Spinning Laughs the World Over

`Lend Me a Tenor' playwright tells what makes good comedy. THEATER: INTERVIEW

HE is an audience of one among the l,223 red plush seats. On stage, understudies for his comedy ``Lend Me A Tenor'' rehearse in front of their severest critic: playwright Ken Ludwig. He created the comedy lines that break as relentlessly as ocean waves, keeping the audiences breathless with laughter at Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. Lawyer-turned-playwright Ken Ludwig knows every laugh by heart as he sits in the darkened theater like a chef in front of a plate of hors d'oeuvres, savoring one occasionally with a small smile. He is all business, from the top of his brown leather jacket to his Haverford sweat shirt, stone-washed jeans, and running shoes. He is running the fast track of success, as his Tony Award-winning comedy ``Lend Me a Tenor'' takes off on a national tour of 13 cities after Kennedy Center, in addition to international productions around the world and the forthcoming movie of ``Tenor.'' He has also written the book for an upcoming Broadway musical of ``The Red Shoes'' and is doing a TV pilot.

But at this moment he is watching a rehearsal of one scene in which the general manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company in 1934 has just learned that Tito Merelli, the celebrated Italian tenor who is star of its benefit performance of ``Otello'' that night, is apparently dead on a hotel room bed. The manager begs his assistant, who knows every note but is too shy to perform, to lend him a tenor as Tito.

The understudies for Ron Holgate and Barry Nelson, the play's stars, sweat a little as they do the scene, setting off lines of laughs like a string of firecrackers. At the end of the scene, Ken Ludwig stands up, leans into the footlights and says:

``I just want to tell you how impressed I was, super impressed. Can we talk about it?'' He leans into the stage in a cantilevered position and coaches the actors on the lines. ``Just a few specifics, three things ...''

Afterward, the actors take a break from the glittery white and silver hotel set, a wonderfully baroque homage to Art Deco, and Ludwig lopes out of the theater. Our actual interview takes place upstairs in the Boehm porcelain bird room, where silent hawks, eagles, blue jays, robins, look on with bright, beady eyes.

We are talking about how comedy sometimes doesn't translate well into other languages. That what is funny in English may be grave in Hungarian. Yet ``Lend Me a Tenor'' has gone from a Broadway hit to tours in 19 countries. ``Twenty,'' he interrupts, ``they keep growing, literally. I just got a royalty check from Greece, and I didn't even know it was on in Greece ...''

What draws crowds to an American comedy in diverse international cultures?

``I think it has to do with the universality of the story in `Lend Me a Tenor,''' he says. ``It has to do with this underdog who thinks in his heart that he can be more than he seems, and wants to prove it to his girlfriend, wants to win her hand that way ...''

The secret of stage comedy is not in takeoffs on ``Joe Miller's Joke Book'' or snappy one-liners, he says. ``I think the secret is telling a story, telling it well, telling an interesting story that never lets go. It's not in writing jokes, or funny one-liners. There's not a one-liner in `Tenor.' There's nothing that you could take out and tell ... I don't think that's what stage comedy is about. Stage comedy is about setting up a situation that you get so drawn into it that you identify with it and want to find out what happens next.''

Ludwig is not only the author of the comedy that's spinning laughs around the world. He's also become a multimedia playmeister. Currently he's working on: the book for the Broadway musical version of the classic ballet movie ``The Red Shoes,'' the tragedy that starred Moira Shearer; and a pilot for an upcoming Fox television series slightly inspired by John Cleese's ``Fawlty Towers.'' He's also waiting for Columbia PIctures' spring filming of his screenplay for ``Tenor.''

Ludwig, who has wavy brown hair and unwavering brown eyes, talks about it all with enthusiasm restrained by a certain lawyerly caution. It has not been overnight success for the Steptoe and Johnson lawyer who juggled intellectual property and entertainment law with scripts for over 10 years. He'd get up at 4 a.m, write until eight, then go to work for billable hours.

After seven years he segued into part-time law/part-time writing thanks to the flexibility and supportiveness of the law firm. He also wrote a frisky musical, ``Sullivan & Gilbert,'' performed at Kennedy Center, as well as ``Postmortem'' and ``Divine Fire.'' This January he turned to writing full time, although he remains ``Of Counsel'' at the firm.

Ludwig has wanted to be in show biz since he was six. His mother had been a chorus girl in the Broadway-hit ``Hellzapoppin''' until she married his doctor father, and his parents took him to see lots of Broadway shows. By the time he got to college (Haverford, Harvard, Cambridge) he was writing class shows. As soon as he got his law degree (the family thought he should have a profession), he was back writing scripts in longhand on yellow legal pads. Ludwig's wife Adrienne George is also a lawyer.

Right now he's busy with ``Red Shoes,'' with music by Broadway great Jule Styne; the TV pilot, and ``Lend Me a Tenor,'' the film. He says he studied every one-set movie he could get his hands on to open up the film a bit. But Columbia Pictures president Frank Price saw the outline and said, ``No, I want it closer to the play.'' Ludwig says, ``Their theory is, the play works, and let's fool around with it as little as possible.''

The national tour of ``Tenor'' includes Wilmington, Del. (Dec. 7-16) and Boston, Mass. (Dec. 18-30) this year; then next year on to Hartford, Conn.; Cincinnati; St. Paul, Minn.; Denver; New Orleans; Palm Beach, Calif.; Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa, and Orlando, Fla.; San Antonio; and Dallas.

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