The new plays of Broadway-proven writers find many paths to success. But not until Ken Ludwig pulled up to Sideburn Road had anyone thought one such path might be the stage of a public high school in Fairfax.
Yet here was Ludwig, author of Broadway musicals like “Crazy for You” and farces such as “Moon Over Buffalo” and “Lend Me a Tenor,” sitting with a script in the James Robinson Secondary School auditorium, listening and watching as a brigade of teenage thespians rehearsed the world premiere of his latest comedy, “Midsummer/Jersey.”
“Pace is everything, but pace doesn’t mean rushing,” the Washington-based dramatist implored, as the young actors, forming a crescent at the lip of the stage during a break, listened intently. “You ought to feel free to take your time. And, oh — your lines were perfect!”
You may be wondering why on earth a guy who’s had his punch lines christened on Broadway by the likes of Carol Burnett (“Moon”) and Alec Baldwin (an adaptation of “Twentieth Century”) and Kristen Bell (“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”) would entrust one of his beloved, untested brainchildren to the care of an ensemble rushing in after soccer practice or preoccupied by the SAT. Well, it so happens that he’d written “Midsummer/Jersey” — making its debut at Robinsonon Thursday — for these very students to perform. Appealing to the cultural tastes and theatrical ambitions of the “Gossip Girl” generation was exactly what this unusual if not unprecedented experiment was all about.
For in concert with Robinson’s Theatre Arts chair and longtime drama teacher, Douglas Rome, Ludwig was embarked on one of the oldest of American theater customs — the tryout of an original play — in the unlikeliest of venues. His intention, though, was to see if “Midsummer/Jersey” had adolescent legs: in other words, whether it contained the kind of juicy parts and comic firepower that would make it popular on the high school circuit, where Samuel French, the august company that licenses Ludwig’s plays, hopes to market it. Though high schools make up 40 percent of the firm’s clients, few of the professionally produced plays in its catalogues were envisioned for high school presentation.
Certainly, the financial stakes are not nearly on the level of Broadway or London’s West End, where a revival of Ludwig’s “Crazy for You” is currently being mounted. A high school offering fetches only a few hundred dollars in licensing fees per performance. (Those fees were waived in this case.) Still, a popular new play staged multiple times across the country does create a revenue stream for a writer. And perhaps more importantly, an enthusiastic new coterie of drama clubbers might become lifelong fans of a playwright’s output.
“I have to say, there’s incredible value to introducing a whole generation to your work,” said Ken Dingledine, director of operations and publications of Samuel French, which had played matchmaker between Ludwig and Rome’s highly regarded drama program. “And it really fits with a writer like Ken. He lives in a world of writing that fits very well with this market.”