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

[This is the third in a four-part series on adapting THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ. Click to read Part I and Part II.]

When last we met, I was telling you I had gone to bed aswim in thoughts about how to open the show, set up a fairly complex latticework of relationships, connect everything to a central theme and do it with a storytelling device that would be (if only in my mind) the theatrical equivalent of a feature film camera; that would allow me fleetness of narrative, point of view and the ability to quick cut from one place to another. But of course the theatrical equivalent would also have to be the metaphorical equivalent. Because, ironically, I needed to free myself from literalism.

And I told you I woke up in the middle of the night knowing how to make it so. And this is the lightning bolt thought that struck me:

Even though I couldn’t make use of Max’s front-end speech about the Boy Wonder [see the end of Part 2], there was his back-end speech about Duddy. 

Which begins, “Even as a kid, way back there before he had begun to make his mark, my boy was a troublemaker. He was born on the wrong side of the tracks with a rusty spoon in his mouth, so to speak, and the spark of rebellion in him. A motherless boy, but one who thrived on adversity, like Maxim Gorky or Eddie Cantor, if you’re familiar with their histories…”

The question that had snapped me awake was: What if I pull that forward; does a version of that speech moved to the beginning cost me anything in terms of suspense?

The answer was no. Indeed, it added suspense. Plus, it gave me my camera. If Max was the storyteller—telling the story to us, the audience—he could set up each scene and tell you what to pay attention to, and through what perspective to look at it. He also liberated the play from clunky, realistic sets, and gave me license to use an almost black box approach, in which I could quick-cut from one locale to another; the set could employ pieces, maybe abstract pieces, that served multiple functions, even transforming before our very eyes, symbolic of Duddy’s own improvisatory energy.

Even more importantly: With Max telling the story—and of course this would be his favorite story to tell—the family would always be present, even when the story shifted focus from the family. And I could now easily set up each of the Kravitz clan, because they’d be introduced in relation (dramatically speaking) to both Duddy and Max. You’d have attitude, perspective and thus an implicit history of a long-established dynamic even before any one of them said a word.

And add this: Max’s value system drives his storytelling: he genuinely believes Duddy to have ultimately emerged as a success. This gave me something I’ve never known an anti-hero story to have before: an immediate positive emotional doorway in. A colleague of mine pointed out that in having Max tell the story, I was implicitly letting him say, “Let me tell you how I fell in love with my son.” And indeed, it would instantly make the audience think that Duddy was therefore somehow loveable, and they’d hop right on his ride. More subtly, Max gave me a point of view from which Duddy’s actions could be emotionally understood, without rationalization or apology. Because in the end, Max’s pride was the voice of tacit dramatic irony. Which brings with it a quiet sadness, deepening everything.

That gave me an arrow to the ending. And thus I decided the show was about compulsion. About how, ultimately, a guy can make a wrong choice not because he’s fundamentally bad, but because he’s so fundamentally hard-wired to believe he has no worth unless he reaches his goal, that in a sense he has no choice.

Of course that meant dropping the big hit ballad “Welcome Home.” Because as I said above, introducing entirely new music into a character arc late in a story also introduces new psychological awareness. Once you introduce it, you dast not go back on it or you’ve basically lied to the audience and they’ll hate you for it. Which is indeed what had happened in Philly.

Alan was, predictably, beside himself about losing that song. And furious. And took lots of convincing. But when he calmed down, he grudgingly admitted he loved the way the script solved things.

The opening number, which bookended the show, “Start With a Street”, was a rousing paean to St. Urbain Street and the special kind of local heroes it produced.

A couple of staged readings followed. And the show, as the Brits say,  worked a treat—but only up to a point. We delivered a generally satisfying show that people thought was really quite good. There were places that made you laugh, places that moved you, all of which was very nice—but in the end, the show needed to just kill you. We knew it had that potential because we’d seen it. “Welcome Home” had embodied it. Without it, we had indeed successfully transformed the novel’s ending from bitter coda to main arc target point, and delivered a catharsis of plot resolution…but not an emotional release. And you could just feel that The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was crying out for one.

It had, in becoming a musical that we now knew hit its marks extraordinarily well, undergone an alchemical shift. And we had to face that, if the show was going to work at its best.

Some years went by—which included a whole ‘nuther show for me and Alan (Weird Romance), and two for me as composer-lyricist with Rob Barron as director-librettist (all new young audience versions of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables for Theatreworks/USA, both surprisingly winning a few awards)—before Alan and I were in sync and ready enough to commit to said facing. We began our talks with Alan prepared to draw a line in the sand about altering the ending (and regaining the song), but I had already arrived there on my own. Obviously the ending needed to be different. To believe otherwise was to be in a state of denial about what the show itself had proved to us. As will often happen with a creative endeavor—if you’re lucky—it had developed its own beating heart, beholden to the novel but independent of it too.

However, I also believed this: the ending couldn’t just be happy. Or even be entirely happy. That would have been a betrayal of the source material. Redemption for Duddy had to come at a significant price. The title is, after all, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. We needed to complete his education so he understood the nature and cost of both loss and gain. But differently.

“Welcome Home” went back into the show—repositioned. It would be the last full song before the brief “descending action” scene at Moe’s, where Max wraps up the tale (despite the change, Max narrating proved a compellingly adaptable device, still able to pull things together).

But “Welcome Home” really had to be earned.

I earned it this way:

There’s a scene, a climactic scene (and an iconic one), in which Duddy, desperate as the clock ticks down, does something awful to achieve his goal. Actively, knowingly chooses to do something awful, because he sees no other way out. A telephone call is the instrument of the deed. But that’s not the only decision he makes in that scene. In the book, after he has hung up, Yvette and Virgil return to the cabin they all share—and there’s a second decision. That’s the decision I changed. It likewise changes how Yvette and Virgil respond.

I won’t spoil what happens then and in the aftermath…but it allowed me to preserve Richler’s irony and provide a full-metal musical theatre catharsis.

The first new opening number for the revised iteration was “Legends”—a gentler number for Max, introducing the notion that what makes a local legend is specific to its culture, and that the legend of Duddy grew inevitably from his upbringing on St. Urbain Street.

That didn’t quite work.

But the spine was clearly in place, because now the show was landing like crazy—one more staged reading at the turn of the millennium. The problem was, I couldn’t identify the spine by name. The handle I had on it was, strangely for me, a fellow who revels in deconstructive analysis, only instinctive.

What followed over the next year was a fairly unhappy period for me, as regards the show; in which, for reasons and people (well-intentioned and talented, but misguided) I won’t get into, I reluctantly agreed, for two more sets of staged readings, to make changes to the framework presentation, retire Max as narrator and eventually even drop a character who was not crucial to the plot, but vital to the story (Uncle Benjy). The show still kind of worked, because the as-yet-unidentified spine was still in place…though not as gratifyingly as it had worked before. My saying the spine was still in place may seem contradictory; but knowing how Max had functioned, I clandestinely devised what I knew to be alternate “stand-in” strategies that similarly retained unity and flow—but none I liked anywhere near as much, nor that had as much zest, feeling and character. (Two more sets of opening-closing bookend numbers came and went during this time: “Duddy Runs” followed by “The Things He Did”). After a lot of wasted effort and energy (if you discount what I learned from it all, about the show and about myself), preferring to see the show put in a drawer forever than watch it spiral further out of control toward inevitable destruction, I put my foot down and called a halt.

Never say yes when you mean no.

And I never have since. Another few years passed. And then a bunch of good stuff happened. Though rather like the telling of this tale, not all at once. As you’ll see in Part Four…


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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