MASTERCLASS: From Dark to Somewhat Lighter or: “Why Do They Have to Change the Ending?” (Part II) – By David Spencer

[This is the second in a four-part series on adapting THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ. Read Part I of this series here.]

If you don’t know Mordecai Richler’s novel and/or the subsequent film made of it (with his screenplay, so it tends to track fairly closely), the rest of this contains a number of spoilers. I hope not to take the suspense out of the musical for you, but I won’t be able to maintain wholly equivalent courtesy about the source material. But since it’s been a Canadian classic for over 60 years, I’ll assuage my guilt with the knowledge that the news is well out. I’m also going to avoid detailed anecdotal history about the musical’s developmental history, which describes a long and Byzantine path. I’m just going to distill the adaptive process from the writing point of view…that’s our thematic spine, after all.

There’s something I didn’t know when I started, and wish I had; a principle that existed but that had never before been formally codified as an immutable tenet of musical theatre, and it’s this:

You can end a musical tragically, but only if that ending points toward hope and restores balance to the universe.

This is a by-product of the form being so elevated and felt (at its best) so viscerally. It’s fine to take the audience on a darker journey, but you have to reward them for the effort of going on the ride. When Sweeney Todd is killed by Tobias, the force of anarchy in the universe is stilled. Even though Tony is killed by Chino’s bullet in West Side Story, the tragedy brings the warring factions together. In Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote dies as he begins to rally from ignominious defeat; but his dream will clearly live on in Sancho—and in the former whore Aldonza who proclaims, “My name is Dulcinea.” As you might intuit from this, restored balance is the primary agent of catharsis. And that’s the endgame of a musical, always: Audience satisfaction via (appropriate) catharsis.

Now, the one crucial thing common to all the shows cited above is this: The storytelling ingredient that determines audience satisfaction is a function of plot. The characters go through life-changing events—as characters in musicals must—but once they set the story in motion, their internal psychologies don’t change much at all; the mechanism of something external and inexorable and more powerful than they are takes over.

But The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is a rite-of-passage story. Internal. It’s true that Duddy spins many plates and creates complications—but the difference is, he can stop the machine at any time. Even when he hits a point where he can no longer return to where he started. But he chooses to keep it going, because his sense of self-worth is tied up in the outcome. And right up until the last moment, he is making decisions that no pressure, save his own desperate need to prove himself, is forcing him to make. Plot doesn’t determine his fate. What’s going on inside him does.

In a rite-of-passage musical, you simply cannot take a character like this to the brink—to the place where he will not only destroy others but destroy himself in the process—and have him refuse any form of redemption. There’s no restoration of balance in that, which lack can literally make audiences hostile. Imagine if Mama Rose in Gypsy never came to grips with her own pathology in “Rose’s Turn” and in the aftermath never made peace with her daughter. Imagine if Bobby in Company decided finally that finding a true, profound relationship just wasn’t for him. (Actually, the original closing number out of town had Bobby embracing the prospect of living “Happily Ever After” in the hell of intimacy and indeed audiences loathed the message; finally director Hal Prince said to Stephen Sondheim, “Write the happy version of that,” which generated “Being Alive.”) Imagine if Tevye in Fiddler didn’t finally forgive Chava for breaking the ultimate tradition and say, “May God go with you.” Even in the land of silliness: Imagine if Finch, in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, sang, not “Brotherhood of Man” to save his colleagues and rivals, but rather, “Throw ‘Em All Under the Bus, I Got Mine.” How you handle your main character’s moment of truth is what determines how satisfied you leave your audience.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is about an 18-year old boy in Montreal (from the Jewish inner city of St. Urbain Street), desperate to claim his manhood in the sight of a family (father, brother, uncle) who continually marginalize and reject him—all except his grandfather, who instills in him the belief that “a man without land is nobody.” In short order, Duddy discovers some beautiful undeveloped lakefront real estate in the Laurentian mountains (where he temporarily works as a waiter) and for much of the rest of the show, he is in fervent pursuit of owning the property for entrepreneurial development, so he can be a somebody, improvising his way through schemes and side-businesses to earn the money, helped by his French-Canadian girlfriend Yvette Durrelle, and eventually also by Virgil Roseboro, a simple-minded young man, eager to please his new friends. The scenes including Yvette, Virgil and the land deal alternate with family scenes, and lead up to a moment in which Duddy can either lose or claim the land—such choice meaning the difference between honor and betrayal. In the novel, he goes the way of betrayal and has a very bittersweet victory—an ending echoed in the film.

The first chapter of my involvement with Duddy Kravitz was a version in which I was only lyricist (Alan Menken and I had been brought on to replace a previous team from a previous production and we leapt at the invitation; we thought it would give us a [non-exclusive] team identity; and as urban-bred Jews, we both had an innate, immediate connection to its sensibility). Austin Pendleton was engaged as hands-on librettist, likewise taking over from Mordecai Richler himself, although Mordecai stayed on as a sounding board, retaining a co-byline. Austin was also director. (I must pause here to mention something that would otherwise get short shrift in this essay: that Austin is a brilliant writer—if you don’t know his plays, I envy you the discovery—and one of the small handful of genuine theatrical geniuses I’ve ever met. Whatever the musical would eventually become, his astonishingly astute observations about the source material added hugely to the learning curve.)

For reasons best omitted, I won’t say much about the production—it’s a very complicated story and aspects of it are still too charged for publication. All that’s important here is: it had a three-week regional run in Philadelphia after a two-week workshop in NYC, and was, for all intents and purposes, an entirely different show (notwithstanding a few songs), with a completely different approach (remember my Christmas Carol analogy?). The local reviews were mixed, the industry review in Variety was surprisingly positive (that review may have been a vital consideration in our finding the first subsequent producers willing to help develop the material further), but it didn’t work; the show suffered from a structural unwieldiness we couldn’t solve, and the ending was problematic, to put it mildly. To wit:

There was a midpoint in Act Two where Duddy reconciles with an estranged Yvette. Alan and I wrote a ballad for it called “Welcome Home.” It brought the house down, killed like you wouldn’t believe. Then the show continued toward its dark ending. And when it got there, audiences who were loving the show, warts and all, suddenly turned furious. And rightfully too, because we denied the potential for Duddy’s redemption that the song had clearly dramatized (not merely in words; when you introduce new music, you introduce the psychological development of new awareness…you can’t unring that bell). For the last two performances, our pocketbook-producer demanded we simply drop the curtain at the end of “Welcome Home”—effectively guillotining Act Two, just like that, forget the rest of the story. And guess what?

Two standing ovations.

The audience didn’t care about the rest of the story. I didn’t realize it then, but what had happened was that with “Welcome Home,” we’d delivered their catharsis early.

Austin Pendleton left the project, though he remained a great friend to it, to us, and especially to me (not for nothing have we returned to him to direct this new version in Montreal). Meanwhile, the score—in unguarded moments, Alan would say it was his best work; and certainly while I hope I’ve written as well here and there, I’ve never written better, and never expect to—kept the show alive enough for continued developmental interest from new (and as it turned out, also temporary) producers; they wouldn’t be the last.

I lobbied for about two years to be librettist and was finally given the go-ahead.

For a little while I tried to radically improve what we’d had in Philly, in the interest of preserving most of the score and operating in familiar territory, but that strategy frustrated me for about six weeks. I forget how much I wrote, but it was a lot—and every damn page made me weary.

At length had to I face the disquieting truth that a better version of the same thing was not the answer; I’d have to blow everything up and start again.

From scratch.

If a great deal of the score had to be changed, revised or flat-out replaced (about two thirds of it would be scrapped for all-new material), so be it. I consoled myself with the thought that if the new approach was better, the score would perforce have to follow suit; Musical Theatre 101.

A charge that has sometimes been leveled at the progression of both the novel and film of Duddy Kravitz is that its architectural “build” is choppy; this is because the land-deal/Yvette-Virgil scenes and the family scenes aren’t integrated—nor, really, can they be; for Duddy is pointedly juggling two different worlds.

Somehow I had to conjoin the parallel threads without conflating them, so that the larger context always prevailed. (We hadn’t managed that in Philly.)

Another charge is that the dark ending (specifically the very last scene) seems something of a cruel throwaway, rather than an inevitable landing point. This is justified because in making Duddy a spectacularly layered, nuanced and complex character, Richler created a guy you root for, in spite of everything. Duddy’s been glibly compared to Sammy Glick, of Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run; and to Sidney Falco, of Ernest Lehman’s Sweet Smell of Success, because he’s a driven schemer; but he’s not like either one of them at heart; Sammy has no moral compass whatsoever; while Sidney discovers his conscience only when it’s too late to save himself. Meanwhile Duddy’s schemes are extravagant improvisations, reactions to the raw material thrown at him; he does mean to take advantage but never means to cause harm, except in the service of trumping rivals who actually deserve humbling defeat. And he has an acute sense of conscience, albeit a selective and under-developed one—indeed, he has a nervous breakdown over it. What he doesn’t have is a sense of long-game consequence. Sammy and Sidney are fully cooked, malice aforethought guys, positioned for comeuppance; but Duddy, who has moments of scruffy nobility, is still finding his way, and equally positioned for salvation.

I started out still thinking I wanted to preserve Richler’s ending. I’ve lost the reasons why, except for one: I was still challenged by the mystique of it, and determined to prove (to whom? myself?) that it was possible to make it work.

So I also had this to do: make the ending the point of the evening. Rather than being a bitter coda, it had to be the place of resolution. So without giving away the game, I had to make everything in the show lead there.

Having hit a wall with my “maiden” attempt, and feeling temporarily out of new ammo, I decided to refresh my palate, to forget everything I’d written previously, and return to the source.

The novel wasn’t any immediate help; I knew it too well, it was “just” familiar words on a page; so I took another look at the film directed by Ted Kotcheff (which I hadn’t watched for years), for aural and visual stimulus to prime the pump—

—and right away something grabbed me. The opening credit sequence shows the Fletcher’s Field High graduation day parade, Duddy zipping in and out, causing mischief, leading to quick shots of Duddy going through his morning chores around the house the next day. A brilliant montage and I could use exactly none of it. It was way too cinematic to even consider approximating. But it left me with this thought:

I needed the theatrical equivalent of a camera. I needed a focusing lens that would give me quick cuts, perspective and speed.

The montage leads to the first real scene of the film: Duddy’s working class, cab driver father, Max, telling the legend of the local wheeler-dealer, a.k.a. The Boy Wonder, to his cronies at the neighborhood sandwich shop, Moe’s Cigar & Soda (a.k.a. the real-life and still-standing Moe Wilensky’s), Duddy walking in at the end, enjoying the story of a neighborhood celeb, held up as an admirable example of achievement. (In reality, this guy is Jerry Dingleman, a small-time gangster; it’s a “reveal,” later in the story, but not much of one.)

Via Philly, I’d already learned that Max’s telling the Boy Wonder’s legend at the top of the show was something the audience couldn’t care less about. You can’t be discursive in a musical, especially not as you’re getting started; and when you’re meeting the main characters, going off on an extended tangent about a supporting character offstage—whom you won’t even meet for 45 minutes—is a sure way to lose them. Plus it’s a literary conceit, echoing how we meet Max nearly 50 pages into the novel (after quite a bit of anecdotal Duddy “profiling”; the long-arc, dramatisable story hasn’t quite begun). The intended irony is that at the end of the novel, Max has bought into Duddy’s tragically achieved success and has come to revel in telling his cronies the legend of his son, in the same style that characterized how he used to lionize the Wonder. (In the film, a version of that speech happens over the end credits so offhandedly you might miss the parallel).

I did need to plant a seed about the Boy Wonder at the top—as a reference point and a status symbol for both Max and Duddy, Dingleman is crucial—but I knew I could easily and memorably establish Max’s aggrandized relationship to the Wonder with a quick, surreptitious exchange between him and Moe about delivering protection money. That didn’t worry me.

No, the challenge was going to be establishing the rest of the Kravitz family properly within the intro sequence, so that each one registered meaningfully: Max, older brother Lenny, Uncle Benjy, grandpa Simcha. The show had to be frontloaded with character intro—and in Philly it had been an overload; too much for an audience just getting its bearings to absorb. I wasn’t sure how to solve that, either.

Those problems swirling in my head, I went to sleep.

I woke bolt upright in the middle of the night knowing how to do it.

All of it.

And, like an idiot, making “coincidental” noises to rouse my significant other from slumber, so I could announce what just had snapped together in my head. “Can’t you write it in the morning?” she asked groggily, not fully absorbing it (which served me right). “Have to take notes now,” I said in a breathless rush; “afraid I’ll forget it otherwise.” And jumped up to do so; for all I knew, it had come to me in a dream, and dreams are notoriously forgettable. Of course, I didn’t forget it and miraculously, she’s still with me, but back to the point…my great revelation…

To be revealed in Part Three…


For more information about THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ at the Segal Centre in Montreal, please click here.

About David Spencer

David Spencer-headshot 2Composer-lyricist-librettist: The Golden Calf (an adventure of Ostap Bender), in progress. Composer-lyricist: The Fabulist (book: Stephen Witkin); Theatreworks/USA’s The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables (book & direction: Rob Barron). Lyricist-librettist: Weird Romance(co-librettist: Alan Brennert), The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (music for both: Alan Menken); Public Theatre La Bohème (music: Giacomo Puccini). Books: The Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival GuideWeird RomanceAlien Nation: Passing Fancy. Awards: Kleban, Rodgers, Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla. Faculty: BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.


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