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April 21, 2020

Community and Healing: Ken Ludwig on Art in a Time of Crisis


As all of us in the performing arts adjust to a new era, Concord Theatricals reached out to some of our authors for their personal reflections on Art in a Time of Crisis. (For other pieces in this series, click here.)

Award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig, whose work includes Lend Me A Tenor, Crazy For You®, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery and so many others, addresses our queries with candor, compassion and – as always – humor.

How are you responding to this situation artistically?

My personal response, in addition to trying to look after my family and make sure that everyone in the house is as safe as possible, is to try to write the very best comedy that I have in me.

As Joe Biden likes to say, “here’s the deal.” This moment is not just tragic and unprecedented, it is also a call to arms. Every artist has his or her own special set of skills, and this is an opportunity, indeed an obligation, to use those skills as best we can. My own skill (I hope) is writing comedy, and now is the time to put my back into it.

My gut feeling about this crisis is that once we’re on the other side of it, people are going to want to see the kind of theater that helps us wipe away the demons that we’re now experiencing. So I’m writing and writing, every day, and putting as much joy into my work as I can muster.

In addition to writing, I’m trying to focus on doing things for the community. I’ve recorded videos to post online, and I’m participating in several upcoming online conversations, one on Jane Austen’s Emma and another on Shakespeare and education.

I’m also using this time to share favorite, hope-filled movies and works of literature with my family. We’re re-reading The Good Companions by JB Priestly—perhaps the most optimistic and wonderful comic novel about the theater ever written—and we’re watching old favorite movie musicals, including Singin’ in the Rain, Bye Bye Birdie and The Music Man. Also, I’m a Churchill fanatic, so I’m currently finishing the amazing biography of Churchill by Andrew Roberts. These works of art bring me joy and give me faith in the future.

What role can the arts play in a time like this?

The Arts play an enormous role in our sense of community and our sense of healing. Hasn’t art always allowed us to join arms and confront all of the crises that have come our way?  

It’s true, we can’t gather together at the moment in theaters. But the ingenuity of our peers has been endless. We can go online and watch heart-stopping musical performances by orchestra members sitting in their own homes. We can experience virtual architectural tours and tours through museums. And, thanks to the generosity of so many remarkable theater institutions, we can watch plays at home as we wait out the end of the crisis. As always, our community of artists has responded to the call to arms with hard work, enthusiasm and sheer genius.

Which works of art do you turn to or find most appropriate in this moment?

The works of art that I find most inspiring at this moment are works of genuine comedy. High art in a comic package. Movies like The Court Jester, Some Like it Hot and Tom Jones. Plays like Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and Sheridan’s The Rivals. And, being the biggest Shakespeare geek of all time, I turn again and again to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet. Yes, Hamlet. It should have been a comedy, trust me. And what on earth is more inspiring than the speech that begins, “What a piece of work is a man?”

What words of advice can you offer to people currently writing and/or reading plays at home?

I love this question because I think this is one of the great things we can all do together at this moment: read plays aloud with our families and friends.

Even if we’re not in the same room, we can get on Zoom or other programs and read plays together. It takes an extra push, but it’s worth it. So let me list a few terrific comic plays to read together. I’m limiting myself to classics that have manageable casts, but of course more modern plays would also be great fun.

A tip: don’t bother reading the stage direction aloud as you go. You don’t need them unless they describe some action that is integral to the story of the play.

Hay Fever by Noel Coward is one of my favorites. There are 8 juicy parts and it’s hilarious. (The 9th part, the maid, can be doubled by one of the first 8.)  The play is very English, and you have to be able to raise one eyebrow at time to cast a withering glance  at the right moment.

Private Lives, also by Coward, is for 4 actors (with another maid, this time with very little to do). Two of the parts, Elyot and Amanda, are among the greatest star parts of the 20th century, so go for it and bring out your inner star quality.

Another good choice would be Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw. It’s  a terrific play, full of comic truths as only Shaw can dream up. It’s also about heroism. Real heroism as opposed to the empty kind, so it will register today in so many ways.

Another great Shaw play to perform together is The Devil’s Disciple. It’s also about heroism and it’s the only play by Shaw set in America. It takes place during the American Revolution – another crisis that shook the world – and has a glorious plot which Shaw gleefully stole from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

And once you’ve done those two by Shaw, try a third one:  throw caution to the wind and act the hell out of Pygmalion. Who doesn’t want to play Eliza, Higgins and Doolittle at least once in their lives?

Anything else?

Yes, for sure. We have to keep faith, each in our own fashion, and we will survive in ways that we never thought possible.


Ken Ludwig has had six shows on Broadway and seven in London’s West End, and many of his works have become a standard part of the American repertoire. His plays included Lend Me A Tenor, Crazy For You, Moon Over Buffalo, Twentieth Century, Be My Baby, Baskerville, A Comedy of Tenors, Shakespeare in Hollywood, A Fox on the Fairway, Leading Ladies, and a stage version of Murder on the Orient Express written expressly at the request of the Agatha Christie Estate. His work has been performed in over 30 countries in more than 20 languages, and his plays are produced throughout the United States every night of the year.

To read more about Ken Ludwig’s plays, visit our website. In North America, click here. In the UK and Europe, click here.