The story of the writer who toils in early-morning obscurity before leaving to work at his "real" job, and then, once attaining that "big break," bolts from his career as a (pick one: advertising executive, teacher, waiter) and never looks back, is so firmly rooted in American literary lore that one can't help noticing the contrary case of playwright Ken Ludwig.
Though he has a smash hit running in London's West End, a Broadway opening scheduled for next season, the almost assured success that comes with having your play produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and a movie deal in the offing, Ludwig says he has no intention of dropping his profession as an attorney.
He evokes images of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, writers whose lives would have somehow been less than full had they not excelled in careers separate from their literary pursuits (Williams as a physician, Stevens as an insurance company executive).
"I enjoy practicing law as much as I enjoy play writing," Ludwig, 36, says without a hint of disingenuousness.
His routine has been mercilessly consistent for years: rise at 4 a.m. (he eats breakfast each day with his wife, a law student at Georgetown), write till noon, work at the Washington law firm of Steptoe & Johnson (where he is special counsel) till 6 or 7, in bed by 9:30.
Over the past 10 years such a marathon schedule has yielded five plays, many of which -- including "Sullivan and Gilbert" and "Postmortem" -- have been performed in such respected regional theaters as the Huntington Theatre in Boston, the Cleveland Play House and the American Stage Festival in Milford, N.H. But it is his comedy "Lend Me a Tenor," which opened in March at London's Globe Theatre, that by Ludwig's own admission has "catapulted the whole issue of play writing in my life to a whole different league."
"Lend Me a Tenor" is set in a Cleveland hotel suite in 1934 and concerns one farcical night in the history of the mythical Cleveland Grand Opera ("I wanted a town . . . that had some innate humor about it"). An amateur singer rises to the occasion when he is thrust into the role of Othello after a famed Italian tenor has apparently dropped dead. The resulting mix of farce and opera has led several critics to favorably compare it to the Marx Brothers.
Ludwig, who laughs at the irony of never having had one of his plays produced in Washington (he hopes "Lend Me a Tenor" will have a pre-Broadway run here), says his successful road to London was paved with "crazy happenstance" and "serendipity." A prospective director for one of Ludwig's other plays came into possession of a copy of "Lend Me a Tenor" without Ludwig's knowledge. The director called Ludwig from England, telling him he would like to direct "Tenor." Could he show it to a producer?
"Who?" Ludwig asked.
"Andrew Lloyd Webber," replied the director, naming the composer and/or producer of such hits as "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Evita" and "Cats."
"Sure," said Ludwig. "Feel free."
"Now that things have popped, a lot of my play writing time is taken up with the business of being a playwright," says Ludwig, enumerating a long list of countries where he has sold translation rights to "Lend Me a Tenor." He has two agents -- one in New York and one in London -- and a lawyer working for him, but notes "because of what I do I couldn't sign a contract without reading it. I'd feel like I was a big fraud."
Ludwig, who graduated from Harvard Law School after studying for two years at Cambridge, practices intellectual property law, representing publishers, theaters (he is general counsel to the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, where he also serves on the board of trustees), artists and writers. "They can trust me because they know I'm really, really sensitive to their problems," he says.
Ludwig says he enjoys the "wonderful sense of historical continuity" that comes with practicing law, in which "you draw on this body of experience," as contrasted with play writing, in which he says "you have to learn all over again" with each new play.
"I'm blown away after six hours of play writing -- a mental dishrag," says Ludwig. "But then I can change clothes and come here and feel real fresh about law."
He admits that it's sometimes "scary" now to sit down and write, wondering if he will ever replicate the success of "Lend Me a Tenor."
"Unfortunately, I do think about that," he says. "But I try to divorce myself from it. I get up and I say, 'Just forget about that.' Who knows what's going to happen in this world anyway?"
His current projects include a new comedy and ideas for a musical (his undergraduate degree from Haverford College is in music theory and composition).
And should those projects fail -- or (gasp) should "Lend Me a Tenor" bomb in New York next season -- Ludwig says he would not be devastated for two reasons: "One, I'm fortunate enough to have this big success in London; and two, because of the law.
"I've got a whole other life."