height of the Great Depression. In the play, Max, the underappreciated assistant to the general manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera, tries to ensure that the volatile Italian tenor, Tito Merelli, gets some rest and makes it to the theater on time. Naturally, chaos ensues.
The play was a big hit on Broadway (it was subsequently revived in 2010) and it has been produced by stock and amateur companies all over the world. Ludwig has gone on to write over 30 plays and musicals, including Moon Over Buffalo and the book for the posthumous Gershwin musical Crazy for You.
Ludwig's most recent project is a gut renovation of Tenor, leaving the basic architecture of the play intact while transforming the three male leads into women. Lend Me a Soprano is now making its world premiere at Houston's Alley Theatre (performances through October 9).
We spoke with Ludwig about what happens when you change a tenor into a soprano — and if that changes anything about the comedy.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Take me back to the 1980s. What inspired you to write Lend Me a Tenor?
The theater that I fell in love with most was the great succession of comedies in the English language. Great comedy goes back to Plautus, but in English it starts with Shakespeare and on through Farquhar's restoration comedies, then Goldsmith and Sheridan. And I just really loved that tradition. So when I started as a young playwright, I was trying to write big classical comedies. And in those classical comedies, there's often mistaken identity. There's disguise. And there are always love stories. I loved that tradition so much that I tried to make myself a part of it.
In his new book about scenic design, Beowulf Boritt interviews Jerry Zaks, who directed the original Broadway production of Tenor and who said, "Ken Ludwig wrote a really super funny play. The essential sequence of events was brilliantly conceived and constructed." How much of the visual and physical humor of this play was exactly as you envisioned it when you put pen to paper and how much of it came out of the rehearsal process?
I'd say about 80 percent of it. I tend to see the whole set and action in my head, particularly when they're comedies of this scope, you need to know where everyone is at any one time. Of course, it gets enhanced enormously when you have a great director like Jerry and a great designer like Beowulf, and suddenly new ideas occur. But they don't change the essential structure of the play. You know, plays are all about architecture.
In the original play, Maria Merelli prophetically tells her husband during a fight, "Someday, you're gonna wake up in bed and you're gonna be a soprano." How did that transition from a one-liner into an actual reverse-gender production?
I never thought of that as the incipient moment. At least consciously, the idea of Lend Me a Soprano came about two years ago. I had done another play about the same characters called A Comedy of Tenors because people just love being with this set of characters. I just remember at some point thinking, Ooh, wouldn't it be great if these three strong parts were all women.
When you change the title, you lose the double entendre in Lend Me a Tenor. Is there anything else you lose?
Hopefully not. I think the piece has changed a little bit in its texture by having three wallopingly funny female leads. The romantic comedy aspect of it has become stronger. And the journey that Jo (who was Max) takes to fulfill her dreams has become a little more touching. I added a line where when she is being pushed by Mrs. Wylie (who was Saunders) to play Carmen when the visiting opera star, Elena Firenze (who was Tito Merelli) can't do it. And Jo says, "I can't, you don't understand. I can't do it. I'm nobody." It's a line I didn't have in Tenor. I didn't think it would have such profound effect on the play, but it reveals that she has always thought of herself as nobody. But she is not nobody. She is somebody and she rises to the occasion and changes her life.
A major plot point in the original script involves Tito consuming far too much phenobarbital, some of which is slipped into his chianti without his knowledge. Does the comedy veer uncomfortably close to tragedy when you turn Tito into Elena?
We were really on that in the rehearsal hall, and there was some sense in which, oh my goodness, she's taking pills. But I grew up in an era…my dad was a doctor in a small town and there was this thing to help you go to sleep. I think now we call it Ambien. But the drug back then was phenobarbital, and I never thought of in my whole life as being anything that's dangerous. It was not unusual for my dad to see 16-year-old Ken bouncing off the walls, because he was excited about being in a new play, and maybe giving him a tiny little grain of phenobarbital. It was not anything that was demonized at all. So I never even dreamed of that being an issue in the play. That's the world I grew up in when I was a young guy in York, Pennsylvania: Have you taken your phenobarbital today?
You're working on Soprano right now, but are there other projects coming up after this?
Absolutely. There's a play I wrote called Moriarty, which features Sherlock Holmes and Watson and three other actor playing 40 parts. That's going to be at Cleveland Play House next spring. And then, of course, I'm always writing. There isn't a day of my life that I'm not writing a new play, and I have two I'm working on right now: One is another adventure story, which I didn't expect. And the other is just a flat-out comedy, which is what I love writing the most.