Tuesday 5 July 2022

Ken Ludwig In Conversation

Ken Ludwig

Crazy For You opens this month at Chichester Festival Theatre. The musical delivers a fine evening of song and dance and drawn from the composing genius of George and Ira Gershwin, one could be forgiven for thinking that the show is a classic hailing from Broadway’s Golden Age. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. While the songs are in part drawn from the Gershwin’s 1930 show Girl Crazy, it fell to Ken Ludwig (who co-conceived the musical with director Mike Ockrent) to create the book for Crazy for You some 60 years later. The show's Broadway opening in 1992 garnered 3 Tony Awards including Best Musical, with similar honours in the Oliviers a year later on its West End transfer.

Ludwig has been very busy at Chichester recently. His adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express has only recently closed at the Festival Theatre after achieving a slew of rave reviews from across the national press. He is back in Sussex again for Crazy For You and I caught up with him in a break from rehearsals to talk about these remarkable productions.

Charlie Stemp and Carly Anderson rehearsing Crazy For You at Chichester

Ludwig told me how Crazy For You was created. “Back in the early 1990s, a businessman called Roger Horchow called me out of the blue. He had invested in a couple of Broadway shows, but had always wanted to do Gershwin. He called me because I had a show on Broadway at the time called Lend Me A Tenor that was the only real comedy on Broadway at the time and he had really loved it. He told me that he had acquired the rights from the Gershwin Estate and would I write an adaptation of Girl Crazy? 

I told him that I couldn't! Girl Crazy has a terrible book. In fact it’s hardly a book at all, more a bunch of blackout sketches with some glorious songs in it: Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm, But Not For Me. So it had an amazing score, but it was hardly a story at all.

Girl Crazy was loosely about an East Coast guy heading West. Well, I ended up keeping that bit of the story so that I could use a couple of the songs as book songs, like Biding My Time and Could You Use Me, but otherwise I threw it all out and started from scratch. I came up with a story, not entirely unlike Lend Me A Tenor, if you think about it, which is someone who in their heart wants to be in show business, but can't quite make the leap. In the case of Lend Me A Tenor, it’s somebody who is an assistant to a producer. In the case of Crazy For You, he comes from a banking family. His parents force him to be a banker, but he just wants to tap dance and that's Bobby in Crazy For You. So, I wrote the idea, came up with the story, and then Mike Ockrent joined in, we found Susan Stroman to choregraph and we built the musical.”

The company rehearsing Crazy For You at Chichester

I asked Ken to tell me more about Susan Stroman. “Well, Stroman is remarkable. She started out as a choreographer, and was rightly acclaimed for Crazy For You and went onto do other Broadway shows. And then, late in the day, she started directing. She and Mike Ockrent who directed Crazy For You got married and they were doing some shows together, and in fact were hired to do The Producers together, when Mike contracted leukaemia and tragically died so young. And then she took over The Producers and directed that on her own.”

And of course it is Stroman who will be making her much anticipated debut at Chichester this year, as she directs and choreographs this revival of Crazy For You!

Chichester hosted the UK premiere of Murder On The Orient Express earlier this year before a planned transfer to Bath. I asked Ken about his ingenious adaptation of the Agatha Christie classic.

“The Christie Estate came to me and said, "We'd like you to take any one of her novels and put it on stage.  I was very flattered and I said, "Of course I'd be honoured to do it." I chose Murder On The Orient Express without rereading it. I hadn't read it in years. I'd seen the great (1974) Albert Finney movie, but I knew the title was such an iconic title. And I thought, well, in itself it's so romantic, the title's romantic and it's exotic and ought to translate to the stage well.

Then I read the novel soup to nuts and realized this is going to be tricky. It's all virtually, all on the train. So to dramatise it, to make it fun to watch on stage and exciting, and a cliff hanger, I changed two things from the novel.

Firstly, I made the murder happen a great deal later in the piece than it is in the book. If you think in a way that's counterintuitive, as it's the murder that gets the story started, but it's really not. As a dramatist I wanted us to meet the characters and get invested in all those characters on the train, so that we cared about who did it, because until the very end w don't know who did it. Jonathan Church, who directed it so superbly, turned to me at one point and said, "Ken, the murder isn't happening till 45 minutes into the play, are we going to be okay?" And I said, "Well, just hold tight. I think we'll be all right." And it ends up being just that and it works.

The other major change I made is that in the book there are 12 suspects and someone even makes a remark about that and says, "Oh 12, like a British jury." I cut that down to eight suspects because there were just too many people to get to know in the compressed stage time.”

One of the standout features of the play was the set design, and I asked Ken for his thoughts on seeing a play that is, for the most part, set on a train stranded in the Alps, physically brought to the stage.

“When the play first ran in the States there was a beautiful set by Beowulf Boritt who in fact I've worked with several times since, and he's doing Crazy For You here at Chichester now. For the play here, a whole different concept emerged between the two geniuses that I had to work with, who were Jonathan Church and his designer Rob Jones. 

Rob had conceived a whole imaginative way to view the train with the locomotive at the back of the stage and pallets that came on and danced around the stage. And, as you saw, they formed the dining car and then formed the car with all the bedrooms. And so we had to imagine ourselves into the setting in a different way. 

It was all in our mind seeing the pieces of it come together and it was, I have to say, the most beautiful, dramatic set I think I'll ever have in my life. And it helped spur me on to write the new pieces, parts of it that I did, because it was so glorious. Rob’s design, from the early design-box stage, made me think about how that would affect Poirot and the big entrances for Mrs. Hubbard, who is very flamboyant American, and all the characters, little Greta Olson, who's afraid of her own shadow. And it inspired me to rethink the dramatic way to tell the story.

Henry Goodman as Hercule Poirot

And of course Henry Goodman (as Hercule Poirot) was a delight. I have known of Henry’s work for a long while and I find his attention to detail is remarkable. He thinks through the character in depth from the beginning of the play to the end of the play. So when we start working, even when we started on the first day and he was practising the first scene, he knows where he wants to end up emotionally, because he's thought about it so much. He's a real intellect. And his skillset is incredible. So he brings both this remarkable intelligence to every role he does and then is able to embody it, because he has such a great set of acting skills and such a good voice too.”

Crazy For You commences previews in the Chichester Festival Theatre on 11th July, where it runs until 4th September. For tickets click here.  

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