"I'm a crazed human being," says Ken Ludwig.
It's only September, and already this is shaping up to be the biggest - and busiest - season of his career. And that's saying something for the Washington-based Broadway playwright, who used to juggle a full-time law career with playwriting.
Right now, he's juggling five shows at once - a situation he finds exhilarating and exhausting. Two of those shows are receiving simultaneous world premieres in the Washington area. Twentieth Century, his rewrite of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1932 comedy, opened the season at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., and will be produced on Broadway in March. Shakespeare in Hollywood, his brand new play about the making of Max Reinhardt's 1935 film of A Midsummer Night's Dream, opened the season at Washington's Arena Stage last weekend.
Meanwhile, tomorrow night at Signature he's directing a staged reading of a work-in-progress called Leading Ladies - about two washed-up British Shakespearean actors in York, Pa. - before a proposed run at the Cleveland Play House next season. He's also crafting the book for a "new" Irving Berlin musical called Let Yourself Go!, for which Berlin's daughters have granted him exclusive access to their father's entire song catalog. Finally, he's finishing a script called All Shook Up, about a British couple who come to America to adopt a baby.
No wonder he's having trouble sleeping for the first time in his life. But when he settles onto the couch in the ground-floor office of his spacious Washington home, it's clear that Ludwig, 53, an unabashed lover of all things theatrical, revels in the path his life has taken.
Indeed, theater and show business are recurring themes in Ludwig's work, which includes Lend Me a Tenor (1986); the libretto for the Tony Award-winning "new" Gershwin musical, Crazy for You (1991); and Moon Over Buffalo (1995).
"I've ended up using theater and theatrical motifs as a metaphor for all of life," he acknowledges, launching enthusiastically into his subject, while seated in front of a wall of posters from his shows. He explains that his interest in this theme dates back to childhood.
Once a year, when the York, Pa., native traveled to New York with his family to visit his grandparents, they took in a Broadway show. "That world," he says, "became imbued with romance for me and imbued with life and an exciting life. I loved it so much that it's all I ever wanted to do since I was 6 years old. Then I just started writing about that and not thinking about it one way or the other."
Obvious as this repeated theme may seem in his plays, Ludwig says he wasn't particularly aware of it until recently. But then it made perfect sense. "Theater is a wonderful metaphor for all of life because when you see a theatrical performance, it's very different than seeing a movie," he says. "It's so much more vital, and it's vital in a way because it's perishable, because it dies the minute you see it. It's got, innately, a sense of mortality about it.
"It also lives - when it lives - at a level that's even greater than a movie can because it could change any second."
Theater as life
The notion of show business reflecting the ephemeral nature of life is especially evident in Shakespeare in Hollywood. In the play, the real Oberon and Puck get sidetracked from the fairy kingdom and end up on the set of Reinhardt's movie, interacting with the actors.
"In the course of it, what Oberon really figures out," the playwright explains, "is that human beings, who are mortal, are pretty stupid, and they don't know how good they've got it. Puck says at one point, 'By dying they get to live.' "
Shakespeare in Hollywood began as a commission from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Then there was a change in leadership at the esteemed British company, and the play was sidelined. Last season, it had staged readings at the Kennedy Center, Britain's Bristol Old Vic and Arena Stage, which had committed to a full production.
Twentieth Century, Ludwig's first adaptation, had a different genesis. It came about during a brief hiatus between shows when the playwright glanced at his overloaded bookshelves and spotted a collection of Charles MacArthur plays that had been given to him by Kennedy Center founder Roger Stevens in 1985.
Ludwig's interest was piqued by Twentieth Century, a farce about a desperate theatrical producer, a Hollywood star who was his erstwhile lover, and a host of other quirky characters aboard the luxury train. Realizing that the play is rarely produced because it requires two dozen actors, he called MacArthur's son, actor James MacArthur, and requested permission to pare down the size of the cast and make other revisions.
"It's a fabulous play, but like some plays of that era ... a lot of the actual material is dated," Ludwig says. Lines, and in some cases, entire scenes, were rewritten. The revised script received readings in New York (starring Alec Baldwin, who will play the role of the theatrical producer on Broadway) and at Signature before making its world premiere there.
Theater as a metaphor figures into this play as well.
"Why is theater like life in Twentieth Century?" Ludwig asks, rhetorically. "Because the stakes are so high. This absolute madman [the producer], he's just a lunatic, is in love with this other lunatic, who's a star, and they both have no sense of proportion. ... For them, the journey on the train from Chicago to New York is an entire life. It has a beginning, a middle and an end."
Ludwig has high hopes that Shakespeare in Hollywood will still be produced at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and both Twentieth Century and Leading Ladies have been optioned for London's West End.
Downs and ups
His career hasn't always been this felicitous, however. The angst that accompanied Moon Over Buffalo - a backstage comedy that starred Carol Burnett - is chronicled in painstaking detail in a 1998 documentary called Moon Over Broadway. And The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the 2001 musical for which he penned the libretto (the score is by country-western composer Don Schlitz), closed after 21 performances.
"I can tell you exactly what went wrong. I lost control of it," Ludwig says of Tom Sawyer, referring to everything from directorial difficulties to problems of scale in an oversized theater. "It's all my fault. I'm not blaming the producers. I'm blaming myself. ... People did go and say, 'We loved this evening. We had a wonderful evening at the theater.' But it got moved and pushed and pushed."
Since then, he has reworked the script, getting it back to where he thought it should be. That version is finding new life in schools and smaller theaters. His dream, however, is a production at a major regional theater.
In the meantime, last year he carved out a one-hour children's version for the Kennedy Center, which plans to tour the show for the next two years. This abridged rendition is proving popular with children's theaters, such as Baltimore's Pumpkin Theatre, where it will be produced this spring.
More than 15 years have passed since Ludwig last set foot in the offices of Steptoe & Johnson, the law firm that brought him to Washington in 1976 after he earned his law degree at Harvard (with time out to study literature and law at Cambridge University). He cut his workload at the firm to part-time after Lend Me a Tenor became a hit in London. After his second hit, Crazy for You, he left completely - although the firm still claims him as "of counsel."
Now he gets up each morning at 7 a.m., has breakfast with his wife, Adrienne, and their two young children, Olivia and Jack, then heads downstairs by 7:30 to start writing - in longhand on yellow legal pads - a task he sticks to until 6 p.m. To hear him tell it, no character in any of his comedies is happier.
"I love what I'm doing," says Ludwig. "I always wanted to be in the theater. It's all I ever wanted to do. And I'm getting to do it on Broadway and in London and now at great theaters locally. I just am so blessed. I'm just having a truly happy time."
Lots of Ludwig
Ken Ludwig's work on stage now ...
What: Staged reading
Where: Signature Theatre, 3806 South Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, Va.
When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Signature Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 5
Shakespeare in Hollywood
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street S.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and most Sundays, noon selected Tuesdays and Wednesdays, through Oct. 19
... and coming up.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Where: Pumpkin Theatre, Hannah More Arts Center at St. Timothy's School, 8400 Greenspring Ave., Stevenson
When: April 24-May 2, 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays