Parents’ wartime letters inspired playwright

Ken Ludwig’s mother burned the original letters, so he had to use his imagination.



Ken Ludwig has no idea why his mother destroyed the letters that she and his father exchanged during World War II.

“Maybe they were too intimate” for anyone else to read, mused the playwright, a man whose many credits include the sparkling musical “Crazy for You” and such popular comedies as “Moon Over Buffalo” and “Lend Me a Tenor.” 

But he’s just guessing. And there’s nobody left to ask.

So, Ludwig filled in the blanks for himself.

That’s why “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” — the play opening June 9 at the New Jewish Theater — is, technically, a work of fiction. Still, it’s based on a true story — a story uncommonly close to the writer’s heart. And gene pool.

Ken Ludwig isn’t even sure how his grandfathers, who set the romance in motion, knew each other to begin with. Two immigrants from Eastern Europe, both men were tailors — Ludwig in Coatesville, Pa., Rabiner in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Did they come to America on the same boat? Did they meet at a tailors’ conference? Do tailors have conferences? This detail, their grandson concedes, also is lost to time.

Nevertheless, as America entered the war each tailor was thinking about the future – no doubt about the future of the war and all it implied for America and for Europe, no doubt about their children’s future as well.

Dr. Jack Ludwig, fresh out of medical school, was in the service, stationed at an Army hospital in Oregon. Louise Rabiner, who loved the theater, was a dancer and actress, trying to make it on Broadway. That’s in New York.

But with their father’s encouragement, they began a correspondence that spanned a continent, along with the long, uncertain war years.  

An epistolary courtship might sound like something out of Jane Austin. But playwright Ludwig presents his parents as they were, modern Americans with complicated lives and feelings that the audience can relate to. 

“I started to turn a little inward, to look at my own past,” said Ken Ludwig, who holds degrees from Haverford College, Cambridge University and Harvard Law. Today he lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Adrienne George; they have two children, Olivia and Jack. “But the more I made notes (for the play), the more I focused just on them.”

And they were two vivid characters. Louise, just 20, was absorbed in singing and dancing lessons as she pursued what her parents considered “crazy show-biz dreams.” Leaving Brooklyn behind, she moved into the kind of theatrical rooming house for young women made famous in the Katharine Hepburn-Ginger Rogers movie “Stage Door.” 

“She wanted nothing more than to be in a Broadway musical,” Ludwig said fondly. “And she was!” “Hellzapoppin’” may not be slated for imminent revival, but it was a hit in its day. She toured in road shows, too.

Jack, 29, had gotten a slightly late start in medicine, He’d become a pharmacist first, but, like Louise, he was drawn to wider horizons than his quiet parents imagined. Working in a steel mill to pay his way through school, he had plenty to do without making room for romance. 

But it was time for Jack to settle down. And who better for Louise to marry than a Jewish doctor? Besides, their fathers were already friends (somehow?). 

What followed, despite the many complications of time and place, now seems “b’shert,” Ludwig explained in a phone interview from England. There, he had two plays opening at the famed Chichester Festival Theatre — a stage adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express and a revival of “Crazy for You.”

He’s also turning “Lend Me a Tenor” into “Lend Me a Soprano,” restyled for a female cast; it opens at the Houston’s Alley Theatre in September.

Often called America’s premiere comic playwright, Ludwig also loves opera. Small surprise, then, that his new comic opera, “Tenor Overboard” — its music drawn from the vast Rossini oeuvre – debuts in July at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y. “I’ve been kind of busy,” he said mildly.

But Jack and Louise Ludwig are never far from his thoughts. “My parents were really fine people, deeply decent people,” said the writer, the younger of their two sons. “I wanted to capture the spirit of their age, the heroism of living through World War Two. 

“It was a time when America — when Western civilization — had to show real courage, real integrity.

“I knew two people who did that.” 

‘Dear Jack, Dear Louise’

WHEN: June 9-26

WHERE:  New Jewish Theatre’s Wool Studio Theater in the Jewish Community Center’s Arts & Education Building, 2 Millstone Campus Drive

HOW MUCH: $52.97 – $63.78