ELEANOR HOLDRIDGE COULDN'T be more pleased to be directing the Alley Theatre world premiere of Lend Me A Soprano, playwright Ken Ludwig’s gender-flipped version of his Tony Award-winning play Lend Me A Tenor. Revised by Ludwig, this remix of one of the 20th century’s greatest farces, with the lead characters now re-imagined as women, retains all of the door-slamming, screwball madness of the original, but is imbued throughout with a more “feminine” subtext. “It’s a horrible thing to say,” laughs Holdridge, “but I wouldn’t want a man to be directing it!”
Lend Me A Tenor premiered in London’s West End in 1986 before making it to Broadway in 1989. It was Ludwig’s first play for Broadway and continues to be performed all over the world in dozens of languages. While the basic plot remains the same — a world-renowned opera star scheduled to perform at the Cleveland Grand Opera Company is, due to a series of marital-related misunderstandings and one or two too many tranquilizers, unable to take the stage — throughout the rehearsals, Holdridge and the cast discovered unexpected opportunities for nuance in what is, at its core, an over-the-top comedy of Shakespearean proportions. “In some ways it’s the same,” says Holdridge of the new play. “In some ways it’s incredibly different.”
The cast of Lend Me A Soprano includes Ellen Harvey as Lucille Wylie, the opera company’s tyrannical manager, Mia Pinero as Jo, Wylie’s timid assistant, and Alexandra Silber as Elena Firenzi, a fiery but burnt-out soprano who is scheduled to perform the lead in Bizet’s Carmen, a role that is traditionally a mezzo-soprano. “‘Lend me a mezzo’ doesn’t quite have the ring of ‘lend me a soprano,’” laughs Holdridge, who adds there are plenty of “opera in-jokes” throughout the script.
The dramatic differences between the two plays are apparent in how sexual situations, however awkward and ridiculous they may be, are acted out onstage. In one seduction scene, which originally featured the wiles (and legs!) of the opera company’s resident ingenue, the roles reversed as Leo (played by Steven Good), an ambitious and “absolutely fabulous looking tenor,” comes on to Jo who doesn’t reciprocate, but clearly has a crush on the guy. Under Holdridge’s direction, Good plays the scene not so much like a Lothario, but as a man who is at ease with his sexuality. “He’s not so much coming on to her as he is exuding the charm that he has,” says Holdridge. “So many conversations in the rehearsal room and with Ken have been about making sure the women in Lend Me A Soprano have agency in their sexual desires.”
And then there’s the scene where Elena, who has, as Holdridge puts it, “lost the feeling for her art,” attempts to instruct Jo in the art of operatic singing. Whereas in Lend Me A Tenor, the scene is played with maximum buffoonery, the exchange between Silber and Pinero is more warmhearted, even affectionate. “It seems very female, this idea of teaching,” says Holdridge. “This moment doesn’t just teach the young student; it also brings hope and life and joy in the art back to the somewhat jaded soprano.”
Both Holdridge and Ludwig hope to see Lend Me A Soprano become as popular as its predecessor, while remaining a unique 21st century spin on the classic tropes of traditional Broadway farce.
“I think the original Lend Me A Tenor had a lot of heart,” says Holdridge. “But because the main characters in Lend Me A Soprano are women, there’s more latitude to find real love between the characters. There’s a sense that these women are strong and need each other.”
Lend Me A Soprano opens Wednesday, Sept. 21 and runs through Oct. 9.
Mia Pinero in Alley Theatre’s production of Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Soprano.
Alexandra Silber in Alley Theatre’s production of Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Soprano.
Mia Pinero, Ellen Harvey, and Alexandra Silber in Alley Theatre’s production of Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Soprano.
Ellen Harvey in Alley Theatre’s production of Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Soprano