Lawyer-turned-playwright finds a home in the theater – Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Posted: March 4, 2020 at 12:59 pm

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Ken Ludwig, author of Murder on the Orient Express, gave up the law after the success of Lend Me a Tenor

Murder on the Orient Express: Continues through March 8 at Asolo Repertory Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Most performances are sold out. 941-351-8000;

After the major premieres of his new plays, Ken Ludwig usually doesnt see them again.

With many of his 28 plays frequently produced at professional and community theaters, he would never have time to write if he checked in on new productions even occasionally.

But he came to Sarasota this month to see Asolo Repertory Theatres sold-out production of Murder on the Orient Express, his adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel, because Ive heard so many wonderful things about this theater from lots of different sources, friends who have worked here or seen shows here.

While here, he saw all three Asolo Rep shows now in production, met the cast of Orient Express and its director, Peter Amster, had a lunch with Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards.

Ludwig said hes always delighted to see how people interpret the plays. Love seeing people doing new things with my work.

And he was particularly excited about the Asolo Rep production. Im not just saying this because Im sitting in the theater, but I thought everything about it was wonderful. The set was incredible, the lighting, the direction. Each character was so well defined. I thought it had a terrific thrust to it. The engine got started and didnt let up.

Ludwig, who is best known as the author of the comedies Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo and the musical Crazy for You, was commissioned to write the play by Agatha Christies estate.

His agent was contacted about five years ago by Christies grandson, Matthew Pritchard, who was interested in seeing a new stage adaptation of her work.

They were starting to do some new television projects and OKd a three-movie deal with Kenneth Branagh, and apparently they wanted to do something new on stage, Ludwig said in an interview in the lobby while an audience watched his play inside the theater.

Hes not exactly sure why he was asked perhaps it was the Edgar Award he received from the Mystery Writers of America for his comic mystery The Games Afoot, which Asolo Rep produced in 2013. Maybe that helped them find me.

Ludwig was given a choice of any Christie book and he chose Orient Express because Its a terrific story and it has a great title.

The result was a mystery with the kind of comical touches audiences have come to expect from this lawyer-turned-playwright. It had its world premiere in 2017 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J.

I tried to very much consciously to tell the story with as much integrity as I could, and I didnt think of it being a comedy at all, but all the characters are basically funny, even in the novel, Ludwig said. Not laugh a minute funny, but when you tell a story about these very eccentric people, put them on the stage and clothe them, humor naturally emerges.

Ludwig isnt sure why more new murder mysteries arent being produced because audiences love them. Ive thought seriously about writing another mystery for the stage and toying around in my notes on a pad. Its one of three or four things Im thinking of turning into a play.

The line between mystery and comedy is a thin one, he said.

Its hard to write a mystery that wouldnt have some laughs in it. Hercule Poirot, for example, is innately a comic character. He preens, he fixes his mustache, he wears a hairnet. Watson is a comic creation who talks about Holmes as this completely eccentric madman, who in a sense is also a comic creation. If you write a really good play about eccentric people youre in a comic world.

Christie wrote stage plays herself, most notably The Mousetrap, which has been running in London since 1952 and is approaching its 70th anniversary.

Ludwig studies the work of great playwrights, including William Shakespeare, George Farquhar, Oliver Goldsmith, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward to figure out why theyre masterpieces. Usually its because the playwright really knew what he or she was doing. They didnt happen to fall into it and happen to write Pygmalion. Shaw understood what made great theater. He was a critic and he worked like a dog at it.

He may not follow all the productions of his plays, but Ludwig is involved up to my eyeballs when a new one is getting ready for production. Im working with the director, the designers, the cast and doing any rewrites.

His most recent play is also his most personal, Dear Jack. Dear Louise, in which two actors tell the story of my parents courtship through letters, because they met through letters and got to know each other before they ever met in person. Its very different from anything Ive written before.

It had its premiere in December at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where critics and audiences greeted it warmly.

Ludwig was working as a lawyer in Washington when he started writing plays.

I had this day job and I was writing in the morning from 4-8 and then Id put on my suit and go to work at the law firm.

His first plays were done in church basements and tiny off-off-Broadway type places, he said. Then came his farce Lend Me a Tenor, his fourth or fifth play, which opened in 1986 in London and three years later on Broadway, leading to countless productions around the country.

It took off and I was able to leave the law, he said. I was not an instant success. I paid my dues in the sense that I worked really hard to become a playwright over a 4-5 year period.

Lawyer-turned-playwright finds a home in the theater - Sarasota Herald-Tribune

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