Ken Ludwig on flipping the script for ‘Lend Me a Soprano’ now at Olney Theatre

The playwright talks about the comedy he gender-swapped from his popular farce 'Lend Me a Tenor.'

Some things have not changed for playwright Ken Ludwig after many years of success. “I still write every day,” he declares.

Even casual theatergoers will recognize Ludwig as the writer of A Fox on the Fairway, Leading Ladies, Moon Over Buffalo, the book for the Gershwin musical Crazy for You, and adaptations of literary classics such as Murder on the Orient Express, Treasure Island, and The Three Musketeers — to name just a few.

But what has changed for Ludwig is a twist on his own most popular work, Lend Me a Tenor, the farce with operatic leanings. Maryland’s Olney Theatre Center is presenting the gender-bent Lend Me a Soprano, adapted by the playwright himself. The production runs February 10 through March 10, 2024.

Ken Ludwig. Courtesy of Olney Theatre Center.

Lend Me a Tenor — like Lend Me a Soprano — focuses on a visit by a famous opera star to a Cleveland opera company for a guest appearance that is fraught with jealous spouses, eager opera fans, unbridled passion, door-slamming hilarity, and things do not go as planned. In the new play, playwright Ludwig swapped genders on several major and supporting characters, while keeping the two-act, fast-paced, mistaken-identity, and bed-hopping plot intact.

I sat down with Ludwig to discuss the origins of his career, the premiere of Lend Me a Tenor, how he literally flipped the script on the comedy. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

I want to jog your memory for a minute. Take me back to 1985 when Lend Me a Tenor premiered at the American Stage Festival. What was it like seeing and hearing your creation live onstage for the first time?

Ken Ludwig: It was amazing because that was very, very early in my career. It was only the second thing I had onstage in a professional manner. When I first started, I lived in DC and I had things put on in church basements, in the old 14th Street area. Then when I went to the American Stage Festival, one year I had my first show, Sullivan and Gilbert, and the next year, I wrote Lend Me a Tenor. It was magical. It changed my life, and it felt like it was life-changing because the audience liked it so much. I thought, “Oh wow, I’m making some progress!”

Lend Me a Tenor then leapt across the Atlantic to London’s West End. Do you have memories of that experience, the show being produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber, a play of yours in London before making a splash on Broadway? That must have been a heady experience.

Yes, it was, and I have tremendous memories of that period, and remember everything about it. I remember the call from Andrew Lloyd Webber; I was in my tiny, little apartment in DC. He had gotten ahold of the script through a friend of a friend and he said he wanted to do it right away in the West End. He had the option to produce several shows in the Globe Theater on Shaftesbury Avenue, now the Gielgud. It was shocking and amazing! He asked if I could come over soon, he’d send me a ticket. I flew over to Heathrow, and he had a car waiting for me to take me to the Savoy Hotel, where we met for the first time in the hotel bar. And I spent essentially the next six months with him getting the show ready. We worked with the director — he’s the one who introduced us. We cast it together and got a big [British] star at the time named Denis Lawson. I remember every single thing about it; it was transforming.

Aside from the show itself, the experience of the West End and luminaries coming to the show must have blown your mind a bit.

It did, it did! This is another thing I remember: I was with Andrew and we were at the Groucho Club. He was planning opening night; he had his assistant there, saying who he was going to have — Mick Jagger, and this and that. He turned to me and asked who I would like to invite. I said, “Andrew! Get a grip on reality here — I don’t know anyone! Who do I want? My parents!”

In those early days, from the American premiere to London and then to Broadway, did the script of Lend Me a Tenor change a little or a lot?

Where it really changed from the time Andrew read it and liked it was when we got into rehearsals and previews and heard how an audience reacted. That’s when the big changes came. Then it had a different director for New York, Jerry Zaks, and with Jerry, it changed, too. He’s a great director but has an American style that’s muscular and gets right to the point. All the scenes got a little shorter and punchier. So it changed between London and New York, in that way.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Tina Stafford, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Rachel Felstein, Donna Migliaccio, and Natalya Lynette Rathnam in Ken Ludwig’s ‘Lend Me A Soprano’ at Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Did you expect the play to be such a success? How does its popularity feel after all these years?

This all came about quickly and miraculously. I had gone from having a day job — we all do in theater — to having a show in the West End! I mean, oh my God, it’s what you pray for. Then they take that production and put it on Broadway and that started the whole shift. I wasn’t an amateur before then, I was a serious playwright, who super-seriously wrote every day, as I still do. But I got a break, and the break took me into commercial theater. I went literally from church basements to the West End and Broadway. And then the show took off like mad. It was just heart-stoppingly great.

What drew you to revisit Lend Me a Tenor, shift the story and characters to female leads, and think about the play in a different way?

Over the last ten years or so, I became aware that women just don’t have as many great roles in the theater, historically. The Greeks didn’t really put them in; in Shakespeare, there are so many more male leads. Of course, there are some incredible female leads in Shakespeare — from Cleopatra to Juliet and Lady M[acbeth]. But in sheer numbers, it’s not so. And as I worked in the professional theater more and more, actresses I knew would draw attention to the fact they didn’t have as many opportunities as the men. I thought, this is something I care about, so I started writing more and more major parts for females. For instance, the Old Globe, in San Diego, commissioned me to do a play. I decided to the story of Robin Hood — Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood — and I made Maid Marian the hero — she’s the one who splits the arrow. When I did an adaptation of The Three Musketeers for the Bristol Old Vic, in England, I added a sister for D’Artagnan, named Sabine, who fights alongside her brother. She defeats Milady and she’s great with a sword in her own right.

So more and more, I’ve been very conscious of including more women than men, in the last few plays I’ve written and even one I am working on now. I wanted to right that wrong.

Dylan Arredondo, Tina Stafford, Rachel Felstein, and Carolann M. Sanita in Ken Ludwig’s ‘Lend Me A Soprano’ at Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Which brings us to Lend Me a Soprano.

The characters in Lend Me a Tenor had become somewhat iconic, in the sense that Max [the assistant], Saunders [the opera company manager], and Tito [the famous tenor] — the three big roles — are men, as written. It struck me, wouldn’t it be fun to turn the play on its head, and make the three main characters women? Why wouldn’t a woman run the Cleveland Grand Opera Company? Why wouldn’t they be bringing over a famous soprano from Italy, instead of a famous tenor? And why wouldn’t the little schnook who works for the opera manager be a woman who wants to be a soprano? I just thought, “What a fun thing!”

How did you find the female voice in changing the main characters from men? Was it sticking close to the original when you began the adaptation?

At first as I was writing it, it was adhering quite closely to the original play, which it still does in the general outline. Then I realized after we did a reading of the revised script (I arrange those myself and direct them), it didn’t sound real because women and men speak differently, and express themselves differently. As I started to really make them into believable women, whom I know, it started to click and take on a life of its own.

As it developed, were there characters or moments that had originally worked you had to change outright because a female character wouldn’t do or say something a male character would?

I did change a number of things and a number I didn’t see coming. As we went into rehearsal for the first production, it was with the new script I had worked on over time, had changed and tried to give a female voice. But there were things that still didn’t work. An example is, in the opening of Lend Me a Tenor, Max, the protagonist, wants to be an opera singer, knows he has a heart full of talent but nobody sees it. He has a girlfriend named Maggie and she says she wants a fling, she doesn’t want to marry him. The man she wants a fling with is Tito Morelli, the visiting opera singer. When I turned that around — it’s a female protagonist named Jo, and she has a boyfriend who is the son of the general manager, I named him Jerry. He says he wants a fling with the soprano coming over from Italy, but it suddenly made things very icky; we didn’t love him anymore. It wasn’t any good that way, so I had to really rewrite that scene from the ground up. I didn’t realize this until we were in rehearsals for the first production.

Were there other changes as they worked on the premiere?

Yes, there were. There were a number of moments I had to revise. The character in the original Lend Me a Tenor, a woman who’s a real knockout, a blonde bombshell who is the soprano in the Cleveland opera company; she’s a real maneater and she can’t wait to sleep with Tito, thinking it will get her to the top. Their scenes are filled with double entendres, and Tito thinks she is a woman of the night, but of course, she’s not: she wants to meet his agent. In the new version, when I had a guy who is a tenor in the company, good-looking, trying the double entendres, which I tried to preserve, and I tried to preserve that he was a woman-chaser, again, it got icky. We didn’t like them anymore. So I had to change that whole situation. I made him a Dutchman, a European, and mined his different way of thinking and his accent for the same kinds of laughs. So a lot did change that way.

The premiere of Lend Me a Soprano was at Alley Theatre in Houston. Eleanor Holdridge directed the premiere and is serving as the director for the Olney production, correct?

Yes, that’s right.

It must be nice, since you live in the DC area, to have the show practically in your backyard.

It is, it’s great. I was actually going to go to the first rehearsal to meet the cast, but it was the day of the huge snowstorm and I couldn’t get there. I’ll definitely be there to see it.

And Eleanor and I have become friends; she’s a wonderful director, she’s terrific, just a lovely person, so capable and so smart. We worked very closely on the show at the Alley, and now she’s going to do the same production here at the Olney, with different actors. But I have complete confidence in her as the director.

With the female swap of characters, it must be a good thing to have a female director like Eleanor Holdridge overseeing the production.

Oh, absolutely. I knew from the minute I wrote it, I really wanted a female director, for sure. For the Alley Theatre production, we had a female set designer, a female costume designer. I mean, it’s a whole different play and a whole different perspective. I’d do a disservice if I didn’t do that.

Rachel Felstein as Jo in Ken Ludwig’s ‘Lend Me A Soprano’ at Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Something else you have said in the past struck me: “Art can reorder our hearts.” Can you explain what you meant by that?

I mean art really changes us. How many things in the world really change us? We may not be treating other people the way we should treat them. Then we see something like Shakespeare’s As You Like It, where one duke banishes his brother to the forest because he wants to grasp power; then one brother turns on his brother, who is Orlando the hero. But the heroine of the piece is really Rosalind — and it reorders your hearts in so many ways: it makes you more tolerant, it makes you more loving, it makes you more just. You go to great theater and you come out, if you’ve thought about it and you let it work on you the way it’s meant to, it makes you a better person.

How does that statement about comedy reordering our hearts apply to Lend Me a Soprano?

The story of Lend Me a Soprano, and Lend Me a Tenor before that, is about a young person who thinks he or she has greatness inside them. In this case, someone who thinks they can perform in an art form, an opera, in a way that will transform other people. They are artists in their hearts, but nobody sees it. Isn’t that true of so many of us, when we grow up? Shortly after the original Lend Me a Tenor, someone asked me what it was about. I said I tried to write a comic play, and they said, “No, you idiot, it’s about you! When you wrote it, you were completely unknown.” I thought, they’re right. I used to have a day job, I got up early in the morning, 4 a.m. and wrote from 4:30 to 8:30, for three years, because I had something inside me that was more than anybody else could see. Then when someone pointed that out, I realized it was kind of about myself. It’s about having faith in yourself, and sticking to it, and having a vision for yourself, and caring about the art that underlies it. That is the same for both of these of these stories; in one case it’s Max and in this case, it’s Jo.

When an audience member comes to Olney and sits down to experience Lend Me a Soprano, what do you hope they take away from it?

I hope they’re really entertained. We have always said this, now especially because times are hard, we’re in such a mess in so many ways. It’s nice to have a night at the theater when you get to forget about all that stuff. Theater is always best when it’s in a self-contained world. If you have a play somewhere that is self-contained but is about politics or social ills we have, you don’t get to get away; you’re brought face-to-face with them and you think about them. That’s wonderful, wonderful! But that’s not what I do, that’s just not what I do. If I could do it and had the intellect to do it, maybe I would, but I do something different. I try to take people into a whole new world where there is justice, there is love, there is comedy, and we see the best of ourselves. And we see the kind of selves we can be if we just have a good heart and have faith in other people and have love. It’s the kind of life I want people to lead.

Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Soprano plays through March 10, 2024, at Olney Theatre Center, Roberts Mainstage, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. Tickets ($40–$90) are available online or through the box office at 301-924-3400, open from 12 pm – 6 pm Wednesdays through Saturdays. Discounts are available for groups, seniors, military, and students (for details click here).

Running Time: About two hours with a 15-minute intermission.

Credits for the cast and creative team are online here (scroll down).

There will be an audio-described performance for the blind and visually impaired on Wednesday, March 6 at 7:30 pm. A sign-interpreted performance will be Thursday, March 7 at 7:30 pm.

COVID Safety: Face masks are recommended but no longer required to attend events in any Olney Theatre Center performance spaces.

Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Soprano is directed by Eleanor Holdridge and features Rachel Felstein (Jo), Carolann M. Sanita (Elena Firenzi), Tina Stafford (Mrs. Wylie), Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Jerry), Dylan Arredondo (Pasquale), Tom Patterson (Leo), Donna Migliaccio (Julia), and Beverly (Natalya Lynette Rathman). The creative team includes Chris Youstra (music director), Andrew Cohen (set designer), Sarah Cubbage (costume designer), Alberto Segarra (lighting designer), Matt Rowe (sound designer). The team also includes Robb Hunter (fight choreographer), Helen Aberger (intimacy choreographer), Larry Peterson (wig designer), Melissa Flaim (dialect consultant), Ben Walsh (stage manager), and Tori Niemiec (assistant costume designer). Jason Loewith is Olney Theatre’s artistic director.

Laughs crescendo in Ken Ludwig’s ‘Lend Me a Soprano’ at Olney Theatre Center  (review by Jeffrey Walker, February 13, 2024)


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