Ken Ludwig said he prefers plays to musicals — a surprising comment, considering he is the author of the new musical playing at the Shubert Theater, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
Ludwig, a renowned comedy playwright and one-time lawyer, spoke yesterday at a Jonathan Edwards College Master’s Tea. To an audience of about 20 people, Ludwig discussed how he broke into the playwriting world and about the new musical based on the Mark Twain novel.
“Tom Sawyer” had its world premiere at the Shubert Theater in New Haven Tuesday, marking the rejuvenated effort to bring back the spirit of the “Broadway Tryout Town” to the theater. The play runs here until March 11 before heading to the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway March 27.
Ludwig, who has had success writing both plays and musicals, discussed differences between writing for these two types of shows.
“In a musical, structure is everything,” Ludwig said.
He said a musical with a good narrative structure can sometimes be successful even without great music, although a musical with bad structure will not work.
When writing a book for a musical, a playwright must work very closely with the composer. The collaboration is always “hand and glove,” he said.
Ludwig made some changes to Twain’s original plot to adapt the novel to the stage.
The characters Aunt Polly and Judge Thatcher, for instance, have a relationship in the musical.
Ludwig said when adapting a musical an author must “to make one event lead to another.” While the Twain novel jumps from one occurrence to another, plot events in the musical must flow together.
Even though Tom Sawyer opened Tuesday, Ludwig said his musical is still a work in progress. Just recently, Ludwig and others involved in the show decided to replace the first song in the show with a new opening number.
Theater professionals often tweak aspects of their productions depending on audience reaction, he said.
“Now, getting in front of an audience is when I go to work,” Ludwig said.
Ludwig has had a lengthy career before writing Tom Sawyer. He is also the author of “Crazy for You,” “Moon Over Buffalo” and “Lend Me a Tenor.”
Ludwig, who grew up in York, Penn., said when he was six years old, a backstage encounter with actor Cyril Ritchard at a Broadway show sparked his interest in a career theater.
“From that moment on, all I wanted to do was be in the theatre,” Ludwig said.
After majoring in music theory and composition at Haverford College, Ludwig began law school at Harvard University. After taking a couple of years to get a theater degree at Cambridge University in England, Ludwig then finished his law degree at Harvard and started practicing law in Washington, D.C.
While practicing law, Ludwig always maintained his desire to be a playwright and kept up a strict routine of waking at 4 a.m. so that he could write play scripts from 4:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.
His first break came when an off-Broadway producer “liked Divine Fire,” his play about epic Renaissance lovers Abelard and Heloise. Since the play received good reviews and had “a nice good run,” Ludwig said it got easier to find producers and song writers with whom to collaborate. Andrew Lloyd Weber, for instance, produced his play “Opera Buffa,” which later had its title changed to “Lend Me a Tenor.”
“It was my first commercial success,” Ludwig said.
Ludwig worked concurrently as a lawyer for years before he felt secure enough in the theatre field to abandon the practice. It wasn’t until after “Lend Me a Tenor” that Ludwig left the law.
“Looking back, I wasn’t very courageous,” Ludwig said. “I was not very bold in making this decision for my career.”
Some students at the tea said they found the contrast between writing plays and musicals interesting.
“For me it was particularly interesting to hear the perspective of a playwright on writing a musical,” said Alejandro Reti, MED ’03.
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