Interview: Playwright Ken Ludwig
Playwright Ken Ludwig has gained tremendous popularity over the last few decades. His hysterical Lend Me a Tenor is performed all over the world and translated into a multitude of languages. His stage adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express is about to open October 20 at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in its West Coast premiere. Ludwig took time out of a super busy schedule to talk about the play and other highlights of his career.
You are perhaps our number one American farceur. Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo are ever so popular. Detective Hercule Poirot is a humorous character in Murder on the Orient Express, but I am sure you have made him ten times funnier in your adaptation. Do you want to elaborate on creating comedy?
Sure. I'd love to. That's a great question. In a way it just grew out of the text. The kind of humor I try to write is ... tell the story, find a story that innately has humor in it. Mysteries are a lot like comedies. They're highfalutin, very Northrop Frye, who wrote Anatomy of Criticism, books on Shakespeare and stuff. He likens comedies to mysteries as a genre form. Everything gets shaken up. You're sort of in some kind of a normal social situation, and everything gets shaken up. Think of a jigsaw puzzle flying up into the air. When everything comes down, it gets locked together in the right order and makes sense. And there's something innately comic in the larger sense about that journey than say something that ends up with jagged edges and is a psychological tragedy or makes us uneasy in the end. I think what Agatha Christie wrote in essence are comedies or great standard mysteries of the mystery genre being sort of comic because it's so satisfying and has extravagant characters like comedies do. The humor really grew out of those characters.
There are so many characters in Murder on the Orient Express!
Yeah, but less than in the book. The book says that there are twelve suspects. I cut it down to eight, because there are too many people to get on the stage.
Tell our readers more about the process of writing comedy. Expound on what makes comedy so much more difficult to compose than drama.
Well, I think it's who writes it. For me it's easier than writing drama because it's where I live, it's what I think and feel. I think one is either made to write comedy or made otherwise. Shakespeare did both, but ... For me comedy is a way of looking at the world. I'm innately sort of an optimistic guy but not in a sort of Pollyanna way. I think realistically optimistic. I feel that things will work out all right, and that's really basic to the notion of writing comedy.
You've written about Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. You must like sleuths. Do you think they make the best comic characters?
They do. They're so colorful; they're so interesting; they're so out of the box. They're not average. God knows, they better not be boring. The two greatest detective characters ever written are indeed Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. They're as quirky as the dickens. Writing about their quirkiness is a joy and really allows a writer to flex his muscles.
... Tenor and ... Buffalo are specifically about the theatre. However, all of your work is theatrical. You obviously agree that "All the world's a stage". Comment on that if you would.
I got very involved in writing plays about the world of the theatre or backstage at the opera. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania that did not have access to the larger sense of being in the theatre. There was a community theatre there. I dreamed about being in the theatre. My mom was from New York and exposed us a little bit to what theatre looked like on the outside. It was really my dream. I'm psychoanalyzing myself but the reason I loved theatre was it gave me a chance to become a part of this whole world that I loved so much. I wrote about it with so much affection and excitement. It's where I want to be.
I understand and can relate to that. Do you have a favorite play of those you've written?
It's a cop-out to say it's the one I'm writing at the moment. It's true in a sense. I'm always so enthusiastic I can't imagine how it's not going to knock 'em dead. .. In some ways my favorite is Leading Ladies, a comedy where Twelfth Night meets Some Like It Hot. I loved writing about characters who are crossdressing. And it was my love and admiration for Twelfth Night, my favorite of all the Shakespeare plays; I'm a big Shakespeare geek. I wrote a book on Shakespeare. Again it was very theatrical about two actors in a backstage comedy....Shakespearean actors from England who end up playing the opposite sex. It touched on all the things I love most about the theatre.
Do you have a favorite playwright besides Shakespeare?
George Bernard Shaw. Living dramatic writers: Woody Allen, who writes movies not plays, Tom Stoppard in his heyday. Those are my favorites. Shakespeare is certainly the greatest playwright that ever lived. Shaw is the second greatest. You can study him as if you might have known him.
Moon Over Broadway was a terrific documentary about producing Moon Over Buffalo. Carol Burnett was very brave and I think all good actors should be willing to lay it bare and show the ups and downs of what it's like to produce a play on Broadway. How did you feel about that?
I thought it was remarkable in giving a genuine sense of what it is like to put on a Broadway show. You have to change things all the time, the tensions of opening up dealing with the press, dealing with your producers and actors.
Is there a play you long to write?
I have two plays coming up, now in rewrites. In my head there is a comedy about the world of classical acting and Shakespeare and the things that influenced me with great actors of the 18th and 19th centuries. It's been kicking around in my head for a long time. I think that will be next.
On your tombstone it reads: Here lies a great American farceur. Would you be happy with that or would you want to be remembered differently?
That's a great question. I'd like it to read great American playwright, but if I can't, who can be picky... great American farceur, I'll take it.
Anything you wish to add about La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts where Murder on the Orient Express is being presented?